June 2004 Archives


June 29, 2004

It's the Story That Matters, Not the Facts. In most things, but more so in politics. Politics is more than anything a fight about who controls the storyline. That's become clearer than ever to me in this election year.

Facts matter, but they are secondary to the storyline that connects them and invests them with meaning. For many, even when a storyline becomes overwhelmed by an avalanche of contradicting evidence, it will still hold if there isn't an equally satisfying storyline to replace it. This is all the more true depending on how deeply linked one's sense of personal identity is to the meaning framework the storyline provides for individuals and groups.

That's the predicament of a lot of people in the GOP right now. They want to believe in the traditional-values storyline so effectively articulated by Ronald Reagan, and which they now associate with the current president. But there's the Big Story, the meta-story, which is the conservative vision for America, and there are the little stories which politicians tell to justify policy decisions on a week-to-week basis. The GOP has been very skillful in packaging the little stories in a way to appear consistent with the Big Story.

The problem for the GOP faithful is that while they still believe in the Big Story, they are finding out that the smaller storylines the administration has been promulgating have been overwhelmed by the facts. And since the little stories are so intertwined with and justified by the Big Story, there is tremendous resistance to accepting even the most blatant evidence that the little stories can no longer be sustained by the facts. There must be facts that they don't know about yet that will come out at some later date that will prove that the little stories were true all along.

But even those who have been convinced that the little stories no longer make sense, that doesn't mean that they accept the Democrats' alternative storyline. It's not simply, well since this guy's wrong, the other guy must be right. Even if the Democrats are right about the little story, they're still wrong about the Big Story. So they'll stick with the people whose Big Story they believe in and hope their team figures out how to get the little stories right in the coming years. The little stories matter, but not nearly as much as the Big Story.

The Democrats, who never accepted the GOP Big Story, are gleeful that the little storylines appear to be unraveling, but they are wrong to think that this gives them a long-term advantage. The GOP Big Story remains very potent, and the Dems Big Story remains flaccid. If the Dems win in November, it will not be because most Americans are buying into the Dem Meta-Story with any real enthusiasm. The current GOP administration has been appalling for its egregious venality, powerlust, and incompetence, and I believe most Americans will vote for the Democrats' candidate no matter who he is. It will be much more of a saying No to the GOP than Yes to the Dems.

The Democrats still don't have a compelling Big Story that the majority of Americans feel good about. They get votes by default from people who dislike the GOP Big Story and have no where else to go. Insofar as the Democrats' storyline is composed primarily by the people in the secular left, I believe it has no future. There has to be a storyline that has an idealism that is rooted in a progressive, post-secular religious sensibility. (See Column 18, "Getting beyond the Secular." I would describe the religious right as having a pre-secular sensibility.) The GOP storyline is grounded in a kind of religious idealism that in my mind is regressive, but it gives people something they can say Yes to and work passionately for. That's the point made at the end of yesterday's post.

The Democrats got nothin' except to say No to what they don't like about the GOP. Sure, they've got issues like health care that they want to promote, but they'll never get anywhere with them if they don't have a powerful enough storyline to inspire broad enough popular support to overcome the big money interests that will fight tooth and nail against them.

Ultimately whoever comes up with the best story wins. The GOP is suffering a temporary setback right now. But their Big Story has staying power, and they'll regroup sooner or later under its banner. And the Dems will always be in this weak, reactive relationship to the GOP until they (or somebody, maybe it will take a third party) comes up with a more compelling storyline than the one the GOP owns right now.

Update. David Brooks's column today talks about political and cultural polarization. I think a lot of what he says is true, but I don't know that I agree with him that the more educated you are, the more polarized you become. It's more a question of which storyline you buy into.

The two main ones are, first, the traditional heartlander narrative embraced by the GOP. It celebrates religious faith and personal character whose roots lie in frontier-era rugged individualism. The Dems embrace a multicultural, secular relativism that heartlanders see as un-American. The Dems see themselves as broadminded, cosmopolitan globalists and the GOP as rigid, parochial, and simplistic. The heartlanders see themselves as the real Americans and the Dems as one-worlders who hate America and its values.

There are other storylines that don't quite fit under either of these two umbrellas, but these are the two main ones that divide the country. (Free-market libertarianism, for instance, is a much more potent destroyer of the traditional American way of life than some Frenchified univeristy intellectualism ever has been or will be.)

But the polarization is basically about the battle for one of the two main storylines to define what normal American reality is. I, for one, don't feel comfortable with either as currently configured.


Monday, June 28, 2004

Thas what I'm talkin' bout. Thomas Frank's new book, What's Wrong with Kansas looks to be a must read. I've ordered it, but not read it yet. An interview in this morning's Salon Frank shows that that he really gets it, and why DLC Democrats don't. I'm pasting in the last part of the interview, but it's worth reading in its entirety if you have a Salon subscription. This is long, but it's the most interesting thing you'll read today:

You blame the Democratic Party, to a significant extent, for its own predicament in places like Kansas. You use the phrase "criminally stupid" to describe its strategy and tactics since the 1970s. Explain what you mean.

There are two different errors that were made, and both of them have amounted to jettisoning the working class, so that the working class is no longer the central focus of the party. In the McGovern era they described this as the "new politics." The error of that was apparent at the time, because McGovern went down in flames. The idea was, we'll build a new coalition around students, feminists, environmentalists and so on.

The Democrats are forever trying to come up with some kind of demographic coalition that will get them to 51 percent. They talk about that all the time. That was one of the first efforts to do that, and it was discredited really fast. But the Democratic Leadership Council is, I think, a far more poisonous purveyor of this idea, getting rid of the working class. Or not getting rid of them, but no longer appealing to them as the center of the coalition, the bulwark of the party. Instead, it's suburban professionals or whoever.

Bill Clinton is, in their minds, the great success story for this strategy. He signed off on NAFTA, on welfare reform, on so many other Republican issues. He basically accepted the Reagan agenda on economic issues, whether it was deregulating the banks, doing away with New Deal farm policy, doing away with welfare, deregulating telecom, free trade. In all those ways, he was essentially a Republican. But he fought it out very vigorously on the cultural issues. And according to the New Democrats, this is the way to do it.

They point to Clinton and say, "Look, we won the presidency! We won twice! Therefore this is a great strategy." And I would point out that while they won the presidency, they are no longer the majority party, either in Congress or the nation. That is a staggering reversal. Look, when you and I were growing up, the Democrats were always the majority. It was the party of the working class. Duh! It was the party of the majority. I thought the day would never come that they were no longer in that position. Now, I believe Republicans actually outnumber Democrats in registration. That is staggering.

It has happened because of this strategy. You take people who would be natural Democrats -- because they work in industry, they're blue-collar people -- and you suddenly remove the economic issues from the table. You say, well, the Democrats are the same as the Republicans on those issues now. And all that's left for them to consider are the cultural issues.
I talked to several people in Wichita -- I quote one of them in the book -- who come right out and say, "When the Democrats went with NAFTA, they no longer had anything to offer me, and I started voting Republican." That is a catastrophe.

A friend of mine pointed out that when the Democrats decided they would no longer contest these elections on economic issues -- of course none of these blanket statements are 100 percent true. There are still Democrats who do fight it out on economic issues, and they tend to do all right.

I guess John Edwards would be this year's example.

Yeah, or Howard Dean. They both talked old-school populism. I thought Edwards was great. At least the way he talked was great. Kerry is trying to talk that way now, but it's not as persuasive coming from him. Anyhow, my friend pointed out that when you drop the economic issues, and when the nation's politics are about culture, it pushes down voter participation. Look at the 1920s, when both parties agreed on the economic issues and the fights were about Prohibition and Americanism and these other silly issues that are nonetheless precursors to the things we fight about today.

There are only two natural positions in a two-party system. One party is going to be the party of money, and the other party is going to be the party of numbers. You can only be one or the other, and the Republicans have pretty much got the money sewn up. The Democrats decided, when they made this jump to fighting the culture wars only, that they were essentially giving up on being the party of the majority. They want to contest for the money as well.

They want to be the other party of money.

Yeah, that's right. They want to switch places with the Republicans. This is disastrous! It's a bad idea!

This leaves the Republicans as A), the only party with a grass-roots movement at its base, right? The Democrats haven't had that for decades.

They have little fragmented movements here and there. The labor movement is still out there. It's not as strong as it was, but it still exists.

Yeah, and the environmentalists, the black churches, the Deaniacs. None of those things can be described as the base of the Democratic Party. And B), it leaves the Republicans as the only party with a class-based appeal to working people.

Exactly! That's the critical point.

Maybe it's a perverted class-based appeal, but ...

That is the point of the book. There are several points I hope readers will come away with, but that's the critical one. Democrats have to face up to that. They're so afraid to talk about social class, and anytime they do the Wall Street Journal runs an editorial saying, "No class warfare! We can't have class warfare in American politics." And the Republicans do class warfare all the time. They talk about the liberal elite all the time. They're forever attacking the tastes and habits of the rich.

This is where the Kansas example is so remarkable. The Kansas conservative leaders denounce rich people. They do it all the time. That neighborhood where I'm from, in Mission Hills. They forever lambaste people from Mission Hills! But then, think of what their policies are: They're going to cut my taxes! Well, not me. My dad's. Mine are negligible. But the policies they enact are going to make the people they denounce wealthier than ever. It's an amazing thing, and it's something the Democrats cannot grasp. The Republicans do talk about social class, and they are winning that battle.

Doesn't this piss you off? The party that should be standing up for working people hasn't been doing it, for the better part of 20 years?

I mean, in fairness, some of them do. But of course it pisses me off! I mean, yeah! I was doing a radio interview in Kansas when a Republican state senator phoned in. The host more or less recited my argument to her and said, "You represent a working-class district. And Tom Frank says the free-market policies you support are hurting your own constituents." All she could say was, "Free-market policies -- those are really mainstream. Everybody supports those." I'm like, no they don't. Maybe it's mainstream now, but what about Franklin Roosevelt! Harry Truman! William Jennings Bryan! Our great heroes! Harry Truman was from Kansas City, for God's sake. It's not strange to have doubts about the free market.

You keep meeting these right-wing activists who are such striking and powerful characters. People with pretty extreme-right politics -- they're fighting to close abortion clinics, to ban the teaching of evolution or, you know, basically shut down the school system. And they're remarkable people. They renounce prosperity and personal gain in favor of their idea of righteousness. They choose principle over their own personal interest.

In a different context, it would be very noble.

It's inspiring, if a little bizarre. This used to be what people on the left did, right? Isn't there a lesson we should learn from these people?

I hope so, yes. You've taken the words out of my mouth. What can I say? Of course we should learn from it.

What is that lesson exactly? That's what we need to talk about. Anyway, I'm encouraged that the basic idea on which this site was based is being taken seriously now by some on the left. That idea is that a progressive politics driven by the values and worldview of the secular left can never win the hearts of a majority of Americans.(See Column 17 & and particularly Column 18, "Getting beyond the Secular" on this.) The secular left has a role to play, but it should not be the public face of a progressive politics that has any hope of success. It can't win. More later.


Sunday, June 27, 2004

Rush Limbaugh vs. Michael Moore. No matter how they present themselves or how they are thought of, the only difference between Rush and Moore, besides their political allegiances, is the media they use. They’re both populist rabblerousers and propagandists. Both have relatively extreme points of view. Both are unfair. Both seek to entertain and excite the already converted. Both are funny, talented, and very effective at what they do.

There’s another difference between Rush and Moore, and that difference pertains to a very interesting phenomenon in American political discourse, which is the way populist rhetoric has split into factions according to whether the enemy of the people is seen to be the cultural elite or the economic elite. In classic populism they are the the same thing.

Since the emergence of the Reagan Democrats in eighties, the GOP has driven a wedge into populism by focusing on the liberal, cultural elite--intellectuals, artists, gays, feminists, promiscuous celebrities and nihilistic filmmakers--who represent everything that seeks to undermine a wholesome, virtuous America. Rush is one of the foremost American voices promoting that part of the populist attack.

He is preoccupied with the culture war in which he takes up the banner of Conservatives who stand for what is right and true against Liberals, the wishy-washy elites who would drag the country to spiritual ruin if not prevented by flinty patriots like Dick Cheney.

Michael Moore, on the other hand, while he has become the darling of the left-leaning cultural elites, now a very rich man himself, poses as the blue-collar working man taking on the other elites, the corporate ones and the big money politicians who are in their pockets. His battle is one in which lower- and middle-income people are in a war of interests against the corporate power that is bending the whole political process to serve it.

When all is said and done, I’m probably a one-issue guy, and that issue is big money. And so anybody who sees that as the enemy to be fought against is an ally, no matter what other differences I may have with them. I’m not looking for perfection in anybody, just a sense that their political priorities more or less line up with my own.

So I think Moore's populism aligns with my priorities, and I feel a lot more comfortable with his storyline than I could ever feel about Limbaugh's. The Republic and its common good are far more severely threatened by the economic elites than by the cultural elites. And Rush, of course, is the witting or unwitting toady of the former and the promoter of their agenda.

This is the point that Thomas Frank makes in his book, What's Wrong With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. I haven't read the book yet, but I heard him give a reading when he was in Seattle last week. I think he's right on the money in his depiction about how heartland Americans are voting to destroy their way of life every time they vote for the GOP. The money interests in the GOP have been masterful in using the culture war to distract heartlanders by blaming Liberals for corrupting the American Soul. In the meanwhile the GOP promotes policies that hurt them economically. Frank's book apparently also shows how the Right has appropriated the formerly leftist anti-elite rhetoric. I'll probably have more to say about that some other time.

But for now it's enough to say that the more important war is to be fought against the economic elites because the crucial issue that the American Republic faces in the next twenty years is not whether Gays get a marriage license. It's rather whether political power continues to be arrogated by big money or whether the American people will be able to develop an effective counterbalance for it.

My concern here is about power, not money. It doesn't bother me that people have money. It bothers me that people who care too much about getting it call most of the shots. There's too strong a link between having a lot of economic power and having a lot of political power. Finding the right balance should be the overarching concern for all patriotic Americans who are concerned abut preserving the soul of their country.


Friday, June 25, 2004

Cultural Drift. Or is it metaphysical drift? Or is it a kind of spiritual decay that leads to cultural decadence? Drift is what the cultural right is revolting against, and that drift is a problem that the cultural left just doesn't get. How far can the culture go in de-linking itself from its cultural and religious heritage before it just loses its identity and sense of purpose in some global mall of values and lifestyles? For the cosmopolitan left this isn't a problem; it embraces this movement into global diversity. But the right resists it, and I think its concerns are legitimate, even if at the same time I think its solutions wrong-headed.

Unless terrorists bomb us back into the middle ages, it's inevitable that we will all in the long run merge into some kind of global fusion culture. Samuel Huntington's thesis in his Clash of Civilizations has some short-term utility in describing current conditions, but is wrong over the long term. Everything that rises must converge. The question is whether the human species is still rising or whether it has hit a dead-end. Right now it feels more like the latter, but I don't really believe that's our real situation.

Jacques Barzun in his book a From Dawn to Decadence makes clear that for him decadence is not a pejorative term. “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal,“ he writes, “the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur, it is a technical label.” Decadence, he says, “. . . implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns but peculiarly restless for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility.”

The point here is that while individuals may still have their personal dreams and ambitions, there is no longer any culture-wide aspiration toward some transcendent ideal. Medieval Christianity had it. Enlightenment Humanism had it. Even Marxism had it. But the West has lost any such sense of future transcendent possibility, and whether or not this is a temporary loss I don't know for sure, but I tend to think not. Something new is always a possibility even if we have no imagination for it yet.

In my optimistic moments I think that there might be some historical parallel between what happened in 14th Century Europe--the dark century of plague, the Hundred Years' War, and the Great Schism--and the 20th Century. The world during both centuries seemed to have fallen apart, but after the 14th came the 15th century and the Renaissance in Italy. If 14th Century was a transition century during which the Medieval died to clear way for the birth of the Modern, perhaps the 20th Century was a transition century during which the Modern died to clear the way for the birth of . . .well, whatever's next.

And it's because we are no longer moderns and not yet whatever's next, we are in this mode of cultural drift, neither here nor there. We're in a state of decadence as Barzun describes it, restless and seeing no clear lines of advance. So we drift. We let the tail wag the dog. The tail being mainly concerns about money, concerns about our physical well being. We are, if what's on TV or in the magazine racks is any indication, a people preoccupied with our looks, our wellness, our economic security, our personal ambitions and careers, our sexual performance, our various entertainments.

What else is new? But the culture is agnostic about questions of larger meaning and purpose, and the result is our having drifted into this decadent, bread-and-circuses mode. And I sympathize with the right in its rejection of this drift into cultural decadence and the narcissism that comes with it. We are in a parlous state. Drift, if it goes on long enough, leads eventually to wreckage on the rocks. The conservatives are right in this. Values matter. And there has to be some basic consensus on the meaning and purpose of our life together if we have any hope of avoiding the inevitable shipwreck that awaits us otherwise.

But the cultural right's response to decadence is a nostalgic "restorationism." If we have no future, let's bring back what worked from the past. Ronald Reagan was the great symbol for a restorationist America. There is a restorationist movement now in the Catholic Church to get back to the good old days before the Second Vatican Council. What else is there to do when the only other choice seems to be to just drift into the future being driven by the basest human impulses.

I understand the concerns of the right, but the restorationist solution is just another symptom of decadence in Baruzun's sense--our loss of the sense of collective Possibility. As such it is not a solution. The solution lies elsewhere, and while I don't know what it is, I have some ideas about how to think about its development. This is really the central purpose of this site.


Thursday, June 24, 2004

Bush vs. Clinton. In a piece today that pretty much assesses the two presidents as I would, Jack Beatty writes in the Atlantic about "Bush's Monica Moment," which is exposed in Michael Moore's soon-to-be-released film, Fahrenheit 9/11. Now we all know Michael Moore is a propagandist whose films are mainly entertaining homilies to the already-gathered, left-leaning choir. But as Beatty and others point out, Moore's showing the seven minutes on September 11 during which Bush sat there reading My Pet Goat to those kids in Florida, even after he heard that the second plane had hit, makes a devastating point about Bush's character and capacity for leadership:

That moment exposes Bush's character. It reveals what his press conferences proclaim: his incapacity. If he were George W. Smith, what job would he be qualified for? Bush's presidency can be seen as one long cover-up of the most obvious thing about him. A life of upward failure, of being his father's son, left him without "sand," my nineteenth century-born father's word for the residue of strength acquired by "standing on your own two feet" and "taking your medicine." Bush never stood on his own feet, never took his medicine—and he has never been his own man.

To me the most remarkable thing about conservative support for Bush is how this callow man so obviously lacks the character that they seem to value so much in their leaders. It seems that it's enough for Bush and his handlers merely to assert that he is a strong, steady leader, and the people who want to believe it will believe it despite all the evidence from his biography and his tenure so far as president that contradicts such assertions.

For Bush supporters only the Bush haters think their leader lacks any real leadership qualities, but as we've seen this week all the Clinton haters are coming out to once again to remind us what world-class political hatred looks like. As I've said on many occasions, Clinton is hardly my favorite president, and I didn't vote for him in '96. But I never understood the hatred that was directed toward him. In my somewhat biased judgment, hatred for Clinton was far more virulent than any directed toward the current Bush.

Conservatives say it's because his character flaws made him unfit to be president, but had FDR, JFK or LBJ or any number of Dem presidents been elected in '92, I think their character flaws would have been similarly exposed by the relentless right-wing attack machine that kicked into gear at that time.

There is so much evidence that there was a concerted, well-funded, right-wing campaign from Day 1 to keep Clinton on his heels by forcing him to deal with manufactured scandals to prevent his presidency from getting any traction. In the beginning it wasn't personal; it was just hard-ball politics. But it became personal, and lines were crossed that should never have been crossed, and we found out a lot more about the private man than was any of our business to know.

But whatever we might think of the private man, he was an effective public man, a leader who had real presence and command. Beatty puts it this way:

...whatever his personal weaknesses, Clinton performed competently, even prudently. His controversial decisions—raising taxes to balance the budget, NAFTA, the China trade deal, less so welfare reform—were largely policy-driven, outraging various elements of the democratic base. Competence, prudence, policy over politics: these are not the words to describe George W. Bush's conduct of government. If we doubted Clinton's character, we were reassured by his intelligence and command of the scene. Bush lacks these compensations. His vaunted "moral clarity" is as much strut as conviction. He achieves certainty by arresting thought. The "befuddled-looking president" caught in that video is an emblem of his presidency.

For Americans it should not be a question of liking or disliking Bush, it should be a matter of just trying to see the man clearly. And this man, while he certainly seems to behave better toward his wife than Clinton did his, simply does not have the character or competency required to lead our country at this critical time.


Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Clinton as Homo Religiosus. David Brooks--I seem to be quoting him a lot these days--had an interesting column yesterday on Bill Clinton's religiosity and the problem that Democrats in general have with religion.

More than any other leading Democrat, Bill Clinton understands the role religion actually plays in modern politics. He knows Americans want to be able to see their leaders' faith. A recent Pew survey showed that for every American who thinks politicians should talk less about religion, there are two Americans who believe politicians should talk more.

And Clinton seems to understand, as many Democrats do not, that a politician's faith isn't just about litmus test issues like abortion or gay marriage. Many people just want to know that their leader, like them, is in the fellowship of believers. Their president doesn't have to be a saint, but he does have to be a pilgrim. He does have to be engaged, as they are, in a personal voyage toward God.

...Just as Republicans have to appeal to religious conservatives but move beyond them, Democrats have to appeal to the secular left but also build a bridge to religious moderates. Bill Clinton did this. John Kerry hasn't. If you want to know why Kerry is still roughly even with Bush in the polls, even though Bush has had the worst year of any president since Nixon in 1973 or L.B.J. in 1968, this is one big reason.

I think that Brooks is correct here in his assessment of religiosity as it affects the electorate's perceptions of Clinton vs. Kerry. Kerry is nominally Catholic, just as Hillary is nominally Methodist, but both strike me as having fundamentally secularist souls. I always accepted the sincerity of Clinton's Christian faith. Although I know less about him, I think Tony Blair is also sincere in this regard. Both are unusual for being intellectuals (at least as far as you're likely to describe any contemporary politician as one) and for being in my view genuine men of faith. This hardly delivers them from the struggle that each has with his own inner demons. But I agree with Brooks that many Americans make a connection to their political leaders on that level if for no other reason than that they are transparently engaged in the struggle.

Does this mean that Kerry should be more pious and outspoken about his religion? No because it would appear phony if he did, but Brooks points to an issue Democrats need to take more seriously:

Can't the Democratic strategists feel it in their bones how important this is? After all, when you go out among the Democratic rank and file, you find millions of Democrats who are just as religious as Republicans. It's mostly in the land of Democratic elites that you are likely to find yourself among religious illiterates.

But of course this is the problem. Forests have been felled so people could publish articles and books on the religious right's influence on the Republican Party. But as the Baruch College political scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio have suggested, the real political story of the past decade has been the growing size and cohesion of the secular left, and its growing influence on the Democratic Party.

I agree with Brooks that the aggressive secularity of the Democratic Party has an alienating effect on a lot of people whose interests otherwise lie with the Democratic Party. Hard-core secularists only compose about 15% of the American population but they play very 0important roles in the media, the arts, and in education. Traditional Democrats like Catholics and blacks have little in common culturally with the secularists who are in the driver's seat in the Democrat party, and yet the GOP has been very shrewd in branding the Democrats as the party of secularity. The vast majority of Americans are not secularists.

If the Democrats were smart, they would find a more vigorous way of branding themselves as The Big Tent. The place where all kinds of Americans can find a home and feel the respect of their fellow citizens, no matter what their metaphysics might be. The Big Tent idea is very different in my mind from the left-liberal idea of multiculturalism that promotes a goofy, politically correct prejudice against Western civilization and the dead, white males who developed it.

For me a guy like Bill Clinton in his politics very much embodies the big-tent ideal. A genuinely religious man, flawed to be sure, whose religiosity opened him up rather than closed him down to the great experiment in diversity that is American culture. A guy like George Bush doesn't have it because his religiosity is too moralistic, prescriptive, and judgmental--which is typical of the tight-souled Puritan strain in GOP-style Christianity. The Democratic style of Christianity that Bill Clinton embodies is something that Black Christians and most ordinary Catholics can respond to, one which understands that we're all wounded and in need of healing, but that God's grace is superabundant and ubiquitous for those who choose to avail themselves of it.

Correction, 6/24: My use of the word "nominal" in describing Hillary Clinton's and John Kerry's relationship to their respective churches is inaccurate. As reader J.G. points out that "the evidence is pretty strong that her commitment to institutional Methodism is not marginal." If I were to have written more precisely, I would have said something more along the lines that both HC and JK strike me as people whose temperaments lead them to be more comfortable on the secular rather than the religious side of the cultural divide that has riven the country at least since the Scopes trial.


Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Al-Qaeda Link. I've been a little surprised that Cheney et al are so prickly about the the 9/11 preliminary report asserting what anybody who has been paying attention already knows. To wit--there was no collaboration between Saddam and al Qaeda. The Bushies insist that there were contacts, and where there's smoke there's fire. But as Scott Rosenberg points, out these contacts are similar to saying that a

small but vicious band of neo-Aryan white supremacists had approached the Bush administration in early 2001 with a request for federal funding. Say the Bush administration had rejected them. Say these people established some crazy separatist camps in northern Montana on the Canadian border and launched an occasional raid from that enclave. By the logic the Bush administration's claims on the Saddam/al-Qaida question, it would be fair for us to declare, on the basis of these facts, that the Bush administration had "longstanding, significant ties" to neo-Nazis, and that it was "harboring" them.

. . . Do we think that the 70% of the American public who, at one point over the last year, believed that Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks (the number is down in the 50s, according to a variety of polls today) simply arrived at that conclusion on their own, based on independent sources of intelligence that they consulted in their spare time? I don't think so. American voters drew that conclusion because the Bush administration pushed it, at every available speaking opportunity. Bush officials preserved plausible deniability by adopting weasel-word locutions that protected them from the most blatant complaints of lying while preserving the essential charge and establishing the transfer of American outrage at 9/11 from the al-Qaida terrorists who committed the crime to a tinpot Middle East dictator who had nothing to do with it.

Now the administration's leaders are stuck with the feeblest of defenses: When confronted with the facts, they insist that their claims, once asserted as demonstrable truth, are now unfathomable uncertainties -- things that have not been proven, but haven't been disproven, either.

There's no interest in getting to the truth here, only in maintaining the credulity of the the GOP faithful. Cheney understands that all he has to do is say anything that has the most minimal relationship to plausibility, and the people who want to believe it will believe it. See post below about cognitive dissonance.


Monday, June 21, 2004

Cognitive Dissonance. Read this interesting article about cognitive dissonance by Princeton Social Psychologist Joel Cooper. He's trying to make sense of the discrepancy between Cheney's insistence that there was a Saddam/al Qaeda link and the 9/11 Commission's insistence that there was none. Key grafs:

How do we deal with the fact that the men holding the highest offices in the land draw one conclusion while the bipartisan commission charged with unpacking the evidence draws the opposite? We, too, will be in a state of dissonance and we, too, will feel pressure to reduce it.

The most benign way to reduce the dissonance is to make the two conclusions compatible. Perhaps there is a way to believe Cheney and the commission.

The door to that solution was opened briefly by Bush when he explained that there was a difference between acknowledging Iraq-al-Qaida contacts and the implication that the Iraqis were in some way responsible for 9/11. One could believe that there was no productive contact that led to the Sept. 11 event - this is what the commission meant - and also believe that there was contact - which is what Bush and Cheney are saying - and be satisfied.

However, that door was all but closed on Thursday by the president's statement that he supported Cheney's more extreme assertions because, well, they were true.

With a middle ground made less likely, it forces us as the recipients of both positions to make a choice. In a rational world, people can make an assessment about the motives of a member of the administration in a re-election year versus a bipartisan commission that is not involved in the election. In a rational world, the credibility of the commission on this point would be virtually unassailable.

As we know, though, people are not always rational. The need to reduce our dissonance is one of the forces that compromise our rationality. People who identify with Bush and Cheney for any number of reasons will have difficulty resolving dissonance by dismissing their position.

In research conducted in Australia and the United States, people watched a member of their group take an unpopular position on a political issue. Not only did the speaker experience dissonance, so did the audience. Being a member of the same group caused the audience to bond with the speaker.

The audience felt uncomfortable when the speaker took a position that was at variance with the facts and with his true attitude. The members of the audience changed their attitudes to make them consistent with the speaker's public statement. And the more the audience members identified with their group, the more they changed their attitude.

Many Republicans may well do the same. It is not that Republicans will change their opinions because they are convinced by the substance of the administration's argument; the substance of the argument is barely relevant. Seeing their leaders making statements that seem inconsistent with facts will cause group members to experience psychological discomfort, and they may resolve it by becoming adamant about supporting the Bush-Cheney position. The commission, they may conclude, is biased or ignorant, its report incorrect or flawed.

Is cognitive dissonance as it's described here a form of mental illness as I've been discussing that for the past several weeks, or is it just a form of moral and intellectual cowardice? If it's the latter, it leads to the former. The issue is not that politicians lie to promote their political fortunes--that's to be expected. Rather it's the gullibility of the electorate who choose to believe the lies. That's what I find so astonishing--that there should be so many who just accept what these men say simply because they say it.


Saturday, June 19, 2004

Tough Love. David Brooks promised a few columns back that he would be writing more in an attempt to understand why the country has become so polarized. This has been for several years now a preoccupation for me as well. I think that the social forces that lead to polarization need to be understood better than we do right now. I think also the polarizing forces within the each of our individual psyches need to be understood as well.

Polarization is a symptom of spiritual failure. It might be said to be a failure of biblical proportions if the biblical ideal here is to love one's enemies. For most this has always seemed an idiotically unrealistic ideal reserved for saints and flakes who don't know how the real world works. But I think of it as eminently practical, if a requirement of practicality involves possessing an ability to see things as they really are. To the degree that we don't see things as they are, we are deluded. Fear and hatred are agents of delusion.

People who are in a polarized state of mind hate those whom they see as their enemies and see them as deluded or mentally ill. And they're right especially if they are responding to acts or attitudes of the enemy that are expressions of their hatred. But hating those who hate you puts you in the same state of mental illness. And if one is in a state of mental illness or delusion, it is very hard for him or her to see clearly and therefore to know the right thing to do.

What makes this particularly tricky is that it's possible for groups to be collectively mentally ill. We define "normal" in reference to what is accepted as normal by the social world around us. But what if the social world is structured in such a way that it promotes a fundamental alienation from reality? This clearly happened in Germany under the Nazis and in the Soviet Union under the Communists. It happens when fear takes hold of a group, as in financial panics. And it happens when a group fears an enemy who seeks to destroy its way of life, as Americans feared the Communists during the Cold War, and as they fear terrorists now.

There is a correlation then between fear and hatred. We hate those whom we fear. We hate those who pose a threat to us physically, but certainly also those who would abuse us emotionally and spiritually. So therefore, if it is counted a virtue for us to master our fears by the development of a greater capacity for courage, it is also a virtue for us to master our hatreds by the development of a greater capacity for love.

Love is a virtue, not an emotional state. It transcends our likes and dislikes. It's the capacity we must develop to be related to the world as it is, not as we wish it to be or fear it to be. The measure of one's capacity for love is in a very real way correlated with his or her cognitive capacity to see the world accurately. Love is in this sense not some pie-in-the-sky ideal, but a prerequisite for seeing clearly and acting effectively.

It is relatively more easy to develop courage in the service of hatred than it is to develop courage in the service of love. But courage in the service of hatred is always courage in the service of a delusion. It is not possible to see the world accurately through the lens of fear and hatred.

Courage is not an emotional state; it is the refusal of the will to let our fears dictate our course of action. Neither then is love, as I speak of it here, an emotional state; it is the refusal of the will to let our hatreds master us. And as with anything, the more you practice it, the more habitual it becomes, and the more any state of soul becomes habitual, then along with it comes feeling states that reinforce the inclination of the will toward virtue, and with that comes a clarity of the mind that makes it difficult not to see more clearly what is really there.

David Brooks's June 15 column talks about the polarization among elites according to whether they are professionals or managers, the former inclining toward Democrats the latter toward the GOP.

...the contest between these elite groups is often about culture, values and, importantly, leadership skills. What sorts of people should run this country? Which virtues are most important for a leader?

Knowledge-class types are more likely to value leaders who possess what may be called university skills: the ability to read and digest large amounts of information and discuss their way through to a nuanced solution. Democratic administrations tend to value self-expression over self-discipline. Democratic candidates — from Clinton to Kerry — often run late.

Managers are more likely to value leaders whom they see as simple, straight-talking men and women of faith. They prize leaders who are good at managing people, not just ideas. They are more likely to distrust those who seem overly intellectual or narcissistically self-reflective.

Republican administrations tend to be tightly organized and calm, in a corporate sort of way, and place a higher value on loyalty and formality. George Bush says he doesn't read the papers. That's a direct assault on the knowledge class and something no Democrat would say.

I think that this is a good description of why certain people in the educated class are inclined toward one party or the other, but it doesn't explain the hatred of the one group for the other. That hatred is rooted in fear, and understanding the fear is the key to understanding the polarization.

The left doesn't fear those managers who are straight-talking men and women of faith, but avaricious corporations and the politicians who serve them. The right doesn't fear university-type wonks, narcissistic or otherwise, but a metaphysical nihilism and moral relativism that it associates with university, arts, and entertainment-industry elites.

Is the left delusional to fear the right and the right delusional to fear the left? Are we delusional to fear threats posed by terrorists and rogue nation-states? Of course not. But the challenge here is not to pretend that forces that pose threats to the well-being of our society don't exist. They do, and they are lethally dangerous. The challenge is to cultivate the state of soul that is most competent to respond to those threats effectively.

My indictment of the Bush administration lies in what I see as its failure in moral leadership. It has not promoted a courageous response to the terrorist threat, but rather a hysterical one. It has manipulated the public by stimulating its fears rather than helping it to find a sane, measured, effective response. It has been blind to the facts in the situation as they really are in Iraq, and either willfully or because it is so deluded in believing its own propaganda, it persists in promoting a storyline about Iraq that has very little basis in reality.

This administration needs some tough love, and the best way to provide it is by voting it out of office in November.


Thursday, June 17, 2004

The Reagan Legacy. I've been out of town for the last ten days and thought that somewhere I'd have the time to find a wi-fi spot to at least give some notice that I wouldn't be blogging, but didn't.

I've also been pretty much out of touch with what's going on in the world, so right now I have don't have much to say about anything. But it was impossible to avoid awareness of all the hoopla surrounding the Reagan funeral.

Funerals are mainly for the benefit of loved ones the deceased has left behind. And that this man should be lionized in the way he has been says more about Americans than it says about Reagan. Reagan has for me always symbolized a regressive longing in the American psyche, a desire for a return to a Disneyfied Main Street. And Reagan himself embodied all the personal qualities and charm of a character in a 1950s-era Disney movie.

He represented a fantasy of America as many people wished it could be. There's nothing wrong with trying to imagine a "better" America, but Reagan symbolized an imagination of America that was soaked in false consciousness and nostalgia. It's a nostalgia similar to that felt by the Romantics in the early 19th Century who longed to return to a fantasized medieval world devoid of the complexities and ugliness of the Industrial Revolution. Reagan for all the optimism he radiated, had a fundamentally flawed vision of the American future. He represented then and represents now an imagination of the future that is founded on bad faith because it is fundamentally reality-averse, which is to say, delusional. All the media celebrations of Reagan's life in the last week have been for me a remarkable exercise celebrating Americans' propensity for an aversion to reality.

I don't know whether Reagan was sincere or not in what he presented as his beliefs. I suspect he was. My sense of the man was that he was fundamentally empty and profoundly uninformed, very similar to the current George Bush. As such he is incapable of hypocrisy. He was a man who, it seems to me, was completely identified with his role and played it to the hilt. In doing so he served the interests of forces in American society that are profoundly regressive. I don't find that there is much in that to celebrate.

The best thing I've come across that sums up the Reagan legacy from my point of view is this short article by William Greider, the guy whose interview with David Stockman in the Atlantic Monthly revealed Reaganomics for the sham that it was.


Friday, June 4, 2004

Bully Boy. Something perverse in me always looks forward to Friday when Charles Krauthammer's column comes out. He's an unapologetic militarist whose mission in life is to promote and defend America's global projection of power. His columns and overall style always have about them something of the strutting gamecock. No one is going to push him around. Just let them try.

The one thing I find most annoying about people like Krauthammer is their use of straw men to promote their own arguments. They pick out some idiot with some completely flaky opinion and then contrast that with the sobriety and intelligence of their own. It's a form of intellectual bullyism.

So today's column is very much in that vein. He's lamenting all the Beltway sissies who are all in a panic about how badly things have gone in Iraq. He has only contempt for the defeatism of the chattering classes. Far be it from me to defend the Beltway courtier class for whom I also have little respect. But he doesn't seem to realize why this shift has occurred.

It's not that things have gotten tough and Americans don't have the guts to stay the course, as he seems to think. It's because people are finally catching on that the whole reason for the war was bogus and that it was wrong to go into Iraq in the first place. It's hard for most normal people to feel enthusiastic for a cause that they see as having no legitimacy. Just once I'd like to see CK engage one of the more thoughtful critics of the war, someone he couldn't so easily bully.


Thursday, June 3, 2004

CIA on the Defensive. Get ready for a major GOP offensive against the CIA. Tenet sees it coming, knows he can do nothing about it, and is getting out of the way. The administration and its congressional and media allies are going to do what they can to pin as much blame as possible on the CIA for the way things turned out in Iraq.

Some of it will be deserved, but the real story isn't who did or didn't mess up. It's really about factional infighting within the administration: The forces aligned with the neocons and the Defense Dept. vs. the establishment types at State and CIA. You can be sure that State and CIA will be developing their own counter-offensives.

Tenet played himself out of the game. Rumsfeld plays on, for now. Other players to watch: Cheney as the Valerie Plame thing heats up.The other neocons Wolfowitz, Feith, et al. as the Chalabi investigation progresses. The CIA will have its revenge with both of those issues. Powell, who though wounded from his UN speech, still commands broad respect. He's planting landmines here and there and looks to be otherwise standing on the sidelines waiting for people to step on them to clear the way for him to emerge.


Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Mental Illness. It's interesting that there seems to be universal agreement among conservatives that Al Gore has lost his mind. The evidence? His MoveOn.org speech last week in which he excoriates the Bush administration for its failures in Iraq.

I've been wondering in recent posts about the mental health of those on the right, especially because of their very clear pattern of denial as reflected in poll numbers. The pattern boils down to this: if it doesn't fit into one's preconceived notions about reality, it didn't happen. I think that any form of ideological rigidity, whether on the left or the right, insofar as it promotes this kind of relationship with reality, promotes mental illness. And given that many on the right who are criticizing Gore are afflicted with this rigidity, it's no wonder that they see him as mentally ill. Maybe it could be argued that I'm guilty of the same thing, but only if my view turns out to do a worse job of making sense of the facts.

Very few of those criticizing Gore, though, actually point to what specifically he said that is so crazy. I read through the speech--I didn't hear its delivery--and I didn't read anything that was as out of whack with known facts or just plain weird as much of the rhetoric of the right is. Some of Gore's comments were clearly a matter of opinion, but nothing that isn't fairly standard fare among Bush's critics. But I guess that's just a sign that I must be mentally ill, because the real test of mental illness for those on the right is not whether one's ideas have a plausible relationship to reality, but how far out of synch one's views are with right-wing orthodoxy.

I think that what's really going on here is a struggle to define what "normal reality" is, and following from that what "sanity" is. I think that the savvier strategists on the right see that Gore represents an alternative narrative that connects the dots in a way many people find compelling, and while the dots cannot be denied, the narrative must at all costs be discredited. It's the narrative they care about, not the facts. So Just ridicule him as insane. That way you don't have to deal with the substance of his argument.

It's as if they took a page out of the Soviet playbook. If you were not ideologically or doctrinally sound, the Soviets would just declare you insane and send you to a mental hospital. The goal from start to end in the Soviet totalitarian model was to control everyone's thinking, everyone's understanding about what normal reality is. I think that there is a lot of evidence that right-wing propaganda efforts seek to achieve this effect with manipulable sectors of the American population. But more on that another time.


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