State of the Union

These Girls Are Sad For Now

“You have to watch this show; the first few episodes are the most reactionary critique of sexually liberated Brooklyn possible; it’s a dystopia.”

Paraphrased, that’s what one wise friend told me last year about “Girls,” the HBO series that captured best Comedy Series at the Golden Globes last night, along with a Best Actress nod for its creator, producer, and star Lena Dunham. The show also premiered its second season last night.

The series has become something of a fixation for the overclass. It is our financial crisis era-hipster version of “Sex and the City,” but written by a woman! The boys at Slate are learning to love it. The new editor of Gawker hates it. Good grief, even Esquire has episode recaps now.

The show has been hailed as “revolutionary” but from the opening scenes it has always felt fairly inevitable to me. As it exposes a certain privileged slice of new white transplant life in Brooklyn, I feel like I’ve been observing these characters for a decade. The Girls (now, really, young women) went to Oberlin, I went to Bard. A significant portion of my friends are also new white transplants in Brooklyn with similar ambitions, though they lack access to parental reserves of cash and social capital to construct their lives. But my friends can occasionally overlap with those people in Girls. In some ways, it is a life I might have lived or at least lived around, if I hadn’t self-consciously rejected certain features of it.

There is a self-awareness about the show and its creator that is endearing. Characters utter precious modern truisms in hilariously self-interested and defensive ways. Dunham’s character is portrayed as sexually depraved and worse–kind of creepy–when she visits her hometown in Michigan in one early episode. Dunham was also hammered in some corners of the press for not having more racial diversity in her show. This season her character is dating a black Republican played by Donald Glover. It is a bit of the diversity people asked for mixed with a diversity they didn’t. The world and characters that “Girls” portrays will surely spit him out soon.

“Girls” may be impossible to watch for some people. Dunham is nude in it, frequently. Her on-off boyfriend will utterly repulse anyone with a hint of bourgeois sensibility. It isn’t delicate. It is so obviously partly based on true events, and partly fictionalized. It is difficult to refer to the characters by their fictional names rather than their identities: Dunham, Brian Williams’s daughter, David Mamet’s daughter.

Girls portrays an oddly telescoped kind of life. There are no children. The parents are far away and exist only intermittently. In the latest episode, one character’s mother shows up and talks frankly about sex, disgusting her adult daughter–ground well trod by Noah Baumbach in “Kicking and Screaming.” By comparison I see my in-laws no less than once a week, usually more times than that.

Instead the show is about 20-somethings who live in a world that seems parenthetical to  one with personal inter-generational obligations. The drama consists of the characters making demands of the world and demands of themselves, and failing to be satisfied. As with many of my friends (and myself) they invent and announce codes of ethics and conduct for themselves on the spot. “I’m doing this a different way, I’m not just going to show up on your door in the middle of the night… I’m going to make logical responsible decisions when it comes to you,” one character says.

The oddest thing about the show is that these girls are fascinated–that really is the right word here–by men who have so few qualities. And the fate of these girls is to continue these confusing sexual relationships with badly damaged men, where pantomimed rape fantasies are a feature and a bug, for perhaps a decade. Only then it may become permissible for their social set to start thinking of marriage.

Perhaps I underestimate the trials of my more suburban, married existence in comparison to those of my Brooklyn friends and their stand-ins on this drama. But for a show with the tone of wild celebration in self-discovery, enabled by so much social capital, the ambitions and possibilities for these Girls seem so small and sad, and their 20s seem tragic.

Of course, they’re all famous and will be pretty wealthy soon. So, maybe it is worth it?

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The Primary Challenge

Jonathan Martin at Politico reports on the thinking of some GOP party leaders in Washington. The problem as they see it: competitive primaries.

The intra-party contests, or threat thereof, have become the original sin that explains many of the party’s woes in the minds of GOP leaders. It’s the primaries that push their presidential nominees far to the right (see “self-deportation” and “47 percent”); produce lackluster Senate candidates (Todd Akin has almost become a one-word shorthand); and, as seen most vividly in the last two weeks, dissuade scores of gerrymandered House members from face-saving compromise while politically emasculating their speaker.

What to do about the primaries has become Topic A in many a post-election Republican soul-searching session, and now the first steps are being taken to address the issue. For Senate Republicans, that means a modified return to their 2010 posture of openly playing in primaries. A retiring House Republican is starting a super PAC to help House members challenged from the right. And an RNC commission is mulling over changes to the party’s presidential primary.

The easy response to this is to say that this is just the Establishment trying to rein in the grassroots. It is an excuse to get rid of the infusion of new libertarian-minded officeholders like Justin Amash and Rand Paul. And that is true, if the GOP got much better at “clearing the field” we might have Senator Trey Greyson from Kentucky rather than Paul.

At the same time it is obvious that many of the primary challengers and winners have been dolts and kooks; they have all the vices of the Establishment, but that they have them more intensely. Just because the Establishment was horrified at Christine O’Donnell doesn’t mean that she’d be making principled stands like Paul. Her critique of the party Establishment was simply that it wasn’t partisan enough.

The party wants to clear the decks during primaries because it wants to enjoy the fruits of gerrymandered safe-districts without the associated risks. If it can achieve this we’ll be swiftly returned to the days of Majority Leader Tom Delay. Instead of the odd nut, we’ll have more opportunities for entrenched corruption.

Many of our readers can be confused about what TAC’s aim really is. Sometimes we complain that the GOP isn’t conservative at all. At others we complain that the party is in an ideological straitjacket. In fact, both can be true.

And so the system of gerry-mandered districts and competitive primaries really is a double-edged sword both for the Establishment and for those of us who’d like real conservative reform. At once it allows an opening for more principled and creative minds like Paul, but it also encourages the straitjacket to get tighter elsewhere, when the primary challenger fancies himself “principled” by merely being a more belligerent ideologue.

The presidential primaries have had the same effect. The same mechanism that allowed Ron Paul to build a movement that helped elect a few others like him, also allows Herman Cains and Newt Gingriches to make their speaking fees fatter while fitting the straitjacket on the nominee.

I don’t claim to have a ready-made technical fix for Republican party or one that favors  TAC-friendly reformers. But those who want a sane and sensible conservatism to succeed shouldn’t one-sidedly throw their weight to the populists and the self-interested avatars of the grassroots in order to stick it to the RNC and the Establishment. Having a majority leader like McConnell may be bad, but creating the conditions where Todd Akins and Christine O’Donnells run a future Senate may be worse.

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How Far Are People Willing to Go for Hagel?

Ever since the news came out that former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel may be Obama’s preferred choice to head the Department of Defense, I’ve had difficulty developing what we call a “strong take” on it.

I never exactly warmed to Hagel as a champion of foreign policy realism. What good is this realism if its contribution to the debate is only a set of sad faces and “grave concerns” voiced years after it endorsed the disaster? In the Iraq debacle, Hagel’s function was to eventually embody the troubled conscience of a foreign policy establishment that could no longer ignore its own failures. The absolute best case for Hagel is that he somehow “learned his lesson” and was truly committed to a gradual demilitarization of America’s foreign policy. There are data-points to support this view, but Hagel hasn’t connected them in a speech or a book.

One is tempted to throw in behind him merely to deny the neoconservatives the scalp they so desperately want. Frankly, their campaign against Hagel is shaping up to be more sophisticated than I expected. First they charge that Hagel smells like an anti-Semite. Or they quoted a number of unnamed sources saying he was a jerk. The crudeness of the attack inspired a wave of liberal support for Hagel. Now he is being accused of being too anti-gay in the 1990s. My guess is that liberals will fall silent before this one until Hagel comes out as “evolved” on the issue.

It is pretty dangerous for conservative outlets like the Washington Free Beacon to help make 1990s era pro-gay rights views a litmus test for Cabinet appointments. Presumably that is why no one there was willing to byline that post. They’re inadvertently excluding many of the people that would be most amenable to their views in the next Republican administration.

So how do we feel about the Hagel nomination? Of course it is the nature of things that you embolden a bully by not standing up to him. But letting the outsized and hysterical reaction of neoconservatives dictate my judgement of him seems just as counter-productive. He’s much more important to them than he is to me. I’ll be happy to see them embarrassed if he gets the post. But I don’t see his appointment as changing Obama’s foreign policy for the better. If anything it helps to further entrench a foreign policy establishment that still needs to be chastised.

I’m not going to the wall for Chuck Hagel.

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Reevaluating Huntsman

So Jon Huntsman. How is that going?

He joined No Labels, a group that has no constituency beyond a few elites who dislike partisanship and want “problem-solving” in Washington. I’m reasonably certain this  decision has a lot to do with Huntsman’s personal friendships with people in the group. But the move absolutely makes it seem like he is conforming to a caricature of himself, a jilted moderate in search of a constituency.

He also gave an interview to the Huffington Post and there is a mixed bag in there. He calls for immigration reform, compromise on fiscal issues, and for dismissing the neoconservatives and the GOP’s recent militarism.

Last year TAC gave me the chance to profile him. I spent a decent amount of time following him around New Hampshire and then interviewing him in his D.C. home. I went in to the experience prepared to stick a few journalistic blades in him. Here was a guy who seemed to be badly misreading the mood of the party. He had promised a friendly and respectful campaign against Obama. His media team was making sure that Esquire and Vogue got good access to him. His campaign manager, John Weaver, seemed to have one very counter-intuitive idea in his head: you win New Hampshire and the GOP primary by running your campaign as if it were a blood-vendetta against conservatives. There was that whole to-the-manor-born affect, too.

But as I did my research I was surprised. There was a conservative case for Huntsman–a good one. No, he doesn’t speak in the kind of populist anger that has spread throughout the whole party. But he signed all the pro-life bills that were sent to his desk in Utah. And he had enough clout that he could have made sure they never landed there in the first place. He liberalized gun laws. He lowered taxes. He had a knack for getting good “buy in” on his policies, even shepherding the LDS Church to accept liberalized liquor laws in Utah. He participated in Western state climate talks, but rejected the simplistic and uneconomical “solutions” on offer.

In his talks and in his interviews with me it was clear Huntsman separated himself from the neoconservative consensus. No he wasn’t a non-interventionist, but he emphasized that the future for America was not in Libya or the Middle East, but in the trade routes to Asia. He refused to say much about the Iraq War beyond a politic “no comment.” I leave it open to more uncharitable interpretations. But my thinking was that this answer came at precisely the moment when it was easy for Republicans to say, “The surge worked, and Obama is going to pull us out too quickly.” Although I would have welcomed him to say something more clear about Iraq, giving a much more explicit anti-Iraq War answer to a journalists at TAC would have been perceived as pandering, and probably misread.

Daniel Larison will be quick to remind us of his statements on Iran which seem too hawkish. I think Daniel is right to criticize the statements but I took them as the aberrations of trying to campaign in the GOP primary. You emphasize that all options are on the table for Iran to balance the dovish direction of your criticisms of Obama in Afghanistan. I didn’t love the “nation-building at home” line he used. But I’m not the GOP electorate, am I?

Total it up and you had a realist Republican, with massive and credible foreign policy experience, who was also pro-life and untouched by the pathologies of conservative movement politics. On paper that is the candidate I dreamed of having in the GOP within a two decades of the Iraq War. As an opinion journalist, I guess I felt free to share my high opinion of him. I was probably his most convinced supporter within the conservative press, broadly defined.

To me he looked like a mature choice, not just a howling protest vote. He was self-possessed in a way that I have never once encountered in a major politician. And the substance of his campaign was substantive. He endorsed the Ryan plan as a step toward reforming entitlements (a risky but smart move, in my book). His policy shop came up with a daring plan for financial reform to end the Too Big Too Fail guarantee that is distorting our banking sector and Wall Street.

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Why Can’t Catholics Speak English?

It is an odd thing to go to the Bible section of the few remaining big box booksellers. You can get Bibles in metallic covers with notes directed at randy teenagers. You can get your dispensationalist “Left Behind” style Bibles, with equally appalling notes. You can find Bibles for law enforcement officers, or for nationalists seeking prophecies about America in the book of Daniel.

More seriously you can lose yourself in debates about translation style. “Formal equivalence” seeks to translate the Scriptures word for word and gives you phrases that can seem obscure. What is it to “cover his nakedness?” On the other side “dynamic equivalence” tries to go thought for thought but will usually desecrate Genesis with Clintonian phrasings like “have sexual relations with.”

But if you are an earnest Protestant you can junk all the cruft and debates, buy unbotched versions of the New American Standard or the English Standard Version and encounter the word of God. And there is always the King James.

What you can’t find is a good Catholic Bible in English. Well, let me explain.

When it comes to novels, journalism, and apologetics, modern English-speaking Catholics really have fielded an A-team over the last century. Hilaire Belloc, Flannery O’Connor, Muriel Spark and many others you’d name; we’ve done well. But I’ve often wondered, centuries after Trent and decades after Vatican II, whether I’ve encountered the faith in the vernacular either in the liturgy or in Scripture. Let’s review the options.

There is the New American Bible. This is an insipid translation overseen by the bishops according to the same rules that govern modern liturgy. Usually it is accompanied by baldly heretical study notes. The NAB privileges clarity in the way police reports do: it gives you a vague idea about the dead described therein, while working hard to cover the ass of the writer. The modern euthanized liturgy deserves a Bible this Xanaxed.

My fellow Latin-chanting Traditionalists urge on me the Douay Rheims, an English translation that beat the King James to print by three years. The Douay is based on St. Jerome’s Vulgate which in turn, they presume, was based on better manuscripts than we have today. In truth the DR is a Latin text cross-dressing as English. And a bad English get-up at that. Look at Hebrews 13:4 “Marriage honourable in all, and the bed undefiled. For fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” Couldn’t be bothered to work a verb in there, I guess.  These clangers, and much worse, run side-by-side with the Latin in the hand missals of traditionalist Catholics. They spoil our prayerbooks.

The mainstream option for believing Catholics is found in the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition, which is descended from the King James, but adds a few Romish flourishes like “Hail Mary, full of grace” in Luke. Like the NAS and other “formal equivalence” translations it has a kind of dignity and is usefully accurate. But I find it unmemorable and unexciting. You wouldn’t read it but for an intense feeling of religious duty to do so.

Enter Baronius Press, an English publisher heretofore firmly in the Douay camp. They’ve just reprinted the Knox Version of the 1940s, a “dynamic equivalence” translation produced by English Catholic litterateur and apologist Fr. Ronald Knox. This witty priest was asked to to complete the task that never was successfully forced on Cardinal Newman, though many tried.

Knox wanted his translation to be useful for approximately two centuries; it barely made it twenty years. Although it gained a wide readership and liturgical approval in the 1950s, the upheaval of the Church in the 1960s and 70s made Knox into a premature relic. But it is very useful for precisely this reason. He worked from the Vulgate but corrected with the Hebrew and Greek. He wanted a version that was 1) accurate 2) intelligible and 3) readable. And it was the last point that really exercised him.

In his series of short essays “On Englishing The Bible” helpfully packaged together with this edition, Knox explains, “We are in an odd situation. Nobody reads the Bible; popes and bishops are always telling us we ought to read the Bible and when you produce a translation of the Bible, the only thing people complain about is your rendering of the diminutive snippets that are read out in church on Sundays. ‘Of course,’ they add, ‘the book is all right for private reading’–in a tone which implies that such a practice is both rare and unimportant.”

Too right. Judging a Bible translation, particularly a “dynamic equivalence one,” the reader will jump immediately to their favorite passages and dismiss Knox instantly. In truth I’m a little uneasy with his Prologue to John’s Gospel, “He abode, at the beginning of time, with God.” But I adore Knox’s Psalms: “He gives me a resting-place where there is green pasture, leads me out to the cool water’s brink, refreshed and content.” Until finding Knox, I had assumed all dynamic translations of Scripture were semi-literate gimmicks, that they were necessarily unfaithful to text.

Instead of finding English word equivalents Knox asks “How would an Englishman say this?” Unlike committees which often make silly pre-fab decisions to always translate Greek word with English word y, Knox transposes the idioms, the formality, and tone.  And while it may seem like a silly thing to say, Knox is actually fluent in English the way few other translators seem to be. He understands slang as well as poetry. This allows him to remain much more faithful to the original and to English simultaneously. The results can be sumptuous. Consider Lamentations 2:18 “Round those inviolable defenses, cry they upon the Lord in good earnest. Day and night, Sion, let thy tears stream down; never rest thou, never let that eye weary of its task.” Prophetic and ancient-sounding as the text demands, but also recognizably English.

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The Party of Big Business

National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru has one of the better election post-mortems out there, and I think it ties into some of the themes running through my piece earlier this week on how to understand Patrick J. Buchanan’s political thinking and career.

After running through a compendium of indicators that the GOP has become a weak party (lost popular vote in five of six presidential elections, never achieves a hold on the Senate, etc), Ponnuru comes to the point that the upheaval of the late ’60s that tilted so many Southerners and ethnic Catholics into the GOP’s presidential coalition never resulted in these middle-class and working-class white voters trusting the GOP with their economic interests.

What they did not do is make the Republicans the party of middle-class economic interests. Most Americans associated the party with big business and the country club, and did not agree with its impulses on the minimum wage, entitlement programs, and other forms of government activism designed to protect ordinary people from cold markets. Americans came to be skeptical of government activism mainly when they thought it was undermining middle-class values (as they thought welfare undermined the work ethic). And even when voters thought Republicans were better managers of the economy in general, they thought the GOP looked out for the rich rather than the common man.

Precisely. While the GOP successfully internalized the cultural backlash of the 1960s, they never actually adopted the economic interests of this social base. And that is why it seemed so tin-eared to appeal to this base at the 2012 GOP convention as if they were all heroic entrepreneurs held back by government red-tape.

Wrong. Most of the GOP base are people that look for employment as a means to providing for a family. They see their economic interests threatened by Republicans who want to expose their retirements to the stock market, who want them to pay for their health-care out of their take home wages, who give massive bailouts to connected corporate interests, while singing about self-reliance to the working man. Social issues and the Great Society pushed enormous blocs of the New Deal coalition into the GOP. Eventually this transformation of the party transformed some of the people in it. The GOP used to be in league with family planners and the birth control movement, now it is mostly pro-life. But weirdly even as this new coalition changed the GOP on social issues, the party remained fixed to its 1930s style anti-New Dealism.

Now Ponnuru has disagreed (to put it mildly) with the remedies that Buchanan recommended in the 1990s. But it was impossible to read Ponnuru’s post-election analysis and not think of the 1992 Republican convention in which the bulk of Buchanan’s speech was about reconnecting with “conservatives of the heart,” the middle-class people who formed the New Majority. This would be the first of the six elections that Republicans would be unable to win a popular vote. After describing factory workers threatened by globalization, and a secretary who recently lost her job, Buchanan said:

My friends, these people are our people. They don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but they come from the same schoolyards and the same playgrounds and towns as we came from. They share our beliefs and our convictions, our hopes and our dreams. These are the conservatives of the heart. They are our people. And we need to reconnect with them. We need to let them know we know how bad they’re hurting. They don’t expect miracles of us, but they need to know we care.

As Ponnuru points out, the overwhelming majority of voters say that Republican candidates do not understand people like them. Republicans made fun of Clinton for saying “I feel your pain” about the recession of the early 90s. Well, it worked. So too did George W. Bush’s protest that he was a “compassionate conservative,” although many movement conservatives absolutely hated this rhetorical concession to the fact that average people think of conservatives as ugly frat boys, wild ideologues, and aloof country clubbers.

I am actually surprised Republicans aren’t faring worse. When Republicans are asked how they will create jobs, they reference to-be-signed free trade agreements with South American nations. What does that mean to working-class whites in Ohio, people who might be uncomfortable with Sherrod Brown’s social positions but who voted for him anyway? Does anyone out there seriously hear about a free-trade agreement with Colombia and think “That’ll help us.”

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Mind of the New Majority

Patrick Buchanan working as an aide to Richard Nixon in 1969
Patrick Buchanan working as an aide to Richard Nixon in 1969

Patrick J. Buchanan stood beside a window in Chicago’s Conrad Hilton hotel during the 1968 Democratic convention and looked over the panorama of dissent raging below. At about two in the morning, the phone rang—it was Nixon. “Buchanan, what is happening there?”

“I said, ‘Listen’,” Buchanan recalls, then pantomimes how he stuck the phone out the hotel window. “All you could hear was ‘F-you Daley! F-you Daley!’”

“That’s what’s going on,” he told Nixon, and hung up. He smiled taking it in.

Later the police, tired of the verbal abuse being hurled at them, charged into the park and at the protestors, looking for a brawl. “The cops shouldn’t have done it,” says Buchanan, remembering the savage way they beat the demonstrators. “But the country saw the pictures of cops racing into the park. And the country was with the cops.”

The continental plates of America’s politics were grinding into new positions beneath Buchanan’s feet. That shift tilted ethnic whites and eventually Southern evangelicals into the Republican coalition, awarding the party five of the next six presidential elections, including two 49-state victories. In a phrase crafted by Buchanan, Nixon called it “the great silent majority.” Buchanan prefers to call it the New Majority.

In the generalizations of political history, Buchanan—as a wordsmith and veteran of two Republican White Houses—is lumped with the broad postwar conservative movement. Since the Cold War ended and that movement degenerated into a set of interlocking cliques, he has been identified more finely as a “paleoconservative.” The man who wrote incendiary editorials on Goldwater’s behalf for the St. Louis Globe Democrat, who attends Latin Mass regularly, and who injected the term “culture war” into the heart of political discourse is certainly a conservative. But that label is incomplete.

In media, he is the pioneer pundit. Sean Hannity and scores of others from all political backgrounds learned the trade from him. His three-hour radio show with Tom Braden evolved into a television program and later spawned “Crossfire” and “The McLaughlin Group.” But few other columnists or talking heads match his depth. If a cable news program is on in the background and you hear the words “Agincourt” or “the snows of Canossa,” it is Buchanan, inevitably, speaking them.

But he is not just a media figure, either. In that time of tumult before the 1968 election, National Review publisher Bill Rusher asked Pat, “Are you Nixon’s ambassador to the conservatives, or are you our ambassador to Nixon?” He replied, “I’m Nixon’s.” As a journalist, political operative, candidate, and thinker, Buchanan is above all a man of Nixon’s New Majority—something much broader and larger than the conservative movement has ever been.

He never captained that majority as a politician himself, though he aspired to in his campaigns for the presidency. But along the way Buchanan built a surprisingly durable estate as a journalist and author, defending the New Majority’s interests and cajoling Republicans to reconnect with them. On the one hand, his columns have the same energy and fire as once characterized reactionary luminaries like Westbrook Pegler at their anti-FDR finest—all joyous tub-thumping on behalf of Middle America, giving the impression of the merry warrior. In those columns, liberals are sparring partners, foils, and fools.

On the other hand, there is an elegiac quality to many of Buchanan’s books, which now fill an entire shelf. Although the books may be pegged to the political battles of the time they were published, when Buchanan writes between hard covers the spirit of German philosopher Oswald Spengler and American anti-communist James Burnham is in the work: Western civilization is exhausted, suicidal, and dying. Liberalism, now in the forms of multiculturalism, mass immigration, deindustrialization, and the sexual revolution, is the philosophy that justifies and celebrates the end of Western civilization.

If ever that seems overwrought, consider that the American culture he knew had been utterly erased. When explaining it himself, Buchanan points to the year his father was born, 1905. “Then the Western powers, the United States, and Japan ruled the whole world. Now all the empires are gone. The great armies and navies are gone. The countries have been reduced to their basic size, their birthrates beneath what is necessary to reproduce themselves, and they are subject to invasions of various kinds from the subjects of their former empires,” he says.

For Buchanan, the cultural changes are just as dramatic and unsettling. In his biography Right From The Beginning he recalls times in the 1960s when one of his brothers dumped stacks of Playboy he was supposed to deliver around Washington, D.C. into the dumpster. Another set a rack of girlie magazines on fire in a local store. This was commended by the their family and community as “Catholic action” in society. Half a century later, porn star Jenna Jameson is widely hailed as an entrepreneur and enthusiastically endorses the Republican candidate for president.

It wasn’t always clear to Buchanan that he would become a writer. He didn’t want to be an accountant like his father, nor enter the priesthood. But his father had versed him in what Buchanan calls all the “old conservative issues,” such as how America got into the Spanish-American War and World War I. On Saturdays at his father’s accounting office, the young Pat Buchanan read the anticommunist wordsmiths of his day, Westbrook Pegler and George Sokolsky. Both held flaming pens, revolted against the New Deal, supported Joe McCarthy, and wanted Robert A. Taft over Dwight Eisenhower as leader and symbol of the Republican Party. Although Pegler would later go to such extremes that even the John Birch Society threw him out, he was once so prominent that he was considered along with F.D.R. and Stalin for Time’s Man of the Year in 1942. These were conservatives before the conservative movement.

Their influence is still seen in the way Buchanan writes a column. Unlike the clever interludes of David Brooks or the verbal curlicues of Peggy Noonan that feel like being wrapped in a down blanket, a Buchanan column is like being doused with gasoline and threatened with a lit match. “I don’t know that it is a style,” he says on reflection, “I write and I cut, tightening and tightening and tightening it until it is pure dynamite, and then I send it out.” The “New Journalism” of the 1960s was almost insensible to him: “They were all into the perpendicular pronoun, ‘I’ and ‘me’. I don’t get into that,” he says.

Out of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Buchanan had a few offers. He took one from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, hoping to be seen by the Chicago Tribune and other major newspapers. Very quickly he ended up as an editorial writer for the conservative paper, and Buchanan’s short-fuse, big-bang editorials were recirculated by Human Events and the Manchester Union Leader. He wrote against unions and for Barry Goldwater—but also in favor of reforming Missouri’s penitentiary system. He edited columns by new conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr., whom he admired but from a distance.

After a few years, he wanted to get closer to the action—to be in politics. Running for office made no sense, as he was a Washington, D.C. native. So he looked at how well Jack Kennedy’s aides were doing, especially Ted Sorenson, whom Kennedy had called his “blood bank intellectual.”

“You’d see these pictures of this guy leaning over behind the president,” Buchanan says. “If I can’t be the president I could be the guy leaning over there.”

The man Buchanan cared to lean over was Richard Nixon, whom Buchanan successfully impressed at a party, mentioning that he wanted to be a part of whatever Nixon did in 1968. Nixon hired him to help with correspondence and other writing, but mainly they shared ideas and analysis, with Buchanan summarizing and interpreting the news and the mood of the country or working as an advance man.

What was happening in the country was obvious to them. The New Deal coalition that had been so powerful was cracking up. Ethnic whites and Southern evangelicals balked at the Great Society of Johnson and were disturbed by the social transformations around them. While many in the elite were sympathetic to student protestors, that Silent Majority feared and detested them. “Like FDR did with the malefactors of great wealth and the Wall Street crowd, you say that these people have declared themselves hostile to us. And by 1968 they were carrying flags and chanting ‘Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh’,” Buchanan recalls. Beating the left was easy then.

After the Nixon White House melted in scandal, Buchanan became the chief theorist of Nixon’s coalition, in his books Conservative Votes, Liberal Victories and The New Majority, which talked up the possibilities of realignment. To Buchanan, Republicans could become the party of Middle America, capture the bulk of the New Deal coalition, and leave Democrats with the detritus of Woodstock. “We were squares,” says Buchanan, “and happy.”

The thesis of Conservative Votes struck a chord that rings true to Buchanan even today. “We get our folks out and organized, we tell them what is going to be done, and they vote and go home,” he says. “But the forces in the city, and the forces in [Capitol] Hill, they don’t change and they work every day at maintaining what they want in terms of policy, so it becomes impossible to prevail.” Conservative votes could grant electoral victories, but the institutions of academia, the media, and the think-tank world were against them.

Buchanan never signed up to be in the conservative klatsch. The movement frankly bored him even as he was trying to bring it into the Nixon fold. “I was never in that,” he says now, recalling all the little organizations like Young Americans for Freedom or the Liberty Society. “In the conservative movement there is all this talking and meeting. I viewed a lot of it as just a waste of time. I learn more when I’m reading.”

He liked many of National Review’s writers, to be sure. But when Garry Wills asked him if they had any influence, he could recall none. “I was going to say Burnham, but when I read Suicide of the West I already agreed with it,”  Buchanan says before quoting Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, “The heart has reasons that reason does not understand.” Years later he would tell the 1992 Republican convention that the party needed to reconnect with people who don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but who remain “conservatives of the heart.” He could have been referring to a less tutored version of himself.

Unlike nearly every other self-consciously conservative writer in his time, Buchanan was unimpressed with political doctrine by itself. Ideological catechisms were only useful in defending the things you already knew you loved. This might explain how easily he threw away right-wing dogmas if he felt they at all threatened his country or the interests of the New Majority. In the course of his interview with TAC, Buchanan reminded me of the things he used to think: “Of course I admired Churchill,” “I was a militant Zionist,” “I was a free-trader.”

After the Nixon years, Buchanan needed to make a living and so he returned to column writing, eventually getting picked up by the New York Daily News.  By the early ’80s he was doing three hours of radio an afternoon with Braden, followed by a television show. Then came “Crossfire” and “The McLaughlin Group.” And eventually, in 1985, a return trip to the White House as Reagan’s communications director, overseeing the speechwriters and writing a few speeches himself.

As he left the Reagan White House, Buchanan released his biography Right From the Beginning, which presented the story of Northwest D.C., Blessed Sacrament parish, and Gonzaga high school in the 1940s and ’50s as something just outside of Eden. Unlike so many others, Buchanan was not a convert to his faith or a political cause. In the book his family, schools, parish, and neighborhood are the crucible that form his character, tough but well loved. They gave him an education of the heart and the head.

But at the end of the biography, Buchanan suddenly opens onto the rest of the world with a chapter, “Democracy Is Not Enough,” which insists that the form of government matters not if America loses the ethos and culture in which he grew up. He proposes ten amendments for a new constitutional convention, beginning with placing the unborn under the protection of the law and preserving the right of states to impose the death penalty; he goes on to include a federal balanced budget requirement. These were “populist amendments,” Buchanan wrote, “designed to broaden the scope of human rights and restore the power of the people to shape their own society and destiny. They would diminish the power of unelected judges and enhance that of elected officials.”  He reiterates that a constitutional convention would “reveal which of the two parties is populist, and which elitist.” For Buchanan, it was time to unleash the New Majority once more.

 

But his 1992 run for president and subsequent campaigns in 1996 and 2000 showed that if the New Majority still exists, Buchanan was not the one to lead it—although there were flashes of the prophetic author to come. In his speech to the Republican convention in Houston, Buchanan defined the culture war: for him, the culture was something more than the social issues, such as abortion, that would be talked up in a more pious way by Pat Robertson and Marilyn Quayle—culture was rather a nexus of society, authority, and institutions. His concluding image of cultural victory was the same that he’d seen motivate the New Majority in ’68—in this case, a scene of cops defending a convalescent home from rioters in Los Angeles.  In those flames, the National Guard deployed—“force, rooted in justice, backed by courage”—and took the city back block by block.

In recent years another GOP troublemaker, Ron Paul, has used his bids for the party’s presidential nomination to develop institutions to carry on his ideas and even to elect a small cadre of young members of Congress. Buchanan did not do anything quite like that after the 1992 campaign. He maintained a very small organization, but it was merely the ’96 campaign in waiting. “I went up one time [to Capitol Hill] and talked to a congressman for forty minutes about trade and what it is doing to this country. He told me ‘Pat you make a convincing case. But leadership tells me we have to vote for this.’” Buchanan recalls. “I thought, ‘I’m not wasting my time with this.’”

“Did we make an effort? I have to say no. Maybe that is a failing. It is a failing of not being an officeholder. I’m not a politician really.” Some called for Buchanan to run for the Senate in Virginia, but he had no taste for the Hill. “I don’t know if I would have even lasted. There is an intellectual sterility to all this. You go to meetings and there is all this talking and babbling. It’s not in me.”

Buchanan had sensed that after the Cold War there would inevitably be a fight over foreign policy and to define the right. “It was an epochal event in history, and it seemed like it called for a little fresh thought,” he says, laughing. But after 20 years of that debate there is almost a sense of exasperation when he talks about America’s dependents in Europe and Asia—“It’s been two thirds of a century fellas, get over it”—or when Republican candidates rattle the drums about Russia: “The country has lost a third of its size, and will lose another 25 million more people, and the Far East. They are in a difficult position but they are not a threat to the United States. C’mon.”

But if the debate is to be joined, Buchanan will join it. He wrote a massive volume on the history of U.S. trade and foreign policy that would eventually be split into two different books. The first, The Great Betrayal, remains one of Buchanan’s favorites. The subtitle says everything about the ideological heresy Buchanan was committing to paper: “How American Sovereignty and Social Justice Are Being Sacrificed to the Gods of the Global Economy.”

In a sympathetic review, Peter Brimelow warned, “It is hard to read this book without wincing in anticipation of the carnage” that free traders would inflict on it. And libertarians did tear into it. Cato’s Brink Lindsay thought the book was smart politics but “shameful demagoguery.” To Lindsay, Buchanan was trying to argue at the same time that protectionism was historically consistent with American prosperity—that it was economically efficient—while at the same time arguing that we are not homo economicus, that the efficiency of the global market was a threat to the American way of life. These arguments were largely lost on the public because the book was announced right as the Lewinsky scandal erupted. Buchanan was put before reporters as the author of a new book on trade, but was asked questions about a blue dress.

Because the policy establishment in Washington is so set on free trade, Buchanan’s book remains one of the few popular historical works about trade policy published in the last half century. And Buchanan really did land crushing blows in his book. When politicians say that it doesn’t matter whether America makes potato chips or computer chips, Buchanan helpfully reminds us that potato chips don’t power smart missiles. Tariffs are not some profanation of the economic gods, as the hysterical reaction of the ideologues suggests, they are a tax policy with economic consequences similar to those of other taxes, like those on income or investment. Policies have beneficiaries, and Buchanan saw that America’s elite seemed to benefit from free trade and mass immigration while the core of the New Majority did not. “Sure you get cheap goods down at Wal-Mart,” Buchanan says now, “but they used to tell me that tennis shoes were cheap. They’re not so cheap anymore.”

The second half of his historical opus, A Republic, Not An Empire, toured the history of America’s expansion to continental proportions but warned against remaining an aggressive power beyond those borders. An obsession with saving the Third World, an attachment to outdated Cold War alliances, and an addiction to conflict were for Buchanan the signs of decay and inner weakness at America’s core.

The reaction to the book neatly foreshadowed the foreign-policy debates that would come after 9/11 and ahead of the second Iraq War. On one side were those like Christopher Hitchens who claimed that Buchanan had written a tract of “Catholic fundamentalism” and who repurposed the Know-Nothing language of Americanism to denounce it. To his immediate right were the Weekly Standard and the other partisans of America’s unipolar moment, variously accusing Buchanan of being a soft-hearted liberal, a Nazi sympathizer, and an ultramontane reactionary. Alongside Buchanan were a stalwart group of libertarian noninterventionists and a few admiring missives from The Nation and other left-liberals.

 

Buchanan would return to these themes in his books over the next decade. Where the Right Went Wrong expanded his charge on foreign policy by adding a distilled brief against neoconservatism. “They are imposters and opportunists,” he concluded. State of Emergency focused on mass immigration, but rather than emphasize as Lou Dobbs and other restrictionists did the way in which it lowered the wages of American workers, Buchanan’s view seemed more informed by the downfall of Rome. The presence of enormous blocks of foreigners meant decomposition for the host nation, or at least cleavage along lines of color, class, and language. Day of Recokoning returned to all these topics, updating them with the latest grim statistics. With these volumes, Buchanan surpassed the anti-New Dealers like Pegler who so inspired him, but who left few books to give us the flavor of the day.

And Buchanan went far beyond the pundits of his own day in his 2002 book Death of The West. There he put journalistic heft behind the decades-old intuitions of Oswald Spengler and James Burnham. United Nations population statistics coming in at the close of the 20th century demonstrated what they had sensed, that Western civilization itself was contracting. The Western powers, and Japan with them, were losing population and bound to shrink radically. They had not just given up their navies, they had given up on posterity altogether.

Buchanan’s title echoed Spengler’s Decline of the West, in which the German had theorized that civilizations have a predictable life cycle analogous to the seasons. In winter, democracy becomes the form of government, religion curdles into materialism, and the wealthy plunder their empire while fetishizing the barbarians beyond their borders. Burnham had similar intuitions in Suicide of the West—for him, liberalism wasn’t the cause of Western contraction, which had more to do with loss of religion, but it was the “typical verbal systematization of the process of Western contraction and withdrawal; liberalism motivates and justifies the contraction, and reconciles us to it.”

Buchanan indicted liberalism for just that. Western nations had lost their Christian faith; their nationalistic myths had been revised and were now objects of scorn to native and immigrant alike. With nothing to pass on but material comforts, Western people were no longer investing their capital and energies into posterity, they were enjoying their wealth today. There is a jagged edge at the bottom of such a thesis: for Spengler, the only power strong enough to overthrow the worship of money is blood and tribe.

Buchanan’s thesis was first denounced, then imitated—sometimes by the same individuals. Christopher Caldwell of the Weekly Standard initially criticized the “demographic alarum” in Death of the West. Less than a decade later, he would reiterate most of Buchanan’s themes in his own Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, which documented the demographic and cultural retreat of the continent’s old civilization in the face of a rising, intolerant Islam. The vehicle of this retreat was the same liberal and multicultural ideology that Buchanan—as well as Burnham, and more vaguely Spengler—had also condemned.

Death of the West was Buchanan’s biggest commercial success, an odd thing for such a gloomy book released on the heels of a 2000 presidential run that even some of Buchanan’s closest supporters would rather forget. But the Internet had returned political commentary to the days of Pegler and others firebrands, away from the prim editorializing of Maureen Dowd and David Brooks. “I have to credit Matt Drudge,” says Buchanan, with sincerity. As people watched their College Bowl Games, Drudge made Buchanan’s book his banner headline—“‘End of the World,’ says Buchanan.” Death of the West would be a 12-week New York Times bestseller. It was number 2 on Amazon.com before Buchanan had done his first television interview.

Buchanan is fondest of the books that were worst reviewed, and so it is no surprise that one of his dearest is Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War.” He would stay up late reading new histories of the two great wars, find a paragraph that electrified him, then take to his computer to type a few pages, before returning to bed at 3 a.m. or later “to sleep like a baby.” Although reviews pummeled Buchanan for going back to World War II revisionism, the book’s thesis is something that fits into the broader theme of Buchanan’s work: not a reappraisal of fascism, but a despair over the civilization that formed us all which has been grievously, perhaps fatally, wounded by Europe’s two-act war.

In the opening pages, Buchanan uses lines from Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias” to sum up the state of the world as the West’s empires collapsed: “Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away.” The book’s thesis had nothing to do with rehabilitating Hitler; it was about re-examining Churchill and finding out why the West was dying, why it had adopted ideologies of contraction and suicide. Spengler had attributed dissolution to a natural life cycle, Burnham to loss of faith. More jejune conservatives blamed decay on rival political parties, on improper “ideas” that have bad consequences, or subtle changes in philosophy. Buchanan blames war.

For it was the war begun in 1914 and the Paris peace conference of 1919 that destroyed the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires, and ushered onto the world stage Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. And it was the war begun in September 1939 that led to the slaughter of the Jews and tens of millions of Christians, the devastation of Europe, the Stalinization of half the continent, the fall of China to Maoist madness, and half a century of Cold War.

It is a thesis fit for a graduate of a Jesuit school: God curses murderers, and the men of the West spent the 20th century destroying each other with mustard gas, fire-bombs, gas chambers, and a splitting atom. The empires most responsible lost not just their navies and vassal states, they lost their will even to remain distinct nations. Their elites are all globalists.

Buchanan brought that same thesis home in Suicide of a Superpower. Provocatively, he opens his most recent book by comparing the United States to the Soviet Union. Like our Cold War foe, we are now a nation committed to a worldwide ideological revolution; we are an overstretched empire abroad and a nation with simmering class and racial anxieties at home, with no shared faith, history, or heroes. Can whatever is left of the nation survive even to 2025? “When I was young we had ferocious battles over politics, over Joe McCarthy being invited to the parish,” Buchanan says, “but after those ended we all believed the same things, had the same faith, revered the same men. It was one culture.”

And now?

Buchanan is returning in his writing to the time of the realignment, putting together a book on the years he spent with Nixon. “He was like a father to me for three years, and I want to introduce him to a generation and maybe two generations that never knew the guy,” says Buchanan. “He was not a bad man. He was a very good man and in a lot of ways,  but he had these damn hangups.” The prospect of Buchanan writing a Nixon book is tantalizing to a large cadre of Nixonologists. Buchanan had been by the old man’s side during his rise to the highest office, and then at the downfall, testifying for five and a half hours before the Watergate committee. “I remember in March 1973, I was having lunch with Frank Rizzo [mayor of Philadelphia], and it was the day that [James] McCord said higher-ups were involved,” Buchanan recalls. Rizzo replied, “Why don’t you catch Teddy Kennedy in his underpants?” Buchanan shot back: “I think that may have been what we were trying to do.”

In a very real sense, the emergence of the New Majority that so excited and indeed defined Buchanan as a political thinker—and that made Republican victories so easy—turned out to be a sign of a fatal illness in the body of the Republic. The common faith had been broken. On one side was the New Majority, too silent and too preoccupied to combat what Burnham would have called the New Class of academics, media professionals, think tankers, and political machines. They were the other side, and they found their mandate for power in the ideology of liberalism.

This is why in the shelf of books Buchanan has written he slides so easily from defending the interests of the New Majority to warning of the death of civilization altogether, from Pegler to Spengler in the space of a paragraph. For Buchanan, the New Majority is the only force capable of preserving and passing on the traditions of the West in America as Buchanan knew them growing up. This is why he stands between the tub-thumping columnists for Middle America and the great declinists of the 20th century. Buchanan wants to communicate to his Middle American audience that the stakes are as great as intellectuals claimed. At the same time, Buchanan is a realist who recognizes that the declining ranks of the New Majority were never capable of carrying the full weight of the West.

“How do you bring us together culturally?,” he asks, then answers himself, “You don’t need Pat Buchanan, you need St. Paul.” It is a self-awareness rare in men who have run for president three times: “Look, I’m a right-wing troublemaker from Northwest that likes poetry.”

Michael Brendan Dougherty is TAC’s national correspondent.

A More Diverse GOP

As I said in my post election wrap-up, I don’t think the primary problem for the Republican Party is that it isn’t “reaching” enough voters. The problem is that voters are rejecting the party and its ideology.

I’m not a political strategist or coalition-builder, but I’ve been hearing a lot of nonsense about how the GOP can revive itself.

My first thought is this: don’t panic or freak out. The Democrats lost two 49-state landslides not all that long ago, and they survived. The GOP was competitive in the popular vote, even with a candidate who was always going to be a tough sell during a recession. The GOP is also still recovering from a disastrous presidency of its own. Even if the Democrats are building a majority coalition, it is such a diverse coalition that it may tend toward instability.

There are two prevalent ideas on how to revive the GOP, and they conflict with each other. The first is that the GOP needs to ditch its own base of voters and reject social conservatism, to become a party that is about fiscal responsibility. That’s less a strategy of addition by subtraction than outright subtraction by subtraction.

Younger voters tend to be slightly more pro-life than older ones. But they are massively more in favor of gay marriage. I expect there will be some adjustment on these issues from the GOP, but the first priority should be to train its politicians not to sound like idiots when talking about them. Evangelicals and conservative religious people of all types (even Muslims) are natural constituents for a conservative party. Telling them to drop dead isn’t going to help you build a majority.There are not enough country clubs to elect a president. Further, the people advising you to tell social cons to buzz off also hate your other policies.

The second idea is that somehow Republicans need to become the party of mass Hispanic immigration. And that they can attract Hispanic voters with their family values messaging (You know, the same thing they have to ditch because of younger voters.) This is a complete dead end. Read More…

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It’s Over; The Republican Party Hasn’t Recovered From Bush

As I write, Barack Obama has been declared the winner of the 2012 election. He will compile an impressive victory in the Electoral College. By my projections at least a 313-213 victory. And it could be larger than that when Florida and Ohio are finally counted. But Romney made a respectable showing in the popular vote, one that would have been surprising before the first debate made a Republican comeback victory seem temporarily possible.

We’ve already gone over the reasons Romney lost. The Republican coalition is shriveling, the Democrats are growing. Romney was an unliked nominee who failed to compete for the very voters that powered Republicans to re-take the House in 2010.  I think he is an admirable guy in some ways, but harnessing the passions of the GOP and riding them into the White House was a task beyond the abilities of the hyper-competent, hard-working moderate.

It’s a bad night for social conservatives, in fact it is almost a complete reversal of 2004. Same sex marriage won on the ballot in Maryland and Maine. Obama did not really propose anything new on the economy or foreign policy fronts, but he did make contraception, rape, and Roe v. Wade a large part of this campaign. He constantly portrayed Romney as a man with “the social policies of the 1950s.” Apparently this worked. If there is one thought that comforts me (and perhaps some readers), it is that the chances of courts striking down the “contraceptive mandate” that impinges on religious freedom seem very good. However, Obama’s second term will mean that a future American judiciary may be more open to that sort of thing.

Because changing demographics are such a huge part of Obama’s formula, it is going to cause Republicans to discuss how they can attract a more diverse pool of voters. Inevitably this will focus on Hispanics. I expect tonight’s results will be used as an argument for automatically nominating Florida Senator Marco Rubio for 2016.

But in reality the more pressing problem is that Republicans are still a party badly damaged by the George W. Bush years. The GOP has traditionally held huge advantages on foreign policy and the economy. That advantage is gone now. And Mitt Romney was the wrong candidate to give the party a refresh on those issues, particularly when the gettable voters were downscale whites. It isn’t that Republicans aren’t reaching enough voters; voters simply don’t believe the GOP is competent to govern.

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The Encouraging Sign For Romney

I may have pre-written the post-mortem on the Romney campaign, but I thought I’d point to the one sign that he is going to be okay.

So far, Romney is performing well in Prince William County and other Northern Virginia exurbs beyond Fairfax county. These are the kind of voters Romney is going to need to win in Ohio, Florida, Colorado and (potentially) Wisconsin to win the election.

UPDATE 9:50 PM Eastern: But it looks like it is not enough. Romney needs to win an absolute squeaker in Florida. And he needs Ohio.

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How to Explain Romney’s Loss to Shocked Conservatives

If Romney loses tonight, there are going to be a lot of shocked Republicans and conservatives. If you’re a reader of the Greek New Testament (and who isn’t?) the appropriate word is “skandalon.” Such a result will be a “scandal” or a “stumbling block” to your friends who were sure that good Ohioans would vote for Mitt Romney and that this Nate Silver guy at the New York Times was cooking the books on the polls, along with the rest of the media.

Conservatives will say, with some good reason, that unemployment is unacceptably high. Obama didn’t bring hope or change. And there is no way all those flaky college kids and minority voters could be excited enough to show up to the polls this year. So how did this happen?

Here are some things to remind them:

Lots of Republican voters died, and lots of Democratic voters came into being: The winning modern Republican coalition goes back to Richard Nixon. It includes lots of white ethnic Catholics, Southern Evangelicals, and the odd country clubbers. This coalition is much older and whiter than the America that is rapidly coming into being. About two and half million Americans die every year. That means something like 10 million Americans died since 2008. More of them would be Republican voters than not. And at the same time, younger voters are much more likely to take President Obama’s side on the culture war. They are more likely to be non-white and secular. About 16.8 million Americans turned 18 between the last election and this one. So, yes, Democratic enthusiasm may be dampened, but demographic changes make it easier for Democrats to turn out the same number of voters year after year.

Romney could not take advantage of Obama’s weaknesses with the working class: Since his primary run in 2007 and 2008, it has been obvious that Barack Obama has distinct problems with white working class voters. Republicans gained congressional seats from Scranton to Des Moines in 2010, the exact area where Romney needed to do well. But Mitt Romney was almost exactly the wrong kind of Republican to reach out to these voters. He looks like upper management, the guys that get bonuses for laying you off. In fact, Obama successfully painted him as just such a vulture capitalist in these states. Romney’s “47 percent” remarks also demonstrated that he has no natural feeling of solidarity for “working Joes.” Meanwhile, Obama had been making amends with this group of voters by claiming to have saved the American auto industry, and portraying Mitt as the man who wanted to destroy it. When Mike Huckabee said Mitt looked like the guy that fired you, you nodded in agreement.

You heard lots about Benghazi on talk-radio and Fox News, but Mitt Romney botched the issue then ditched it. So hardly anyone else heard about it. Romney was always going to have a tough time on this issue because he wants to position himself as “tougher” than Obama. But Obama’s error in Libya may have been being too promiscuous with the use of force. There is almost no doubt that the president’s administration made poor decisions when our mission in Libya pleaded for more security. There is almost no doubt that the administration stuck with a bogus story about a YouTube video causing a riot that killed the Ambassador to Libya long after they had good reasons not to believe it. There is almost no doubt that the president’s decision to intervene in Libya made America responsible for the chaos in the region and an unwitting accomplice in the rise of Al Qeada in Mali and elsewhere. But when our ambassador was killed, Romney held a press conference implying that Obama sympathized with the attackers. Not only was this wrong, it was easy to rebut. Instead of letting the press go after the president, Romney strode out like a matador and waved a big red flag at them. He got gored for “jumping the gun.” At the second debate, Romney didn’t lay out his own views of what happened in Libya, but tried to get into a semantics debate about when Obama used the word terror. It backfired and became a disastrous moment for Romney. By the third debate, Romney just ignored the question on Libya.

America isn’t what you thought it was: Please remember, in 2008 Barack Hussein Obama absolutely trounced Republicans in Virginia. Virginia! The Old Dominion that is littered with landmarks dedicated to Robert E. Lee voted for the first black president overwhelmingly. You have been saying that Obama was going to change America. It turns out that America had changed already. That’s why you got Barack Obama in the first place.

Finally: you didn’t like Romney that much either. So are you really surprised? The entire Republican primary was a search for a “Not-Romney” candidate. In fact, you probably once contemplated voting for Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, or Rick Santorum precisely because Romney was a flip-flopper who invented Obamacare in Massachusetts. Just a year ago, my dear conservative friend, you were likely very much against the idea of Romney being your nominee. So how can you be surprised that other Americans never warmed to him as a choice for president?

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Unless Something Is Wrong With the Polls…


It looks like Obama is going to get his second term.

Of course there is a chance that Obama could somehow lose Wisconsin and Pennsylvania even as he wins Ohio. Or there is a chance that somehow the polls in Ohio are all wrong for a reason we will only discover after the campaign. But Ohio is the key state and Romney has never really achieved anything like a lead there. Tim Carney at the Washington Examiner has laid out his forecasting and he comes to the sensible result of Obama 290, Romney 248. I think he is right that Obama won’t break 300. For a looser take on things that argues for a Romney win, look to Jay Cost at The Weekly Standard.

Everyone will take what they want from a Romney defeat. Democrats will exult in a demographic shift that is favoring them with every election. Social conservatives will say that Romney never excited the base. Elite conservatives will castigate the party for not making efforts to attract and win over more Hispanic voters. Social liberals in the Republican party will blame the “war on women” and the incessant chatter about contraception and rape. Hard-core restrictionists will argue that Republicans failed to maximize their appeal to alienated white voters. Anti-war conservatives will say that Romney didn’t sufficiently repudiate the deeply unpopular Bush legacy and voters were afraid of blowing up the world again. Post-election analysts want their political coalition to become more like themselves.

But the truth is that the election was winnable for Republicans and perhaps several of the above strategies could have paid off. But Romney’s history, his personality, and his campaign were not suited to winning a national race during a bad economic downturn. He is one of the most intensely “disliked” presidential candidates in a long time. He is not a natural campaigner.

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The Anti-Abortion Vote and Federalism

Jeremy Beer’s sarcastic endorsement of Romney is hilarious and bracing and contains a lot of truth about the likelihood of a Romney presidency resulting in the overturning of Roe.

Let’s grant him the following and more: Yes, many Republican presidential appointments to the high court are not reliably anti-Roe voters (Souter, Kennedy, likely Roberts). And yes, there may be perverse incentives for never achieving an anti-Roe majority. Yes, there is a temptation to just say that we need sweeping cultural change and return to our rosaries and crisis pregnancy centers exclusively. Yes, pro-lifers should tremble when they realize they may save very few (or none) of the unborn with their vote, but also empower a warmonger whose policies result in scores of thousands of dead. (This is why I can’t yet vote Republican again.)

But the case agains retreating, against thinking the average pro-life activist is a dupe may be a lot stronger than Beer makes it out to be. Although it is difficult to trace the chain of cause and effect, it seems that over the past two decades conservative activists have had success in restricting the legality of abortion on the state level, and restricting access to abortion. The number of abortions nationwide has been cut by almost one third since its early nineties high. These successes have been protected by Republican appointments to the bench at levels lower than the Supreme Court.

There is also the Hyde Amendment and the Mexico City policy and a number of other federal laws and regulations that can be strengthened, abrogated, or abridged depending on the personnel at 1600 Pennyslvania Avenue. The Guttmacher Institute, which is allied with Planned Parenthood, believes that these federal policies prevent abortions. Pro-lifers do too.

The last time I checked between 30 and 40 states have parental notification laws that can be overturned by more liberal courts. Over 40 states have “conscience laws” that protect doctors who do not want to participate in abortions in one way or another.

The White House also appoints representatives to attend things like the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Bush actually did very well with appointing family-friendly personnel. Although these conferences produce non-binding documents: activists, litigators, and judges use them as evidence of international norms and reform (i.e. liberalize) abortion laws accordingly.

Romney may not be worth your vote. But he will almost certainly reinstate the Mexico City Policy, respect the Hyde Amendment, end the idiotic contraception mandate, and appoint judges to the lower courts that are far more likely to protect and strengthen the incremental gains of the pro-life legal movement.

In a way the above is an argument for a more modest government, for federalism. It would be nice if the executive branch were not so enmeshed in morally problematic questions at every level of society. If your federal tax dollars were not involved, you would not worry that the people receiving those dollars were advancing the pro-abortion rights cause.

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Obliterating the Woman

Since it is such a hot topic this week, I wanted to collect together some thoughts on the difficulties anti-abortion advocates run into when dealing with the case of rape that results in pregnancy.

I think we can explain both why Senate candidate Richard Mourdock resorted to a short exposition of theodicy in an answer to a tough question on abortion rights, and come around to why so many people find the normal pro-life answers cruel-sounding.

David Frum says,

My own suggestion would be that if your reasoning process leads to a conclusion this goofy – that a rape victim must be compelled to bear her assailant’s child – then perhaps you ought to check your work. There’s an error in there somewhere.

Noah Millman says,

I don’t know the best way to defend the absolutist pro-life position, but I think it has to start with an acknowledgment that hating the baby that is the product of violence, and hating the burden of carrying that baby, is an entirely normal and human reaction. That the burden of carrying this hated life is, from a human perspective, a cosmic injustice that compounds the original injustice of the rape. That burden may still be unavoidable, ethically – may be your “cross to bear” from a Christian perspective, or the “passion” that you have to transcend to see the right from a Stoical perspective, or whatever. But at least starting there means acknowledging and trying to identify with the rape victim’s perspective on the situation, rather than, as is usually the case, identifying exclusively with the baby, and consequently obliterating the woman from view.

Now before coming around to my response to these views, let’s do some preliminary work.

The abortion debate is usually conducted in the abstract. And both sides of that debate resort to liberal and reactionary principles to defend their positions. Often the logic of these is wound very closely together.

For instance, pro-lifers make reactionary arguments about the duties we owe one another. I often make this argument: that biological parents have ordinary duties to the children they conceive: to feed, clothe, and educate them. Obviously this sense of responsibility means not deliberately causing the death of their child in the womb. It’s own DNA testifies to the parentage of the two individuals who conceived it.

Pro-lifers more often resort to liberal argumentation: the unborn child has a right to life. This right must be guaranteed by the force of law. The unborn child’s rights must be respected whatever our feelings. It is a unique human with its own unique DNA.

On the other side, pro-choicers usually resort to liberal arguments: A woman has a right to choose an abortion. It is a medical procedure and no one else can have a say in it.

But the same pro-choice argument can be stated in a way that sounds downright reactionary. This argument appeals to a woman’s self-ownership. It is “my body, my choice.” This ownership excludes all claims of rights by others that are enforced by the state.

Now on the liberal side, “rights-focused” arguments start running into trouble the moment that specifics are filled in. The Gallup polling on abortion testifies to this. Outside of an ideological hard-core, people have a hard time saying that a healthy woman who deliberately had consensual sex without using contraception has an unlimited right to a later-term abortion. Nor do people like the idea of saying people have a right to use abortion as a sex-selection method in their children.

On the conservative side, the case of rape obliterates most of the pro-lifer’s argument that abortion is a violation of our normal duties to children we conceive. In the case of rape, a woman did not make a choice to engage in potentially reproductive behavior. In fact, it is precisely because the consequences of rape are so grave that many conservatives still feel it should be a capital crime.

But there is a problem with pro-lifers resorting to their normal “liberal” case against abortion in the case of rape. And I think this is why Frum and Millman (who are to different degrees sympathetic to pro-lifers) start to pull back. Millman is right that if pro-life absolutists use this case it seems to “obliterate” the woman, a victim of a crime, altogether.

Rights-focused argumentation works most powerfully when it is used in an emancipatory way against the powerful. That is why it is much more powerful when used by workers against a plutocratic capitalist. The plutocrat’s appeal to his status as “owner” is weak against the appeal of downtrodden workers.

And a victim of rape is in no way analogous to a well-off CEO. Carrying a baby, a living reminder of a violent crime, is something much more traumatic than losing a percentage of excess profits. I think this is why Millman describes the abortion of an unborn child conceived by rape as a way for the victim “to prove her physical autonomy.” In this case, Millman conceives of the abortion not too differently from the way reactionary Murray Rothbard did; a woman owns her body and therefore, like any property owner, she has a right to evict a trespasser.

So in a political debate in the midst of a political campaign, a pro-life politician might make the normal abstract case for why he is pro-life. Usually this is stated in just the normal abstract liberal fashion.

Frum is right that pro-lifers sound “goofy” if, when posed a question about a pregnancy that results from rape, the candidate resorts to a series of disembodied Enlightenment concepts. I agree. It does sound weirdly dogmatic and obtusely ideological to tell a rape victim that an unborn child has unalienable rights, and in this case those are going to impinge on her in the months following the most traumatic moment of her life.

And yet, I still believe abortion in this case is wrong. And so does Richard Mourdock.

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The Censor’s New Tools

Besides just gadget reviews there are generally two types of writing about technology and their companies.

1) The type that treat technology companies primarily as businesses that are saving the American economy from post-industrial malaise. They tell us that Jeff Bezos has solved problems of scarcity, that Steve Jobs understood humans and how we “interface” better than most philosophers.

2) The type that treat technology companies as revolutionary leaders creating a freer more democratic mankind. They tell us that ancient despotisms – whether religious, governmental, even biological will shortly be overcome by the forces of digitization. Just look at the Twitter hashtags those rioters in Egypt were using! Just think of the singularity.

Thank God for Evgeny Morozov.

In a new article that touches on several parts of his work, Morozov points out that the Internet is introducing more gatekeepers to our conversation, not less. And that repressive governments are just as adept as protestors at using social media and the Internet to advance their agenda.

Here is one example:

Consider blogging. When the first generation of bloggers got online in the late 1990s, the only intermediaries between them and the rest of the world were their hosting companies and their Internet service providers. Anyone starting a blog in 2012 is likely to end up on a commercial platform like Tumblr or WordPress, with all of their blog comments run through a third-party company like Disqus. But the intermediaries don’t just stop there: Disqus itself cooperates with a company called Impermium, which relies on various machine learning tools to check whether comments posted are spam. It’s the proliferation—not elimination—of intermediaries that has made blogging so widespread. The right term here is “hyperintermediation,” not “disintermediation.”

Impermium’s new service goes even further: The company claims to have developed a technology to “identify not only spam and malicious links, but all kinds of harmful content—such as violence, racism, flagrant profanity, and hate speech—and allows site owners to act on it in real-time, before it reaches readers.” It says it has 300,000 websites as clients (which is not all that surprising, if it’s incorporated into widely used third-party tools like Disqus). As far as intermediaries go, this sounds very impressive: a single Californian company making decisions over what counts as hate speech and profanity for some of the world’s most popular sites without anyone ever examining whether its own algorithms might be biased or excessively conservative.

But really, read the whole thing.

As with so many revolutions, the uncritical only notice the centripetal forces at work: the Internet freed me from my high school history textbook, it obliterates distance between people communicating, it gives forums to those whose views can’t get on television, it allows revolutionaries to coordinate.

Morozov reminds us that smashing up those little authorities (some of them truly pernicious and worthy of being smashed) also creates opportunities for larger ones. In our search for a more freewheeling conversation, a company in California has the power to censor speech on thousands of popular forums in such a way that it makes it seem as if speech never happened. Television may not broadcast your rantings, but it never gave the illusion of representing everyone in the first place. It is hard to even call what Imperium and other intermediaries do “censoring” in the traditional sense. Instead of burning books, the new censors just make sure that anything a heretic writes is disappearing ink.

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A McGovern Mood Requires the Creativity of Reagan

George Will says the nation is in the mood for a McGovern moment, and that this explains why in the last debate Mitt Romney kept veering back to domestic policy (“I love teachers!”) and Obama resorted to leftover rhetoric from the Huntsman campaign (“Nation building at home”).

I think George Will is correct about the current mood of the country, but such moods quickly change. There was an exhalation after the first Gulf War. America would enjoy a post-Cold War peace dividend, it was said. And though Bill Clinton was very wary of using ground troops, he still led America (and NATO) into humanitarian interventions in that decade.

Similarly George W. Bush correctly read the mood of the country in 1999 and 2000 when he said that he would advocate a more “humble” foreign policy. And then after 9/11, he led the nation into a Global War on Terror.

Obama rode another anti-interventionist mood past Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, then “led from behind” to send American ordinance tumbling into Libya.

So Will may be right that a plurality of Americans want to “come home,” but that mood is relatively easy to overcome by presidents. Walter Russell Mead’s division of American foreign policy traditions is a useful if imperfect shorthand. We are Jeffersonians, Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, and Jacksonians, and these tendencies are scattered across our two parties in ways that are easily reconfigured by partisan passions.

The same GOP that could be trending toward anti-interventionism in the late ’90s turned instantly to a wrathful Jacksonianism, and a soaring Wilsonianism. The antiwar movement in the Democratic party from 2006 to election day 2008 evaporated almost instantly.

Because the political class of America is so unusually convinced of its own omnicompetence in managing human affairs across the planet, actually achieving a “Come Home America” foreign policy is going to require unusual political creativity from some future candidate or president. Reagan showed some of this by sounding like Ronald “Ray-gun” while simultaneously proposing the abolition of nuclear arsenals.

A misguided Reagan nostalgia has given us mediocrities like Fred Thompson and a Republican party that always seems past its sell-by date. But in these closing days of election 2012, I’m starting to feel something of it myself.

At the same time, I recognize that if someone like him came along, I’d probably spit that he was a warmonger and move on.

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Digital Age Fanatics Meet Bronze Age Fanatics

I have to laugh. The video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that was wrongly blamed for the death of our Ambassador to Libya is now the reason for massive protests outside of Google HQ in London. Said one protester:

“Organisations like Google are key players and have to take responsibility for civility. You can’t just say it doesn’t matter that it’s freedom of speech. It’s anarchy.”

Many of my nerdly friends find these protests distressing. They’re not thinking hard enough.

If a major publishing house in New York decided to put out a special edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and made it available for free download on every Kindle on the planet we could expect lots of protests.

Google pretends that it is just a platform, not a publisher. But of course Google does scrub YouTube of videos that break copyright laws or other decency laws. Nerds just don’t think that propaganda against religious minorities, or at least these religious minorities, is indecent. For Google, content from NBC Universal is sacrosanct, The Prophet is not.

The digital-age fanatics talk endlessly of how “revolutionary” their products are. And Google isn’t exactly shy about its own desire to see religiously-inspired laws go down across the world. They shouldn’t be so shocked when the counter-revolutionaries show up to protest them.

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Romney as Populist Executive, Hapless Athlete

Everyone has some kind of advice for Romney and Obama tonight. I have some advice too, but it can go beyond tonight.

Romney needs to do well from Scranton to Sioux City among blue collar white voters, the very same subset of voters that turned against Obama in the 2008 primaries and in the 2010 midterms. His 47 percent remarks, his stiffness, Mormon faith, and private equity background make him as much an alien to these voters as any imagined Kenyan socialist.

Romney should talk about his history at Bain and Company and Bain Capital. If you read The Real Romney you find that Romney had his largest successes when he realigned the incentives of executives with those of workers and the longterm health of the company as a whole.

As this magazine has argued, our elites no longer see their interests as aligned with those of the commonwealth of the nation. We need someone to realign them.

Imagine if Romney said, “I agree with president Obama that America prospers most when it prospers together, when investors and workers rise together. But under his administration the six largest banks have only gotten larger and they retain the implicit guarantee of a taxpayer-funded bailout if their executives are reckless again. Wall Street is doing great, but unemployment is stuck above 8 percent. Wages are stagnant. Millions are underwater on their mortgages. One class gets special carveouts, and when they fail, the American people get stuck with the bill. Obama promised to bring us together, instead we’re growing further apart. We don’t need Washington trying to micro-manage every industry, doling out loans, guarantees, and subsidies for political reasons. We need to create a stable set of rules that allows everyone to prosper together.”

Is it an airtight case? No, a debate doesn’t stand for that. Does it lack specific policies? You betcha, but we’re late in the game for that. But it is at least a plausible story about where America is right now and why Romney may be the man for the moment.


Also I know it isn’t hard-hitting scoopy jounrnalism, but check out this little article I wrote for ESPN magazine about the Romney clan and their competitive sports-filled vacations.

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The Knuckleball

In news more consequential to me than anything in politics…

In the past month a documentary, “Knuckleball,” was released. You can find it on iTunes and in some theaters.  I recommend it. Here is the trailer:

The film has many fascinating little scenes. I especially liked how it documents the fraternity of knucklers; how Charlie Hough, Phil Neikro, and the modern flutter-pitchers talk to each other, coach each other, and commiserate.

In the movie’s telling, the knuckleball is a mystery: sometimes it is unhittable, at others it is the easiest pitch to hit. Nobody in the big leagues “trusts” a knuckleballer. Hitters find it “spooky” the way the ball moves through the air without rolling. No pitcher can master it, they must surrender to it. For good and ill.

I feel bad for the filmmakers because they should have waited one more year. Their film’s narrative thread is Tim Wakefield’s chase for 200 wins and his retirement last year. There is a nod to him passing on the torch and tradition to R.A. Dickey. They do very well with this material. But they went to print before the big story broke.

This afternoon Mets knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey will attempt to win his 20th game this year in what has turned into a dismal season for the Mets. With a solid performance today he will likely secure the Cy Young Award.

Currently he has a 2.66 ERA (1st in the NL), he has 209 strikeouts (2nd) and a 1.04 WHIP (tied 1st among starters).

This isn’t the old knuckleball. This is a revelation. No knuckleballer has ever had a year like this. Because the pitch floats and darts, knuckleballers typically have low-strikeout rates and high walk rates. Dickey throws this pitch for strikes, reliably. He can also throw the pitch much harder than most of his predecessors. His 80 mph knuckleball doesn’t flutter, it zips. He says it is more like a wasp than a butterfly.

I’m a Met fan, but I’m a lunatic on Dickey. For those that don’t know, Dickey is a 37-year old who was once a washed up bum of a conventional pitcher. Mysteriously, he has no ulnar collateral ligament. He spent a decade languishing in the minors and was the first person cut when he arrived at Mets training camp a few years ago. Now he is the best pitcher in the National League. Everything except that last bit is wonderfully described in on one of the most excellent books about baseball in years, Wherever I Wind Up.

Because there are thousands of games a year and baseball has over a century of history, very often baseball commentators search for absurd novelties. “No batter has ever done this or that on consecutive these while doing this other thing.” The qualifications pile up into meaninglessness. They serve only to emphasize that these things happen all the time.

But Dickey has done something new in baseball. You don’t need qualifications to see it, you don’t need to beat it to death with description. If you watched him pitch this year, you saw something that has never been done before. The knuckleball is still spooky, but now only for the batter. It is beautiful.

UPDATE: R.A. Dickey got his 20th win giving up 3 earned runs, but also collecting 13Ks through 8.2 innings. He will likely make one more start before the end of the season.

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Don’t Just Blame William of Ockham

Mark Lilla has a wonderful little review at The New Republic on Brad S. Gregory’s Book, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.

After discussing the relationship of Christian (mostly Catholic) thought in relation to history, Lilla identifies a persistent trend in the way certain conservatives–especially Latin chanting trad Catholics like me–look at history.

Those who recount this kind of story tell us that at some point in medieval or early modern history the West took a momentous wrong turn, putting itself on the path to our modernity with all its attendant problems. But no single person or event was responsible for this. The blame must be shared by philosophers, theologians, and the Church hierarchy itself. This was a tragic development: had everyone only been more patient, the Church would have continued evolving, and in a good direction. The Middle Ages would eventually have waned and a new society would have developed. But the swings of modern history would have been less extreme and the worst avoided. Change would have been more gradual, radical attacks on the Church would have been unnecessary, and the Church in turn would not have fallen into the reactionary crouch it maintained from the French Revolution until Vatican II. With moral debate confined within the flexible bounds of Catholic orthodoxy, important human values would have been preserved from secular dogmatism and skepticism. We would have been spared the brutality of the industrial era, the monsters of modern science, and the empty individualism and viciousness of our time. All in all, we would be living a happier, more fruitful and humane existence.

How does one adopt this view? It is simple really. First wake up from a shallow Whig view of history.

Then read G.K. Chesterton:

[T]he great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived (which must mean over-lived), but by not being lived enough. Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

Or read Richard Weaver on William of Ockham. Find some of Hilaire Belloc’s wilder statements that The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith. Go page through Warren H. Carroll’s “A History of Christendom.” You can find these notions informing the fiction of Robert Hugh Benson who thought that the re-adoption of a few Christian principles would bring back the colored uniforms and heraldry of medieval guilds. Or pick any number of pamphlets by the enthusiastic prelates of the Society of St. Pius X. The great signposts are all there, Ockham, 1517, Westphalia, 1789 and all the rest. Suddenly you have what Lilla very aptly describes as a “an inverted Whiggism—a Whiggism for depressives.”

I’ve had this view articulated to me even by a Jewish scholar at Bard College, who told me  that the Reformation ruined everything after I had given him hints that I was initiated enough to hear this.

There are a couple of fallacies hiding behind this line of thinking. Chiefly, this reverse Whiggism seems to take it for granted that the point of Christianity is Christendom, as if Jesus was born in Bethlehem to build Chartres and compose the Summa Theologica. And therefore everything from 1295 to now is a story of punctuated decline.

I like Chartres and the Summa fine but Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.

And, I think even at one point Lilla almost falls for the other error crouching behind this way of thinking when he writes “despite centuries of internal conflicts over papal authority and external conflicts with the Eastern Church and the Turks, the Roman Catholic Church did indeed seem triumphant.”

Really? Certainly there were eras and areas where the Church had the kind of comfort to develop its own kind of medieval hipster ironies.

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