Archive for November, 2008

NR’s hundred best.

November 25, 2008

For a magazine populated largely (these days, at least) by reactionary cranks, National Review had a pretty solid list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the twentieth century — most notable, perhaps, for the laudable (and surprising) absence of Ayn Rand. Unfortunately, I’ve read embarrassingly few of them. Here’s my quick take on the ones I’ve read:

3. Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell
A wonderful book — unforgettable and haunting. Definitely top five material.

5. Collected Essays, George Orwell
Alyson gave me this for my birthday, and I’m making my way through it very slowly. Certainly a desert-island book if there ever was one. I don’t think Orwell ever wrote anything that wasn’t worth reading; he could probably have discoursed quite eloquently on a roll of toilet paper (and, for all I know, he did — haven’t finished the book yet).

7. The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis
Much of it went over my head at the time, but Lewis’s deploring of the relativism being taught in the public schools is still very relevant today.

20. The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
For some reason no one ever talks about this book much after high school. I think it’s a very good book — and remarkably well written considering how young she was. Be sure you get the unexpurgated edition — it’s a lot more compelling than the bowdlerized version you probably got in school.

26. Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis
There’s no denying the elegant precision of Lewis’s arguments in favor of Christianity, regardless of whether you agree with them. Oddly, his argument for Jesus’s divinity popped up in almost identical form in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as an argument for Narnia’s reality. (Basically: Either Jesus/Lucy is lying, crazy or telling the truth. Since he/she is not a liar, and doesn’t appear to be crazy, he/she must be telling the truth.)

44. God & Man at Yale, William F. Buckley Jr.
It’s impressive that Buckley wrote this when he was 23, but it doesn’t stand up particularly well, particularly compared to something like The Abolition of Man. It reads as if it was intended more to irritate the liberal establishment than to make a serious point.

62. The Elements of Style, William Strunk & E. B. White
I stole the word “studentry” (as a substitute for “student body”) from the forward to this book. For once, all the hype is justified.

85. The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk
Kirk’s brand of conservatism seems strangely detached from reality. There’s no denying he was a smart dude, but you get the impression he would have benefited from a good stiff drink every now and then.

91. The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe
I don’t know if I could reread this now, but it certainly was a blast when I was 16.

There you have it. I wouldn’t say any of these books are particularly characteristic of me (apart from “Homage to Catalonia,” of course). I have on my shelf, and fully intend to read:

2. The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
4. The Road to Serfdom, F. A. von Hayek
15. The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt
23. Relativity, Albert Einstein
36. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, Albert Camus
39. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
42. The Age of Reform, Richard Hofstadter
87. Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson
95. To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson
99. The Last Lion, William Manchester

Have no intention of ever reading:

1. The Second World War, Winston S. Churchill
His speeches are enough for me, thanks.

11. Modern Times, Paul Johnson
Skimming it at the bookstore was more than enough to convince me I’d be alternately bored and incensed.

18. Centissimus Annus, Pope John Paul II
Definitely not the target audience for this one.

41. Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker
It’s kind of charming that this is on here, but that doesn’t mean I’m ever going to read it.

73. R. E. Lee, Douglas Southall Freeman
I can think of few people I’d less enjoy reading a four-volume hagiography about than this guy.

92. Darwin’s Black Box, Michael J. Behe
The anti-Darwin movement (made up largely of people who don’t appear to have actually read Darwin) is one of the sorrier spectacles of the last decade.

97. The Russian Revolution, Richard Pipes
I read a bunch of this book while writing a long paper on the life of Alexander Kerensky. Basically, it’s ludicrously biased, contemptuous not just of the key players (all of whom Pipes regards as dupes) but of the Russian people in general (whom Pipes regards as backwards by nature). The fact that Pipes (rightly) condemns the Bolsheviks shouldn’t keep us from dismissing his work as hysterical propaganda.

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The outcast.

November 25, 2008

If you doubt the power and influence of the Israel lobby within the Democratic Party, look no further. Ralph Nader elaborates:

At the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Democrats denied Carter the traditional invitation to speak that is accorded to former presidents.

According to The Jewish Daily Forward, “Carter’s controversial views on Israel cost him a place on the podium at the Democratic Party convention in late August, senior Democratic operatives acknowledged.”

Silencing Carter, who negotiated the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, involved behind the scenes tensions between supporters of the hard-line American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and those Democrats who argued both respect and free speech to let Carter join Bill Clinton on the stage and address a national audience.

First, there was a compromise offer to let Carter speak but only on domestic policy subjects. This would have kept him from mentioning his views on securing peace between the Israelis and Palestinians through a two-state solution essentially back to the region’s 1967 borders. Carter previously elaborated his analysis and recommendations in his 2006 bestseller, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”

Even this astonishing restriction on the former president was unacceptable to the party’s dictatorial censors. They wanted nothing from the deliberate, candid Georgian short of complete exclusion.

Surprising? Not very. But it’s a grim reminder of the grim power of entangling alliances to overwhelm democratic politics.

In favor of national service (or, at least, not in favor of some arguments against it).

November 20, 2008

As usual, I can’t argue with the eloquence of Connor’s response to some jerk’s defense of Obama’s “national service” program. I do have a couple of quibbles with some of the points he makes:

1. The entire reply — column plus post — never addresses the important point that public service is being incorporated into the public school curriculum. An argument could certainly be made that students shouldn’t be wasting their time cleaning up parks when they could be studying for the SATs, or playing hackeysack, or whatever it is kids do these days. But I think the point deserves to be addressed. I can’t find the quote where Obama says he’d like to “require” rather than “encourage” public service, but requiring something of public school students is quite a different matter than requiring it of free men.

2. The most powerful point Connor makes, about the sincerity of Obama’s interest in public service arising from his own experience (which happened entirely in the private sector), is difficult to counter. This point, however, stems entirely from the notion that any form of government is alien to and opposed to the way people actually live and conduct their lives. This is certainly the only reason I can see for constructing a Chinese Wall between “private” and “government” matters. I personally think this notion the purest balderdash, but this is, after all, the inevitable divide between republicans who believe in the possibility of popular government and libertarians who think that any manifestation of “the state” is, in Murray Rothbard’s words, “a criminal band.”

3. I can’t really go along with a dismissal of a proposal meant to improve the life of the commonwealth as “bad fiscal policy.” I realize I’m the one standing athwart history on this one, but for me, politics precedes economics.

Connor asks why we should pay “unskilled youngsters” to do jobs that “hard-up workers” would be happy to do for minimum wages — or lower. Well, OK. But why aren’t “hard-up workers” lining up to fill those jobs? Because the private sector, frankly, doesn’t have much of a stake in mundane but essential community-service type jobs. Having the federal government hire drudge workers at starvation wages to do those jobs might make more “fiscal” sense than universal public service. But to me it seems a miserable, mean sort of alternative.

Alternatively, I suppose communities could take it upon themselves to hire people to plant trees for them, et al, but that raises the question of where they’re to get the money. More than likely, they won’t. As much as libertarians (though not, perhaps, classical liberals) might hate to admit it, leaving local democracy to the mercy of the free market is a recipe for no local democracy at all.

The eleventh day of the eleventh month.

November 11, 2008

I was pretty proud of this column I wrote commemorating Veterans Day. It got pretty much no response — as usually happens when you think you’ve written something touching and profound. I’ve often thought about writing a book about the strangely transitory effect of wars on America, how quickly our collective knowledge of them seems to fade. Look at how completely our memory of the Korean War has thinned and vanished. Even the fact that we call it “Veterans Day” is a sign of our collective memory loss — it was originally called Armistice Day, in honor of 11 Nov. 1918. I wonder how many Americans could tell you the significance of that date.

The runaround.

November 9, 2008

“Will he govern from the center?” Chris Matthews asked today, then blurted out, mid-rant, “He should govern from the center.” So oligarchy prepared, with profound unease leaking out from behind its veneer of hysterical pride, to unite behind the new president.

An obsession with “the center” united them. Praising Obama’s pick of Rahm Emanuel, a well-known Clintonish “centrist,” the Washington Post declared: “Emanuel can help Mr. Obama understand when he needs to ignore the pleas of the left and govern from the center.” The Wall Street Journal warned the new president not to fall under the sway of “left-wing barons who have their own agenda.” Who were these fearsome “left-wing barons”? Poor Barney Frank, apparently, is one of the fierce ideologues our new president must learn to beware of.

Party leaders, too, spoke cautiously. “A new president must govern from the middle,” said Nancy Pelosi, as if it were an iron rule (What of Reagan, or FDR? Hell, what about Bush?). “This is not a mandate for a political party or an ideology,” Harry Reid explained, as the Democrats tightened their grip on the Congress and enjoyed their biggest presidential landslide in history. Americans, apparently, have no political beliefs or “ideology” whatever — none, at least, that plays any role in who they vote for. Obama, too, was said to have campaigned as a “Reaganite” or “fiscal conservative” — by the same people who’d been condemning him as a maniacal socialist only a week before. So it goes.

A peculiar transformation happened immediately after the election. “The center,” which means everything and nothing, had somehow replaced Barack Obama’s actual platform as his “mandate” in the eyes of oligarchy.

Even as joyful students stood on the Mall and sang, with no trace of irony, “God Bless America,” the voices of liberal sanctimony — ever apologists for liberal oligarchy — strained to put a downer on this most unpleasant affair. Christine Stansell, the voice of liberal academia, dismissed Obama’s win this way: “incredible luck.” “Decades of dysfunction.” “The break-down of the Republican Party.” Anything and everything we can credit for the win except Obama and the people who supported him. A national grass-roots movement successfully elects a man to the White House for the first time in a century and Stansell credits the Democratic Party for the win because, for once, they “behaved like a functional party.”

Barely disguising her contempt for Obama supporters’ lack of cynicism, Stansell snorts: “It looks like the ‘new’ politics comes down to Hispanics, women, and blue-collar Democrats returned home from the Republican fold.” In the world of liberal academia, we count not as individuals, as citizens, but as members of groups. Anyone so foolish to think he’s only a voter who happens to be Hispanic is sorely wrong. He is a Hispanic voter, nothing more. (From this thinking, of course, comes not “reverse racism” but racism, since racism, as Walter Karp said, is nothing more than thinking of other people as if they are nothing but members of a race.) Enthusiasm about what a president might do for you, too, is to be dreaded; it might mean that people won’t shut up and go away after the election.

Before we hear any more idle chatter about “reaching across the aisle,” too, let’s get something straight. “Bipartisan” action can mean one of two things. It can mean congressmembers uniting to challenge party leadership (as we saw happen in the first House vote against the bailout two months ago) or it can mean party leaders clamping down on honorable “partisan” debate in order to quash democracy (as we saw happen in the second House vote). In short, “reaching across the aisle” can mean a challenge to political power or a repressive exercise of political power.

The notion that our government is torn between a “left” and a “right,” too, is largely without merit. There certainly are left and right movements in America. But a policy isn’t necessarily produced by leftist or rightist ideology. (For that matter, “conservatives” aren’t necessarily right-wingers, “liberals” aren’t necessarily left-wingers, and “moderates” aren’t necessarily wishy-washy.) Again, consider the bailout. Self-identified conservatives and liberals opposed it for the exact same reason. To be sure, they said different things about it; conservatives talked about a “free market” and liberals talked about “corporate greed.” But at bottom they opposed the same things about the bailout.

Things to consider, as we prepare to learn how Obama will govern this “conservative,” “right-center,” “centrist,” “progressive” nation of ours.

Shut up, already!

November 9, 2008

There are many things I’d obliterate from our political discourse if given the chance, but chief among them, I think, would have to be “people feeling betrayed by Christopher Hitchens.”

For most of us, when you feel betrayed by a friend, your impulse is to confront him privately — or at the very least, complain about him to another friend. Not Hitchens’s friends. They confront him loudly and publicly. You’d think he was the Pope. After the novelist Martin Amis read a bunch of books about Stalin, he suddenly realized that Christopher — his own buddy! — had made a bunch of not-entirely-unserious cracks about being a Trotskyist. Instead of confronting his old pal in private, like a normal person, Amis wrote a book about it. (A pretty bad one.) It ended with a chapter called “An Open Letter to a Friend,” or something like that. (Hitchens responded in kind, with an article titled “Don’t. Be. Silly.”)

Now that Hitchens has decided, after some reflection, to endorse Obama, he’s elicited a spasm of fury from the Right — eerily similar to the righteous indignation we used to hear all the time from the Left. “I was dismayed and profoundly disappointed — and, on reflection, felt betrayed — when I heard that you endorsed Barack Obama for president of the United States,” moans one “longtime Iraqi friend.” “All the stuff you’ve written and debated your entire career about the War on Terror is all wiped away because you don’t like Sarah Palin,” quacks Laura Ingraham.

Please. Let’s nip this particular round of regretful moaning in the bud. In the spirit of “centrism” and “compromise” and “reaching across the aisle” going around these days, let’s agree on this: It doesn’t really matter what Christopher Hitchens says. He only takes half the positions he does to annoy you, anyway.

A moment of (expected) grace.

November 5, 2008

I’m listening to Obama’s acceptance speech again as I write this and marveling at what a superb speaker he is. The words flow so naturally, one right on top of another, each syllable hitting home with a very satisfying bass thud. There’s a confidence and grace and easiness that I’ve never heard in any other politician’s words. This is why the right’s warnings about Obama being a charismatic demagogue fall so flat. Demagogues are eager to win you over, to make you like them. Obama has the air of a leader, not a dictator. The difference is unmistakable.

As someone who (believe it or not) once resisted getting into politics because he couldn’t stand listening to politicians speak for longer than two minutes, I’m pretty happy at the prospect of listening to this man every day for the next four years (at least).

Obama vs. the Constitution

November 3, 2008

You’ve got to admire the insane chutzpah of the Republican Right in their latest, last-ditch rhetorical effort to prove that Barack Obama is unworthy to be our president. They’re trying to argue that Obama somehow opposes the Constitution because he referred to its “negative liberties.”

Of course, as any fool could tell them, the Constitution does consist largely of “negative liberties” — that is, it is largely composed of what the government can’t do. What the Supreme Court can’t do, what the Congress can’t do, what the president can’t do, what the federal government can’t do, what the state governments can’t do. To use this familiar term — used by conservative scholars all the time, in fact — is pure mendacity. But it hasn’t stopped the lying ideologues of the Right from trying to turn it into a major issue.

“This election is not about Obama versus the Republican nominee,” thunders one lunatic. “It is about Obama versus this great republic and its founders, Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Rush, and Jefferson.” (Wow, Rush helped found the country and went platinum 14 times?)

“Does Mr. Obama support the Constitution as it is written, or does he support amendments to guarantee welfare?” wonders the co-founder of the anti-constitutional Federalist Society in the Wall Street Journal. “The federal courts hang in the balance, and it is the left which is poised to capture them.” (1)

“McCain’s judicial nominees would be far more likely, by light years, than would be Obama’s nominees, to maintain the Constitution’s balance between national and state governments, and its restrictions on Congress’s powers,” declares the American Spectator. Then it goes further, into truly demented territory: “It is likely that no administration in history will be so concerned with maintaining high ethical standards as a McCain administration would.”

“Simply put, the survival of the historic American experiment in representative government will be in serious jeopardy if Barack Obama is our next president,” drones the ever-awful National Review. “Our system of representative government, already under siege, would be lucky to survive an Obama presidency.”

Obama’s presidency will certainly bear watching, as any presidency will. But the basic premise of these attacks — that “left-wing” Democrats like Obama (who is in fact a moderate, despite Republican extremists’ weird conviction that anyone to the left of Joe Lieberman is a Bolshevik) detest the Constitution, while Republicans cherish it — is ludicrous.

Forget McCain and Palin for a minute. This party is still led by a president who has ignored and devalued the Constitution as no other president in our history has. George W. Bush has, in one observer’s words, declared his right “to wage undeclared wars … his right to create military courts, to authorize extraordinary renditions, secret prisons, more severely coercive interrogation, trials with undisclosed evidence, domestic surveillance, and the overriding of congressional oversight in every aspect of government from energy policy to health services.” He can jail citizens at will, order them to be tortured and kept behind bars for years without any charges being presented. The Constitution he dismisses as “a goddamned piece of paper,” a story our “liberal” media resolutely refused to pursue. He has stood before the American people as a usurper of our liberties and a tyrant over this Republic, and only the contemptible cowardice of Democratic leaders (as well as the hypocritical unction of Republican leaders) has kept him from being impeached and sent to prison.

And McCain has never repudiated Bush’s methods — nor, to say the least, have the majority of his ideologue followers, who think executive tyranny all to the good if it counters the power of a liberal Congress. That is more than enough reason to send him and his demagogic running mate into the dustbin of history tomorrow night.

1. One of the odder developments of the past 30 years is the growing assumption that Republicans cherish the Constitution, and Democrats don’t. Things like the Federalist Society (which unambiguously backed Bush’s illegal and unconstitutional reading of the president’s powers) get away with calling themselves things like the Federalist Society (would that be the Federalist of The Federalist Papers or the Federalist Party that proposed the Alien and Sedition Acts, by the way?), and people like Robert Bork get away with declaring that no one has a right to privacy and calling it “strict construction of the Constitution.” All I can say is, it was Obama, not McCain, who named the works of Jefferson and Lincoln, and The Federalist Papers, among his favorite books.

Another neocon sounds off on the election.

November 1, 2008

The economic crisis has got the political ruling class in a panic for obvious reasons. For one thing, we’re already at the tail-end of one miserable war started to distract the people from problems at home, so there’s precious little hope of starting another one. As this particularly odious Wall Street Journal piece shows, they’re desperate for something — anything — to take the heat off. With America facing the worst economic crisis since the Depression, Fred Kagan declares that the election should be decided based on national security.

As we consider whether various bailout plans help Main Street as well as Wall Street, the subtext is that both are much more important to Americans than Haifa Street.

Imagine the quaint notion that Americans might care more about their own immediate problems than someone else’s hypothetical troubles!

s it possible that American inattention to the world in the coming years could lead to a similarly devastating result (as Hitler’s rise to power)? You betcha. .. the next president will almost certainly face Iran’s arrival at the threshold of nuclear-weapons capability. … Whatever the parallels between the current economic situation and that of the early 1930s, the current international environment is by any comparison more dangerous for the U.S. than the one that led to World War II.

You heard it here first: a country that spends less than a hundredth what we do on the military poses a more dire threat than Nazi Germany did in 1941 to a United States that had virtually no army at all! Is no falsehood too shameless?

The presidential impact on foreign-policy problems is much more direct (than economic issues). Skillful approaches can avoid or mitigate conflict; foolish ones can lead to cataclysms. And make no mistake — mistaken policies will lead to the unnecessary deaths of Americans, and not just our soldiers. Any American who wants to travel outside the U.S. can be directly affected by the wisdom or folly of our foreign policy. Even those who never leave their own state must be concerned, as residents of New York, Arlington and Pennsylvania can attest.

Back in the 1880s, this used to be called “waving the bloody flag.” Like all neocons, Kagan has no scruples about threatening Americans with unthinkable destruction should they fail to accept every tenet of the neocon platform. (Fortunately, the only people who read The Wall Street Journal either already believe this nonsense or are too wised-up to accept it.)

In Kagan’s weird universe, Obama is the petty nationalist concerned with mere parochial affairs like the national economy, while McCain (and his demagogue of a running mate) is a Serious Contender for whom international issues are the only issues. (What’s really shocking is that a neocon felt it was even worth commenting on something as puny and unimportant as a presidential election.) Worst of all, as Matt Stone rightly observes over at The Global Buzz, Kagan’s chirpy use of “You betcha” hints, not so subtly, that the grossly unqualified and ignorant Palin, of all people, is the “security maven” he’s got in mind. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.