Saturday, December 28, 2013

Vidal v. Updike

Gore Vidal was one of those writers I worshipped from afar as a teenager-- someone I idolized quite as much for his mythology of himself as for his writing.  It was partly his status as the last great "man of letters" that inspired me, his facility in so many different media: essays, plays, novels, and scripts.  It was the romance of his life, spanning all corners of the globe, from the highlife of Rome to decayed mansions in South America to the corridors of power in Washington.  (I recall some chapter in Palimpsest, his memoir, which begins with him insouciantly hopping a jet in Kathmandu, bound for some other exotic locale.  It was apparently as likely a place for the young Vidal to find himself as any other.)  Finally, there was the aura of transgression -- both sexual and political -- that hung around his work-- the seeming independence from all authority and from the ordinary means of grasping one's way up the ladder of life.  He never went to university and was a rebellious student at Philips Exeter, he tells us.  He provoked William F. Buckley into pale rage and a fit of name-calling.  I aspired to be like him, and it seemed a solid enough ambition at the time.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Accountability vs. Forgiveness

The passing of Nelson Mandela is by now old news, but it has gotten me thinking the last few weeks about punishment and reconciliation.  It is clear by now that the global Left wishes, rightly, to claim Mandela as one of their own—and especially to save his legacy from the posthumous beatification that America bestows upon so many great liberators of history--  the sort that kills radicals with kindness, rather than bullets.  This is all to the good; however, one can also detect a residuum of doubt on the Left about Mandela, even after his passing, with regard to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which many felt at the time and still feel today was far too forgiving to the former agents of apartheid.  As Immanuel Wallerstein once summarized the position, without necessarily sharing it himself, the TRC was “strong on reconciliation and short on justice.”

Monday, December 16, 2013

Reconciliation over Gay Rights?: Some Reasons for Skepticism

Friday, the Atlantic ran an article by Brandon Ambrosino, a proponent of gay marriage, arguing that the marriage equality movement has unfairly maligned its opponents by equating their position to "homophobia."  I agree with some of the specific points Ambrosino makes, but I want to call a halt to a larger narrative I can see emerging here: the narrative in which the gay marriage movement has been unduly harsh toward its opponents and unwilling to listen to their arguments.  I think some larger historical perspective is in order.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Affirming Life

In a recent post I described religious asceticism as a "life-denying doctrine."  This is the sort of accusation so often mouthed unthinkingly by cultural liberals and romantic individualists as to have become a cliché-- thus making "life-denying" a term something like "reactionary" or "imperialistic" or "hegemonic"-- in short, a verbal bludgeon, the mere polemical force of which is intended to silence opposition.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Orwell Was Not a Conservative

"[He] is one of those writers who are felt to be worth stealing. He has been stolen by Marxists, by Catholics and, above all, by Conservatives": so wrote Orwell in 1939.  He is ostensibly speaking about Charles Dickens, but like much else in the essay, these lines have a self-relexive character: as well as an eery prescience.  For Orwell too has been found to be "worth stealing" ever since he died.  Not so much, in his case, by Marxists or Catholics (this would be a contorted intellectual heist to pull off, even for the masters of dialectic and casuistry)-- but very much so by conservatives.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Evil and Sainthood Part II

It is always worth revisiting the same theme on a blog, because no matter how many times you think you've said what you meant to say about a given topic, you realize immediately afterward that in fact it eluded you.  The unexpressed thing, whatever it was, got away.  There's a passage in T.S. Eliot's Four Quarters which captures the familiar dilemma:

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Evil and Sainthood

Sometimes—in a fit of suppressed pedantry—I like to dream up plans for courses I might teach someday on wildly unlikely subjects.  One of the more plausible of these  is a projected seminar on the “pro-evil” tendency in literature and philosophy since Machiavelli.  It would be called something like “Defenses of Evil in Western Thought.” 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Why Didn't Someone Do Something?

This weekend, a friend and I went to see 12 Years a Slave-- the film version of Solomon Northrup's 1853 memoir and one of the first Hollywood films about slavery to actually tell its story through the eyes of a black protagonist. (Brad Pitt's mooning face, mercifully, only gets about two minutes of airtime.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Self-Righteousness and Complacency

Self-righteousness and complacency.  These twin failings are the malevolent Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee of our all-too-human moral lives.  They are the two heads of the hell-beast that would drag us all to perdition.  And like everything else that comes from the devil-- so the legends tell us-- they are deceitful.  They are nearly impossible to identify for what they really are-- especially when they proceed from within us, from our unconscious motives and idealized appetites.  Self-righteousness always presents itself to us as virtuous indignation, compassionate rage on behalf of one's neighbor or one's principles.  Complacency comes to us dressed like wise and worldly detachment-- the surveying calm of a saint or a philosopher elevated above the fray.  Self-righteousness and complacency-- they are so easy to identify in someone else-- impossible to find in ourselves!  That's why the cynic's dictionary might well define the first as "what you are being when you ask me to do something I don't want to do;" and the second as "what you are being when you won't do something I want you to do."

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thoughts on Albert O. Hirschman's The Rhetoric of Reaction (1991)

Albert Hirschman was the ultimate non-economist's economist.  Well-informed with regard to his own discipline, he was also intelligible to the non-specialist and willing to draw insight from the humanities, especially history.  As a humanistic economist, Hirschman was also willing to approach the arguments made in his discipline as themselves forms of political discourse-- empirically-grounded, perhaps, but still motivated by ideological and moral concerns-- in other words, not as purely "objective" restatements of verifiable facts and scientific laws.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Sheepdog and the Lamb

When Ah regard mah ickle flock
Ah reco’nize each scar an’ pock
On sheepy visage standin’ there
Fra’ dolefu’ eyes ta woollen hair
Each looks th’ likeness o’ anither
As if each ta' each war sister'n brither
A mere dug like me caint keep in view
The diff’rence ‘tween each ram an’ ewe
 Or li’l wee sheeplings ou’ i’ the snow
They could be goa's fer all Ah know!
But they sartainly take care, one fer th’ ither
E’en in winter’s damne-ploorable wither
Ye'll grant sheepies this much, that ye can:
Sheep’s better ta’ sheep than man is ta’ man.
See ‘em, aw hooddled togither ta avoid th’ cauld
They bleat out their luve ta young n’ ta auld!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Calling a Truce on "Rights Talk"

Since the late 19th century, it has been a mainstay of Catholic social doctrine to insist that it is wrong to speak of "rights" without also speaking of "obligations."  The apparent force of this assertion stems from a basic moral intuition.  "Rights"-- at least as they are conceived in a liberal polity-- have reference to the individual.  But what makes an action specifically "moral," in our common understanding, is precisely that it is not undertaken on behalf of oneself as an individual, but on behalf of others, or of a valid principle.  This is not to say that actions undertaken on our own behalf are immoral-- we do, and must do, them every day-- every time we have a bite to eat or get out of bed to go to work in the morning.  But they can't be the exclusive basis of our social ethics.  It is this insight which gives the Catholic critique its intrinsic appeal.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Liber-scary-anism: A Halloween Special

Let's say you have graduated from high school but you still yearn for that curious blend of hip intellectual precocity and dumbfounding moral obtuseness that only your 15-year-old self with his carefully dogeared copies of Atlas Shrugged and Thus Spoke Zarathustra could provide.  There is only one cure: you must turn to the annals of American libertarianism-- a sort of never-never land for perpetual adolescents of the head-smart and heart-stupid variety.  If all ideologies attract their own peculiar sort of moral blindness-- this is libertarianism's.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Parenting-- by the book

A post by Gracy Olmstead on Thursday touched off a related effort by Noah Millman to define the 10 essential children's books every kid should read.  I love making lists of this sort and immediately wanted to chime in-- but like my predecessors I also feel called to say something first about the nature and pitfalls of this exercise.  Giving kids reading recommendations is not really so innocent as it sounds.  Such lists may at first blush just seem like a series of works you once enjoyed written by other hands, but they are really lists of some of the chief forgers of your attitudes and identity.  Taken together, they are a blueprint of your personality.  In presenting them to children-- especially our children, if we are parents-- we are effectively saying: here, become me.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Philosophical Problem

Here's the problem I'm having:  for a long time I have been a smug philosophical foundationalist and realist.  Whenever I encountered someone firmly situated in that cluster of existentialism, pragmatism, and skepticism which tends to briefly captivate the young and cynical, I would throw out one of the usual self-righteous rejoinders: "If the world doesn't really exist, why are you bothering to argue the claim with me?"  "If there is no truth, then in what sense are you committed to the belief that 'there is no truth'?" "If no belief about reality is more valid than another, then what intellectual tools do you have to resist Nazism or some other manifestation of evil?" etc.  Pretty good, right?  These are all downright stumpers.  But the trouble is that punching holes in someone else's philosophical system cannot alter the position of what Antony Flew called the "well-girded skeptic."  In fact, it only serves to confirm skepticism.  Showing the wobbliness of a particular formulation of existentialism or pragmatism or what-have-you can only ever tell you about that formulation-- it can never tell you that your own preferred belief system, whatever it may be, is any better.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why Abortion Rights Matter

In encounters with the religious Left, whether in the form of Catholic Worker renegades or Sojourners-style Protestant Evangelicals, one often comes across the "Consistent Life Ethic"-- which, as the name implies, combines a "pro-life" stance on abortion and euthanasia with more traditionally leftist stances on the death penalty, foreign wars, poverty reduction, etc.  While this split may sound half-and-half, 50% liberal, 50% conservative, the suggestion is belied by the fact that few--if any-- of the folks espousing CLE would describe themselves as conservatives.  Besides, most of us on the less ambiguous left would favor the CLE approach a thousand times over to what might be described as the consistent death ethic of certain right-wing commentators.

Pity Not the Mole

“A small degree of vision is sufficient for a creature that is ever destined to live in darkness.  A more extensive sight would only have served to show the horrors of its prison.”
~Oliver Goldsmith (1774), quoted in Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes (1983)

Intolerable arrogance of the human mind!
Which pities the mole for being blind
And thinks it a mercy of man’s private God
To imprison a creature below the sod
And proceed to deprive what he enslaves
Of power to perceive its dismal cage.
            But consider this:

Monday, October 7, 2013

What Safety Net?: Part One

I'm afraid I don't have much to add about the shutdown apart from what can be found in any major news outlet this side of the pressurized doors of the rightwing echo chambers.  But since the current shenanigans revolve broadly around the size and scope of the American "safety net" I am inspired to say a few things about this slightly mythological entity.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Novels, Dillweeds, and Defeat

Sometimes I publish a post and have the sinking feeling immediately afterward that in the time it took me to write the damn thing, something happened somewhere else on the internet which rendered it redundant... irrelevant... or just plain wrong. There are these other beautiful occasions, however, when the internet conspires to confirm a point I just made and I get to feel a tiny bit prescient.  Remember the claims I made in my last post about the fate of the novel?  Well, this last week, Jonathan Franzen set off a fresh round of ballyhooing and bellyaching about-- you guessed it-- the decline of the humanities and the death of the novel.  And in this particular cri-de-coeur about the crisis facing contemporary authors, he did not list the names of any contemporary authors he might be hoping to salvage from the apocalypse-- apart from Jonathan Franzen.  

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Novel: Dying All Over Again

I'm a pretty regular reader of Arts and Letters Daily-- a service of the Chronicle of Higher Education which collates the best and most interesting stuff from around the web which has anything to do with the humanities, literature, and ideas.  It also filters out all online journalism which requires a subscription on the website-- making it the ideal tool for unregenerate autodidacts and cheapskates alike.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Boys of Sommers

There are plenty of good reasons to be suspicious of Christina Hoff Sommers.  Number one is the fact that she works at a right-wing think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.  This means one of two things.  The first possibility is that she specializes in peddling some specific brand of conventional wisdom designed to ease the conscience of a powerful segment of society-- preferably one with deep pockets.  On this analysis, it would appear that Sommers' division is that of anti-feminist polemics.  The fact that she is herself a woman-- and one who describes herself as a feminist of sorts-- only sweetens the deal.  There is nothing right-wing think tanks like better than to find a member of an identity group which reliably opposes right-wing policies who is willing to bash that identity group.  This is probably not because the think tanks are naive enough to believe that this buys them some sort of credibility with the identity groups in question-- the reason is more cynical, in all likelihood: it's that they think writers who are themselves minorities or women, etc. can "get away" with saying the things they would like to say themselves.  So you get the former Muslim who equates Mohammad with Hitler, the black libertarian who accounts for persistent racial inequalities in the United States by insisting that "different groups are simply better at different things," and so on.  Deep in the underground laboratories of the Heritage Foundation they are still toiling away on the openly gay writer who wants to be banned from the army and the Latino politician who wants to make English the official language...-- oh right.  That second one has already come out in beta.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Doing Justice to Syria's Dead

On August 21st, the Syrian Armed Forces almost certainly and intentionally unloaded Sarin gas attached to rockets on the people of Ghouta, near Damascus, killing several hundred civilians, according to the most modest estimates, and hospitalizing countless others.  These toxins operate by inhibiting communication between the brain and the muscles of their victims, meaning that the lungs and other essential organs cannot receive the cues they need to function.  The victims of Sarin cannot breath, think straight, chew or swallow-- in short, if exposed to enough of this chemical agent, they cannot live-- and three weeks ago, hundreds of them ceased to do so, most likely on the orders of their own head of state, Bashar al-Assad.  The attacks occurred in the small hours of the morning and killed children, parents, and other civilians while they were still asleep in their beds.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Writing about "Race" and "Intelligence"

Since putting up "Blaming the Victims, II" the other day I've had repeated bouts of blogger's remorse.  Let's face it: blog posts are always premature births.  It seems no matter how many times my eyes scan a given post before allowing it to leave the nest, I only ever see what I remember writing in my head, and not the actual words on the screen.   Thus, rather obvious typos continually slip through the cracks.  "By" instead of "But."  "Is" instead of "It."  It's like that email to your boss you read twenty hundred times looking for unprofessional gaffes only to realize immediately after sending it that you signed off with "Thanks you very much" or "God to see you."  This latter, especially if you are already under suspicion as a religious type, is a real boner.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Blaming the Victims, Part II

Noah Millman seems to be coming in for a bit of a drubbing on this blog, which fails to do justice to the fact that Ajay and I are both avid Millmaniacs and my intuitive response to most of what he has to say is "Amen, brother!"  But that would not make for interesting reading, whereas those rare occasions when he provokes me to anger make me more loquacious.  This is one of those occasions, and once again, it was sparked by a debate over the age-old nature vs. nurture (or, in Millman's rendering, genetic vs. cultural determinism) question.  More specifically, it had to do with a predictable back-and-forth between Richard Dawkins and the liberal commentariat about whether Islam has stood in the way of the intellectual development of the Muslim world.  Dawkins thinks it has.  Other people don't.... This is the sort of exchange that I hope will never make it onto the front of this blog on its own merits-- the roles assumed by all the usual suspects are too predictable for that.  But the role played by Millman is more bizarre and perturbing, and therefore worthy of note.  As he did in a post that was previously defeathered by the Six Foot Turkey team, Millman here implies (by roundabout means) that there is a genetic basis to the differential economic and intellectual outcomes of the world's societies-- meaning in this context, I guess, that Muslim societies make fewer contributions to international scholarship because of the innate ethnic handicap of their members.  One expects this sort of neo-racist drivel from wingnuts over at the National Review Online, but coming from Millman it is surprising, if not unprecedented, and therefore worth arguing against on this blog.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Blaming the Victims

Nothing is more likely to turn me into a foreign policy hawk than to learn that Thomas Friedman is not one-- at least not any longer.  And indeed, it would appear from his more recent columns that he has been deeply chastened by the events that have unfolded in the Middle East over the last decade and a half.  True, Thomas Friedman supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Yes, he was firmly within the ranks of the "liberal hawk" Establishment.  But no longer.  He stands before you now as a man profoundly humbled and altered by his experiences.  And what is this lesson he has learned at such great cost to human life and international security?  It is this: If the people of the Middle East are the victims of civil war and social collapse, it's their own fault in the first place, so there's nothing we can do about it:

Thursday, August 22, 2013

John Yoo is Deeply Concerned about Lack of Accountability

Ladies and gents, remember John Yoo?
He has, you could say, a distinct point of view
He'll not just sit by
While a traitor and spy
Is allowed to walk free-- would you?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Martin Amis and the Politics of Cliché

If you spend too much time in or adjacent to academic circles, you start to develop a coldly utilitarian approach to prose-- words are simply the medium through which you convey ideas and "facts, facts, facts."  Or, if you belong to certain humanistic disciplines, your approach becomes not so much utilitarian as sadistic.  Language is no longer an instrument to be used and discarded, but a structural element of imperialism which must be savaged to pieces, one unnecessary "post-" prefix and "-ology" suffix at a time.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


The doctrine of Hell-- by which I mean the ancient teaching that God condemns a portion of humanity after death to eternal torture-- has been pretty much retired by mainline and liberal Protestants (and it has even begun to face challenges in Evangelical circles).  Over the course of the last two centuries, there has been an extraordinary sea-change in the moral sentiments of Christians regarding this issue, such that John Edwards (a pillar of New England Orthodoxy in his day) could write in the eighteenth century without raising any eyebrows that God would “crush” the sinner “under His feet without mercy,” “stain all His raiment” with the sinner’s blood, and so on-- and yet these very lines would strike a Congregationalist writing on the same subject in the 1870s as a "revolting image."  

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Ontological Argument and the Limits of Philosophy

If you find an argument in a philosophy text which is left deliberately shrouded in obscure terminology, chances are it is because it is transparently fallacious and disobeys the fundamental principles of philosophic reasoning.  Ontological arguments are a family of arguments for the existence of God which belong in this category.  Put simply, they take the form: "God, by definition, is perfect.  One of the qualities of perfection is existence.  Therefore, God exists."

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Bit of Uninformed Speculation about Obama's Anti-Leaker Campaign

The recent announcement of the verdict in the trial of Bradley Manning has brought President Obama's unusually harsh attitude toward leakers back into the news. Manning is the American soldier who leaked a large set of diplomatic cables and other national security documents to the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks. In its story on the verdict, the New York Times notes once again the now widely-reported fact that he's "one of seven people to be charged in connection with leaking to the news media during the Obama administration; during all previous administrations, there were three."

Friday, August 2, 2013

A Dialogue

A: I hate philosophy.
B:  But you are a philosopher!  You've devoted your life to that field of study!
A: I didn't want to.  I wanted to be an agronomist.  I wanted to grow grass and revive the natural splendor of America's great plains.
B: So why didn't you?
A: I got as far as elementary grass studies.  I raced through all the different kinds-- crab grass... regular green grass... and... well, there were some others, at any rate.
B: What went wrong?

Friday, July 26, 2013

In U.S.-Russian Relations, Another Desperate Struggle over the Rights of Political Dissidents

Remember 1989?  I technically wasn't born yet, but I hear there was some killer pastel spandex going around and some rockin' electric synthesizer music.  It was also a year in which the United States was offering political asylum to Russian soldiers who broke the technical law of their nation in favor of the higher law of conscience by deserting its armed forces in Afghanistan.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Frat-Boy Feminism?

With all due respect to our devoted readership among spam websites in Russia and Palau, I think it is time we attract some fresh eyes to this blog by talking about something everyone loves to discuss: the sexual habits of 20-somethings.  Before delving into the subject, however, of which Matt Yglesias and Ross Douthat have kindly reminded us with a recent series of posts, we have to enter some basic caveats.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Sheepdog's Revenge

"I was desired to raise and hold the platform on its central balance, whilst he [...] threw a noose over the neck of one of the Wolves. We hauled it up motionless with fright, as if dead, its disabled legs swinging to and fro [....] Letting him drop to the ground, the farmer left him to the dogs [...] on which the curs rushed upon it, and satiated their vengeance on the destroyer of their master's flock."
~ John Audubon, "Pitting of the Wolves," Collected in Nature Writing: The Tradition in English.

Oh wolfie! I hate ta’ see the form o’ yee
On grassy rainy quilted lea.
Throo’ nights o' dense mystiferous fog
Ah stan’ guard here, this ol’ sheep dog.
Ah hate ye, wolf, Ah ken ye’ would,
Given ‘arf a chance, eat all me brood!
An’ thro’ slavering jaws ye would ha’ done
Wi’ ewes and rams and li’ll wee ‘uns
And drinking up yon sheeplings dear
Ye would belike cause many a’ tear.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Review of George Scialabba's "For the Republic": Part Two

II.  Foreign Policy

Virtually alone among the left-wing intelligentsia, George Scialabba came around early to the right ideas on U.S. foreign policy and stuck by them, through fair weather and foul.  This involved not only emancipating himself from the militarist and interventionist assumptions of both political parties (achieved no doubt through a reading of Chomsky and I.F. Stone), but also, (let us admit with a grudging nod toward the wisdom of the Euston Manifesto crowd), guarding against a common tendency among anti-imperialists to apologize for the crimes of whatever regime happens to be arrayed against the United States in a given geopolitical imbroglio.  This passion for moral consistency Scialabba picked up from the small number of courageous Cold War intellectuals-- Orwell, Silone, Dwight MacDonald-- who strove not to take sides in that conflict or to swallow any of the pious hypocrisies of either the "Worker's Paradise" or the "countries of the free world" (you know-- like Franco's Spain and apartheid South Africa).  Scialabba has held to their principles admirably.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Review of George Scialabba's "For the Republic": Part One

I was going to start this review with a brief meditation on the nature of book reviewing as an art-form-- just a paragraph or two-- but that turned into a rambling and semi-coherent post in its own right before I ever got around to talking about Mr. Scialabba, so I will not attempt to make any clever general observations at the outset today but plunge directly into the matter at hand.  But just to show that I'm not blind to the irony of ruthlessly mocking the art of book reviewing the night before writing a review myself, let me just announce that this one is not above any of the flaws of the genre I described in the previous post.  In the four-part scheme I laid out there, Scialabba's book is in the "good books written for a moral purpose" sector, and accordingly, this review will be of the "I wish I had written this book and describing it is as close as I can come to doing so" type.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Preface to Book Reviewing

Reader-- beware the book reviewer; he is a scheming and duplicitous beast.  He may aspire to many things in practicing his craft, but rest assured that reviewing books is not one of them.  This is true for the single and tragic reason that the vast majority of books published in any given year, on any given subject, are no good at all.  Odds are that you have already read books just like them and will do so again, and you will gain nothing by spending time on them.  If they are fiction, they probably tell you the story of an idealistic young MFA student who studies poststructuralism in grad school and has an affair with an older woman or man (features, surely, of the universal human drama).  If they are nonfiction, they probably contain one familiar idea which is adequately conveyed in the introduction, or even in the title (saving you the trouble of even turning to the front flap of the dust jacket).

Thursday, July 4, 2013

“Bros”: A Review of the Latest High-Concept Drama Brought to You by Your Local Premium Cable Channel

“Mesmerizing…. Powerful…. Spellbinding….”
~Webster’s New World Dictionary

“The great fictional tapestry of our time.  The phrase ‘voice of a generation’ is often used capriciously and insincerely, so I hesitate to employ it on this occasion, but I will say this—decades from now, when they ask, ‘what was it like?’, they need only watch ‘Bros’ to know the truth.”
~ Drunk guy at Alpha Delt party in transit to toilet

“It’s like if you took War and Peace or Life and Fate or A Dance to the Music of Time or Remembrance of Things Past or something else I haven’t read and made it into an hour-long TV show with no commercials and lots of sex scenes and nudity and none of the boring parts and then had journalists in highbrow magazines get paid to watch it and host web forums about it.  That’s what it’s like.”
~The Atlantis

“The credo of the new post-feminism.”
~ The New York Review of Texts

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Primal Curse?

Every month or so, the blogosphere/online-traditional-media-complex decides to acknowledge the existence of some fundamental social problem people have been debating for centuries, and always with the air of fresh discovery.  Liberals, conservatives, and socialists then fall into the roles assigned to them by intellectual tradition and reenact old battles over again as if unconsciously.  As Borges once put it: "the 'burning reality,' which exasperates or exalts us [...] is nothing but an imperfect reverberation of former discussions [.... R]eality is always anachronous."

Friday, June 28, 2013

Two Arguments about Gay Marriage

It appears the talking point of the day in the National Review/Weekly Standard archipelago is that the majority decision of the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Windsor-- the one which struck down DOMA-- unfairly characterizes opponents of gay marriage as bigots and that, regardless of the merits of the gay marriage question generally, the issue should have been decided by the democratic process rather than judicial "fiat."  Both points might deserve a hearing, but coming from certain quarters they reflect a shameless selective amnesia.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Re: Richwine, Millman, et al.

I’ve been on the road the last week and haven’t had much time for blogging, but I have been clued in enough to notice the friendly challenge in Ajay’s recent post and will do my best to respond.  Some preliminaries though: first, let me say I am flattered by Ajay’s faith in my historical literacy on these subjects, which may be misplaced.  In the absence of any further research, I’m not sure I really know much more than he does about the legitimating ideologies of traditional elites, but I can at least try.  Second, I thank him for the eloquent restatement of my position in our debate, which I can assure you sounds better in his post than it did coming out of my mouth.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Are We War Masters? A Review of "Dirty Wars"

I recently got the chance to watch the new documentary Dirty Wars and thought I'd review it here, especially since it bears on many of the issues we've been talking about recently. The film, directed by Richard Rowley, follows Jeremy Scahill, a national security correspondent for The Nation, as he (with mounting horror) attempts to understand the role of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a secretive branch of the U.S. military that reports directly to the White House, in the Obama administration's anti-terrorism strategy. The focus is on the administration's by now exhaustively covered policy of killing suspected terrorists outside of countries in which the U.S. is officially at war, using drones and other methods (including so-called "signature strikes," in which individuals whose identities may not be known are targeted not on the basis of specific allegations against them but rather because they've displayed "suspicious" patterns of behavior), which JSOC is central to.
We tag along as Scahill interviews a variety of figures within the U.S. and travels to Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia to observe the effects of our actions directly and see him narrate and re-enact his gradual piecing together of the shadow war's scope and intensity. Scahill has long been a forceful left-wing critic of the counter-terrorism policies of Presidents Bush and Obama and makes no secret of his politics in the film, but it largely consists of reporting and raw footage rather than polemic. Dirty Wars is obviously not a pleasant movie but it is, I think, essential viewing for any American citizen or person concerned about how the most powerful nation on earth uses violence in pursuit of its goals.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Richwine, Millman, and Meritocracy

In the interest of starting a new trend of posts about recent-ish pieces by conservative-ish bloggers, I'd like to say a few things about a post on the Jason Richwine affair by Noah Millman of The American Conservative. For those who have much better things to do than follow political blogs (other than this one, of course), Richwine was until recently an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. The release of a report he co-authored on the fiscal costs of a path to citizenship for all illegal immigrants led reporters to discover that he had argued in his dissertation that the U.S. should try to reduce its intake of Hispanic immigrants in part because they were genetically predisposed to have lower IQs, and he resigned amid the ensuing uproar.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Immediate Pessimism and Ultimate Optimism

And now that our blog has entered its second week of life, let the navel-gazing begin!

It occurred to me upon rereading my last post that I had articulated a critique of the interventionist position on Syria which had a decidedly Burkean and conservative cast to it.  More distressing still to someone who is currently blogging from the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, it occurred to me that my argument displayed a sense of the limitations of human agency in the world which is difficult to reconcile with the heritage of liberal theology.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Limits of the Reform Conservative Project: A Case Study

To start making good on our promise to feature a wide array of topics, I want to shift gears a bit and comment on a (sort of) recent post by New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat on how American conservatives should respond to the Republican Party's declining political prospects. This will require a bit of background: Douthat is a prominent figure in a group of writers he refers to as reform conservatives, who join a number of other right-leaning commentators in thinking that the GOP needs to change its economic platform in the wake of the 2008 and 2012 elections but have a particular view of what should happen.

Monday, June 17, 2013

More on Syria: Do Non-Interventionists Take the Atrocities Seriously?

Earlier this month, Richard Cohen wrote a column for the Washington Post offering a familiar charge against non-interventionists: they are “cold-hearted,” Cohen argues, and have no compassion for the victims of any human rights abuses other than those perpetrated by America and her allies.  Cohen cites a recent article in the New York Review of Books by David Bromwich as evidence of a "total lack of concern for the misery of Syrians."  He goes on: "Rarely do any of these anti-intervention pieces cry bloody murder at the killing that continues apace in Syria. Liberals, once characterized as bleeding hearts, seem now to have none at all."

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Remember Neo-Conservatism?

In preparing for this post, I've spent some time digging through the recent columns of Charles Krauthammer to try to re-familiarize myself with an ideology which, even as intellectual fads go, had a brief and ignominious shelf-life, but which seems to still exercise a curious hold over the minds of our policy elite: Neo-Conservatism.  It has made for a surreal reading experience.  I've grown so accustomed lately to reading criticisms of Obama's recent speech on the War on Terror from leftists, liberals, and libertarians that I had almost forgotten the broad swath of the political spectrum which attacked it from precisely the opposite direction: insisting that Obama had basically given away the family jewels by promising action on Gitmo and disavowing, at least rhetorically, the framework of "perpetual war." Congratulations, Charles Krauthammer, you have made me more sympathetic to Obama's speech than Obama did himself.  I guess there's always a bigger fish.

Some More Idle Speculation on Syria

So, as I suggested in my Syria post yesterday, I want to speculate a little about why the Obama administration decided to start directly arming the more "moderate" Syrian rebels. One obvious possibility is pure face-saving or "doing something for the sake of doing something"; I think this probably captures a large chunk of their motivations but I want to spend most of this post exploring other possibilities because (a) this one's not terribly interesting to write about and (b) I have enough respect for the intellectual and moral worth of the Obama foreign policy team that I think they have more substantive reasons for intervening as well. I think it's most likely that some combination of two related explanations is closest to the truth.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Flawed Logic of the Obama Administration's Public Case for Intervention in Syria

I'm very far from being a Syria expert, but as a philosophy major I know a thing or two about evidence and argument, and it seems to me that the logic of the Obama administration's publicly and semi-publicly (anonymous/"on background"/leaked) stated rationales for arming the Syrian rebels is deeply flawed. What follows may be overkill, but it seems to me that one important way of improving policymakers' thinking and political discourse is to systematically work through bad arguments, and I hope to make a small contribution here. Based on most of the reporting I've read, the administration seems to have four main reasons for taking this step:

Friday, June 14, 2013

Gently Begging to Differ with Glenn Greenwald

Ok, so-- I plan to eventually take the hint of my colleague that the much-heralded diversity of subject matter on this blog has yet to materialize, three days in, but since the internet is still all a-twitter (no pun intended) over the NSA leaks I would hate not to get our two cents in before the whole business is consigned to the memory hole of government misconduct.

I'm generally in complete sympathy with Glenn Greenwald's criticisms of the moral flabbiness of liberal commentators on civil liberties issues and in this blog's brief existence I've already contributed to that self-flagellating genre myself.  Nevertheless I must respectfully disagree with him today, or at least ask for clarification, when he writes that:

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Destroying the Forest In Order to Save It, Civil Liberties Edition

Josh has made a valiant effort to inaugurate our blog the first and only one devoted solely to the recent NSA spying revelations, and I'll keep up the trend a bit longer. Like Josh, I'm quite strongly opposed to the various civil liberties and human rights violating counter-terrorism polices implemented by the Bush and Obama administrations, from general surveillance warrants to torture and drone warfare, but some recent commentary on this latest scandal has also featured  one of my pet peeves in American political writing. This is the extremely widespread tendency among opinion writers to argue against policies that they have no reason to think would be wrong or harmful (and sometimes even concede would be highly beneficial if implemented) by invoking either Americans' or politicians' current views. We can't withdraw from Afghanistan because the memory of 9/11 is too raw for most people to agree, we can't impose significant restrictions on abortion because "our increasingly libertarian culture [won't] allow [] the government power over women’s bodies", and we can't constrain counter-terrorism policy with robust civil liberties and human rights protections because ... given our fear of terrorism, doing so will eventually lead to more terrorism which we'll overreact to with more civil liberties and human rights violations.

The Mainstream Conservative's Guide to Selective Civil Libertarianism

In my last post I tried to give the reader a sense of the agonies of the civil libertarian who finds herself in the awkward position of going after the president on the very same issues that have generally made him seem preferable to his alternatives.  These ironies, however, are predictable enough in the light of experience.  Anyone who believes the Democratic Party or establishment liberalism in the United States will consistently uphold civil liberties or human rights absent unstinting public vigilance should crack a history book.  All it really teaches us is that there are grave dangers in identifying oneself with any public authority-- especially one which presides over the dominant military and economic power on the globe.

So What is a Six Foot Turkey Anyways?: An Exercise in Historical Empathy

Try to imagine yourself in the late Cretaceous period.  You see this 'six foot turkey' as you enter a clearing...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Foolish Consistency

On the back bumper of my car are two stickers—cemented there forever with all the mysterious power of whatever glue they use on those things.  One sticker, the sentiment of which I still whole-heartedly endorse, reads: “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” (which, contrary to the impression of some people who’ve seen it, is not a pro-war statement). And the other one reads: “Obama/Biden ’08.”  This one I endorse now with somewhat less conviction, but it is there to stay.  To get it off now would require an ice pick and a chisel, so I guess it will simply have to remain there as a warning to future generations.  Bumper stickers are like tattoos—you better really mean it, because they’re not going anywhere.


Hello!  My name is Josh Leach-- a recent college graduate and current student of Divinity in grad school, where I am hoping to prepare for a career in the ministry.  I second what my esteemed co-blogger has said about our lack of experience, but I do think we'll be able to get a good blog going here once we work up a little momentum.  Between us we have a diverse set of interests and opinions as well as a willingness to tweak each other over long-running arguments in a spirit of good fun.  My particular interests relate to history, literature, religion, and the various agonies of the critical liberal/despairing socialist in the digital age.  I hope to contribute musings on everything from political news of the day to books I'm reading, to pop culture, to poetry, etc.  Rather than promise you the moon here though, why don't I just do my best to give it to you ASAP.


I imagine no one will read this, but it seems inappropriate somehow to start keeping a blog without some sort of introductory post, so here goes. I’m Ajay Ravichandran, and I’m a recent college graduate who’ll be starting law school in the fall; my co-blogger, Josh, who’ll hopefully introduce himself shortly, is a good friend from college. We decided to start this blog because we both realized that we spend a remarkably large amount of time reading political blogs and other commentary, and it seemed kind of silly to devote so much attention to politics without having some sort of public platform to comment from.
My posts will cover a range of topics related to American politics and current events broadly defined, but some areas of particular interest for me are civil liberties/counter-terrorism/national security issues, economic policy, and various questions related to the relationship between individualism and community. I majored in philosophy in college and have some interest in pursuing a philosophy PhD eventually, so I’ll probably delve into the philosophical implications of these matters somewhat more than is common. I may also post on more purely philosophical issues in moral and political philosophy and religious matters, and plan to occasionally write book or movie reviews as well.
I think I’ve spent enough space navel-gazing for now, so rather than try to explain why you should care what two twenty-somethings with very little relevant experience or credentials think about anything, I’ll let future posts speak for themselves. I hope you stick around!