Although I have not read Thomas Sowell’s latest book Intellectuals and Race, a discussion of its contents in his April 23 column makes me less than eager to read it. For years I enjoyed reading Sowell’s commentaries, and his early research showing the economic progress of American blacks before the passage of federal antidiscrimination laws had a powerful effect on my own scholarship. A black who rose from what today would be considered poverty, Sowell offers proof that the most solid advances in the standard of living of American blacks took place before the Civil Rights era and were mostly unrelated to government actions. Since then Sowell has attacked all affirmative action and set-aside programs for minorities not only as unfair to those who become the new victims of discrimination but also for not being helpful to those groups that are seen as deprived. He has shown that relatively affluent minorities, particularly middle-class women, have benefited disproportionately from government attempts to mandate quotas.
Unfortunately Sowell in his latest books engages in his own political correctness. It is a form of that illness that has infected the American conservative movement, and it may be an overreaction to a charge that has come from the left, branding conservatives or Republicans (they are not necessarily the same) as racists. In reaction to this charge, Sowell seems to be denying entirely the effects of genetic inheritance. He tells us that black football players are hardly ever kickers, despite the fact that blacks are not “genetically incapable of kicking a football.” The question left begging is whether the positions football players are assigned are unrelated to inherited strengths, for example, girth or running dexterity or the power of someone’s foot. Is what we achieve in life or on a football team entirely a matter of what we choose to do or be?
Sowell also gives us faulty history when he tells us that the belief that “some races are inferior to others … led to such things as eugenics and ultimately to the Holocaust.” There were many reasons that people preached eugenics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the belief in racial inferiority was not usually a prime concern here. Eugenicists, like modern social engineers, were trying to create designer-made children, and ads that I’ve seen in progressive New York publications calling for sperm donors to produce “gifted children” fully coincide with the aims of the eugenics movement. Read More…
Although I’ve been critical of my state’s current governor, it’s usually been to twit him for not cutting budgets sufficiently. While Tom Corbett is spot on in wanting to privatize Pennsylvania’s liquor monopoly, he should not be trying to feather the nests of other public employees by promising to pay off teachers with the proceeds gained from selling state-owned liquor stores. It seems wrong to mix something as desirable as privatizing liquor sales with something as silly as paying teachers to instruct adolescents in the proper use of alcoholic beverages. Let parents or some voluntary group do the instructing!
Unfortunately I’m not at all on the same page with most residents of the Keystone State, who presumably dislike Corbett for being a budget cruncher. According to the latest Franklin and Marshall poll, Corbett, who enjoys only 26 percent approval, may be the most hated governor in Pennsylvania history. It seems nothing he does is really popular: you’d think everyone but state employees working in the state-owned liquor stores would be applauding Corbett’s proposal to privatize liquor sales. After all, state residents, according to extensive studies conducted by Commonwealth Foundation, are paying 50 percent more on their liquor purchases than people in surrounding states.
Strangely enough, the privatization plan resonates positively with only 52 percent of those polled. I suspect that once this idea was linked to the supposedly stingy Corbett, a plan that otherwise would have been immensely popular lost part of its appeal. It apparently makes no difference in terms of his popular standing that Corbett’s state budget, given rising costs, is still higher than previous budgets, if not nearly as high as the one Governor Rendell would likely be giving us. There is nothing to suggest the governor will slash our extravagant pensions for public employees.
This situation illustrates for me a general problem facing this country, perhaps even more critically than is the case in other Western countries. Unlike Canada or Germany, which have large welfare states but are willing to economize, in the U.S. voters just want more and more social programs, and politicians are too cowardly or ideologically driven to say “no.” I’ve never accepted the idiocy pushed on Fox News that the U.S. is a “right of center” country, but I also never realized until recently how undisciplined we’ve become as a government-dependent society. Other social democratic countries focus attention on soaring public debts. We by contrast just ask the state to pay for more stuff, which in the end we finance out of our earnings or cover with Chinese loans. I don’t believe for a moment this problem is confined to minorities. The 74 percent of those surveyed who are against our minimally penny-pinching governor includes far more than minority discontent.
I began noticing this intensified craving for more and bigger government programs during my later years as a professor. It was obvious by then that my students associated the welfare state with endless goodies, of which education loans would be only the first in a string of expected favors. I came to understand why the young, once employed, didn’t resent paying disproportionately for benefits for retirees. They imagined they would be getting even more loot from the state once the time came for them to retire.
Notice my argument is not that we return to being a constitutional society with a strictly limited government. The hour for that is long over, and I may be in a diminishing number of those who regret that’s the case. I just wish we became a better disciplined social democracy, like Canada, which does better in reining in unsustainable government costs. As a free-market economy the U.S. now lags behind at least ten other countries, according to the Index of Economic Freedom, and has been falling during the last five years. The contention that unlike Europeans we don’t accept a large welfare state is malarkey. What makes us different from other “progressive” societies may be the reason they can provide cheap socialized medicine and we probably couldn’t. Other countries expect less from their governments and in return for being looked after as wards of the state recognize there are limits as to what the state should be doing for them.
Some god-terms that issue from the media, and which I had the misfortune of hearing incessantly as an academic, make me wince as soon as they come out of someone’s mouth. Among these particularly obnoxious terms are “social justice,” “fairness,” and “sensitivity,” all of which drip with righteousness and dishonesty.
The term or concept that lately has been causing me the most visceral pain, however, is “human right.” The pain became excruciating last week, when I heard Fox News commentator Juan Williams insist that gay marriage is a human right. If Williams had his way, the Supreme Court would impose recognition of this arrangement on every hamlet in this country. That’s because he thinks it’s “fair” and in any case required by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. I’ve no idea how the Fourteenth Amendment can require the imposition of a marital practice that differs from how marriage was understood since the beginnings of human societies and up until a few years ago in this country. It is possible to see why the Fourteenth Amendment might be invoked to uphold the right of every American taxpayer, whatever his color, to use the public facilities he or she pays for. But how can it require, except by an act of judicial usurpation, that all Americans be forced to recognize as marriage a cohabitation arrangement between people of the same sex. Supposedly this entails a right that must be equally protected. Right to what? Presumably of anything that those involved decide to call marriage and then oblige everyone else, on pain of punishment, to accept as such.
What happens, however, if those who wish to experiment with new forms of marriage decide that it would be a good idea to practice incest? Does that too become a right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment? What about group marriage, a practice that’s already being tried in Holland? Is that too protected by our constitution, according to Juan Williams? The answer is that incest and group marriages may be entitled to legal protection against discriminators, if Williams decides to characterize them as human rights. What the hell—two more rights added to the list really won’t muddle the term “human rights” any more than it’s already been muddled. And in fact the term has now been reduced to a rhetorical trope that is meant to impress the listener with the moral seriousness of the person who pronounces it.
My objection to the term is not based on moral relativism, since I don’t pretend to be a moral agnostic. I could think of at least one right that all people should be entitled to and which government should provide: it’s Thomas Hobbes’s single example of a natural right, which is to be protected by government against violent death. But who believes in what rights is not the point here. I am arguing against the use of human rights bombast whenever some individual, institution, or state wishes to express a political preference or a program of social reconstruction. Just make your arguments and let the listener decide. Further, I don’t object to listening to moral arguments against societies that do horrible things. Mention what the leaders of these societies do and then leave it to others to decide whether your indictment is correct. Saying that what you deplore violates human rights fills space with noise without contributing anything substantive to human knowledge. For example, if someone shows me that the Taliban stones women to death if they’re seen talking to young men to whom they’re not married, that’s a sufficient indictment. In no way would the speaker be strengthening his brief by adding that the Taliban “violates human rights.”
I would also make a traditionalist case against human-rights language. Whereas most of us in the same society up until a few decades ago could have agreed on what actions were right and wrong, human rights are more subject to change than traditional moral verities. Their validity depends on political and cultural winds; and it is foolish to believe that one can bridge the breakdown of moral or social consensus throughout the Western world by resorting to a new universal ethic based on “human rights” or “democratic values.” There are sharp and even growing differences in our society about fundamental behavioral questions, and appeals to supposedly universal rights language will not likely heal these divisions. Significantly, both those who favor and those who oppose the right to abort a fetus shower us equally with human-rights rhetoric. That practice settles nothing of importance, except for allowing the speakers to feel good about their cause and about themselves for upholding it. Read More…
I’ve no idea how former Nebraska senator and decorated Vietnam War veteran Chuck Hagel became President Obama’s preferred nominee for the job of Secretary of Defense. But when I learned about Hagel’s prospects, I was delighted. A social conservative with a skeptical view of America’s mission to convert the rest of the world to our current version of democracy, Hagel is someone I’ve long admired. Indeed I was hoping his campaign for president would take off four years ago. (Alas, it didn’t.)
For about a week after Hagel’s name surfaced as a possibility for Secretary of Defense, I was also hoping that his nomination would sail through the Senate effortlessly. I no longer think that’s the case. The Log Cabin Republicans yesterday took out a full-page New York Times advertisement to attack Hagel, who once voiced objections to having those who are openly gay serving in the military. He also objected to the muzzling of free speech in what looked like hate speech laws. His opponents have scolded him for being deficient in sensitivity, and in our politically correct democracy that may be the worst possible offense that any mortal could commit.
Leading the charge against Hagel has been the neocon press, with the Weekly Standard out in front of the pack. It seems that Hagel has fought with AIPAC and even once misspoke when he referred to his trouble with “the Jewish lobby.” He later took this back and stated that he meant “the Israeli lobby.” It’s not that the former Senator has disagreed consistently with Israeli policies, and most of the time in the Senate he came down with the rest of his party behind the Israeli government. But Hagel has expressed reservations about his party always lining up on one side in the Middle Eastern conflict and has suggested this degree of partisanship weakens the credibility of Republicans as possible peace brokers. Hagel also made fun of those Republicans (such as Lindsay Graham and John McCain) who went beyond the lobby in their enthusiasm for everything the Israelis did. McCain was rewarded for his cheer-leading with about 20 percent of the Jewish vote in a presidential race against the most pro-Palestinian Democratic candidate in U.S. history.
The neocons have gone after Hagel for being anti-Israeli and by implication anti-Semitic. They’ve also pulled out every charge that the left might care to feature about Hagel being a social reactionary who is too far on the right to represent us as secretary of defense. The neocons (including Fox News contributors) have attacked him repeatedly as a homophobe. But their main charge has been that Hagel once had kind words for the 95-year-old South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, at a birthday party Hagel and other senators attended. Supposedly Hagel made it appear that he was cool with Thurmond’s one-time segregationist record by praising the then almost senile senator’s “life well lived.” Apparently he should have pummeled the decrepit Southern lawmaker instead.
Reading this kind of slime (there is no other word for this invective) I almost feel relief that Obama was reelected as president. The thought of that weathervane Romney presiding over a government packed to the top with Bill Kristol’s buddies is far more frightening than any reckless spending program Obama has inflicted on us. I shudder to think that the main resistance to the leftist media and educational establishment in this country is coming from Bill’s boss and kindred spirit, Rupert Murdoch, who pays for Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. It is appalling that the “conservative” opposition is being funded by this Australian media baron, who is “conservative” on only one issue, an aggressive foreign policy.
The neocons are too powerful for GOP propagandists and establishment conservative journalists to defy. If they decide to pull the right leftward once again, they’re likely to get their way. It won’t be the first time they’ve prevailed. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the neocons upend Hagel while winning applause from both the social left and Christian Zionists in the GOP. I may be wrong, but after having seen the neocons win almost every battle they’ve entered for more than 30 years, I would be astonished to see them lose. Here’s hoping for a change in their fortunes, however, as we go into the New Year!
Pace Dan McCarthy’s hope about the possible implications of a Romney victory, I think it may be time to hear counter-arguments. Although Dan is right that Romney holds no principles, and although the neocon form of aggressive liberal internationalism may not enjoy huge approval outside of Fox News junkies, this does not justify the belief that Mitt will grow into a “Burkean conservative.” As someone who has written widely on European conservatism, I do not find any connection between Burke’s political world and ours. Burke had no use for democracy and human rights ideology and was openly contemptuous of regimes driven by the ideal of equality.
What Burke loathed however has become our political culture; and given our population base it appears unlikely that we’re going to return to the ideas put forth by Burke in his tract against the French Revolution. We can move to the right or to the left in terms of our time but it is doubtful that we can reclaim the legacy of those who were addressing a situation in a very different age on the basis of no longer accepted principles of hierarchy and authority. On this point I’ll take my stand with Sam Goldman and Karl Mannheim, rather than with those “cultural conservatives” who cherry-pick the past in search of a few nice phrases with which to dress up their political choices. We should be discriminating about what we learn from earlier times and be aware of what for better or worse, is no longer applicable, unless we wrench it out of context. Like the Bible, I say “Let the dead bury the dead” as I hear all the selective adaptations of the words and thoughts of past statesmen.
But beyond the semantic problem, it also seems to me that there wouldn’t be anything significant pushing Mitt toward some variant of Taft Republicanism even if he does get elected. As I point out in a postscript to the French edition of Conservatism in America, the disproportion between the neoconservative media empire and its opposition on the old or libertarian right is so immense that it may be wishful thinking to imagine that we’re talking about a real confrontation here. The non-aligned right, or whatever we choose to call it, has not been given a place in the political conversation; and even if we occasionally piggyback on to a congenial presidential candidate, that hasn’t made up for the marginalization we’ve suffered at the hands of the media left and the establishment right.
Unless there is this dramatic change in the balance of power, it is unlikely that a President Romney would feel obliged to heed our admonitions. More likely, he’ll remain with those neocon handlers who now surround him in a smothering embrace. This is truly the path of least resistance for someone who shies away from principled stands and who rarely delves into political thought. Even for something as vacuous as a GOP presidential candidate, Mitt stands out as a particularly empty vessel. And what goes into that vessel will be determined by those who exercise influence in the GOP and the national media.
Despite my usual agreement with Sam Goldman on historical questions, I beg to differ with him in his judgments about what kind of alliances European Jews should be making in view of the anti-Jewish sentiments that is now apparent among many Muslim immigrants. In my view, Jews would do best supporting those parties, typically on the right, which favor limiting Muslim immigration into Europe. Jews should also unconditionally oppose attempts by the European Left to allow the introduction of Sharia Law into European society, under the guise of religious freedom. It is also in the interest of Jews here and in Europe to reciprocate the good will being offered by traditional Christians. Jewish communities, particularly in Europe, should give up their atavistic prejudices against “goyim” masquerading as a commitment to total, state-enforced secularism (of course except for non-Christians). Christians are by far the best allies Jews can find, as opposed to the multicultural Left that has unleashed the immigration problem and are working knowingly or unknowingly toward the further Islamicization of Europe and toward the elimination of what remains of a Western Christian civilization.
Sam’s eagerness to ascribe anti-circumcision and anti-Jewish ritual slaughtering laws to rightwing anti-Muslim groups, which supposedly disdain Jews as well as Muslims, is misdirected energy. The laws he criticizes have considerable support on the left. Liberal Democrats are now introducing an anti-circumcision law in San Francisco, and those engaged in this act have absolutely no interest in persecuting Muslims. The proposals to ban ritual slaughtering in Sweden came from the country’s very leftist socialist party; and the anti-circumcision law in Germany resonates strongly with the socially radical Greens and the Party of German Socialists. Although the Nazi Party once favored such legislation, at least partly for anti-Semitic reasons, for several generations it has been the European Left that has been most strenuously opposed to such “inhumane” practices as Jewish ritual slaughtering and circumcising infants. There is nothing new about the Left’s association with these views. They were expressing them in the 1950s and 1960s, before Muslims entered Europe in large numbers.
The justly renowned social historian Eugene D. Genovese died yesterday at the age of 82 in Atlanta. His death followed several years of dealing with a worsening cardiac ailment and with a jolting loss in 2007 from which he never recovered. This was the death of his beloved wife Elizabeth (Betsey), who was his frequent collaborator on books and whom he celebrated after her passing in moving memoirs. In my professional opinion, Genovese may have been the greatest social historian this country has given us; and the fact that he wrote like a dream makes his accomplishment even more noteworthy. In Roll, Jordan, Roll, a work that won the Bancroft Prize in 1974, The Political Economy of Slavery, and The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview, Genovese presents an unsurpassed analysis of the mindset of the once dominant planter class in the Old South. Although Genovese wrote his early works as a Marxist and his later ones as a Catholic traditionalist and an avowed man of the Right, it is sometimes hard to distinguish his writings in terms of these personal changes. There is something which from the current political perspective is remarkably reactionary about Genovese’s oeuvre, even in those books he published as a Marxist who once came out openly for the Viet Cong. But that was when it was still possible to be a left-wing radical without having to be politically correct.
Absent from Genovese’s work is the tiresome moralizing that now characterizes academic historiography. Even in his most radical phase, he wrote admiringly about the antebellum Southern slave-owners, who believed deeply in their right to rule. This doomed class, which would give way in the Civil War to the dominance of the capitalist bourgeoisie and to the victory of free labor, did not lack for courage or manliness, according to Genovese. The planter class however represented the past, one that was destined to fall to the capitalist North, which eventually, Genovese hoped as a Marxist, would be overthrown by world socialism. By the way, Marx and Engels did not exhibit any of the tender feelings for the Southern side that one finds in their onetime follower. They saw the Civil War, like our liberals and neoconservatives, as an unvarnished struggle between Good and Evil.
In a recent column Cal Thomas states the obvious when he observes “Democrats and their friends in the big media protect their own when accused of outrageous acts.” Thomas contrasts the way the media has savaged the Republican Party, including Mitt Romney, for a stupid remark by Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin about women being able to protect themselves against conceiving in a “legitimate rape” with the pass given to women abusers on the left or in the Democratic Party. The man imagined to be the “lion of the Senate,” longtime Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy “drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Mass., leaving a woman, not his wife, to drown.” The reckless driver, who was under the influence at the time, was given a three-month suspension of his license in a state that his family controlled politically. Moreover, Kennedy, a senator for life, was comforted afterwards in the NYT about “the ordeal he had to overcome.” In 1978, the former president who will be a featured speaker at this year’s Democratic convention, Bill Clinton, was accused by a campaign worker, Juanita Broaddrick, of attempted rape when Clinton was attorney general in Arkansas. Not to worry! Clinton had the media cover for him and is now hailed as a champion of women’s rights.
The reason these cover-ups and double standards work is that lots of people suspend belief when told about feminist Democrats fighting Republicans who wish to enslave women. But no matter which party wins in November, the social changes of the last 50 years, which the government has actively promoted, are not likely to be altered. One has to be mad to mistake the wishy-washy Romney for an Iranian Ayatollah.
Such media bias does not surprise me. Those in a profession whose members identify themselves by more than 9 to 1 with the left and, for want of a more radical alternative, the Democratic Party, give us lots to choose from. The (for me) most annoying recent case of such bias came with the coverage of the gay activist who tried to shoot up the Family Research Council in Washington. The activist in question, Floyd Lee Corkins, went with a loaded gun and a pocket full of Chicken-fil-A sandwiches to wipe out a “hate group.” The council that Corkins targeted advocates traditional heterosexual marriage and opposes the legalization of gay marriage. It has also published more controversial but documented views about gays being more likely than heterosexuals to engage in pedophilia. Such positions call for debate, but such advocates as the Southern Poverty Law Center and Huffington Post are not accustomed to holding discussions with those on the other side. They rant against them as “hate groups.” SPLC spokesperson Heidi Beirich sees no significant difference between the Family Research Council’s rejection of gay lifestyles and the incitement to violence practiced by neo-Nazis. But that’s nothing new. For decades the center has accused those it dislikes of fomenting hate. Read More…
Never in my life have I encountered a politician who does a better imitation of a mannequin than Mitt Romney, particularly when called on to address social issues. Does this presidential candidate have an “opinion,” for example, on recent attempts to run the food chain Chick-Fil-A out of large municipalities because its president, Dan Cathy, had spoken up for traditional marriage? What is Romney’s view of President Obama’s application of executive power to grant legal status to almost a million illegal residents? Does Romney have a view about such matters? If he does, he is keeping it well hidden. The only thing I hear him saying on the domestic front is that Obama has not addressed the high unemployment rate or our soaring public debt. Presumably Romney will.
All of this has been carefully scripted to make Romney electable without requiring him to show his hand, with one terrifying exception that I’ll soon get to. Admittedly there may be something to be said for this strategy. Obama has messed up the economy and despite his personal popularity, he may not be able to put together the winning coalition he had four years ago. Romney, who looks presidential and can claim corporate business experience, has offered himself as the alternative; and if the economy continues to go south, the former one-term Massachusetts governor may squeak to victory.
But even here Romney hasn’t created for himself a strong profile. Obama went after him nonstop for weeks as a grasping CEO while heading up Bain Capital, and Romney long avoided countering, even when he held the good cards. Since Obama’s brief was at best spotty, the incumbent couldn’t get as much out of it, but certainly not because of Romney’s combativeness. All I heard him say even after weeks of accusations was that Obama was slandering him.
The GOP game plan seems to be that its media brigade, led by such worthies as Michelle Malkin, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter, will save Romney the hassle of taking socially conservative positions. Sounding “conservative” may not sit well with hypothetical independents, and so the party propagandists have provided their candidate with an opportunity to dodge divisive issues. But there is no real fit between the journalistically cultivated image of Romney as a social traditionalist (outside his own family life) and his actual political record. A book that landed in my hands, despite the efforts of GOP operatives to keep it from going anywhere, is an expose by Amy L. Contrada on Governor Romney’s “deception” during the campaign for gay marriage in Massachusetts. From Contrada’s account, it is hard to pinpoint where Romney stood on this sensitive social issue. The same is true for his position on abortion, which he changed with some regularity. The conflict-avoiding Romney has been around for some time, and he’s in his element when he avoids getting pinned down on social questions.
Having seen Samuel Goldman’s thoughtful response to Kenneth McIntyre’s sizzling review of my book, I think that I might introduce myself as the author of the still rarely read volume that Professor McIntyre discusses in his essay. By now I am used to the admission that most critics of the review use to introduce their reactions: “I have not looked at Gottfried’s work but am responding to McIntyre’s remarks about Strauss.” Allow me to note that it might be a good idea if these commentators looked at my book, however steeply priced it may be. That would certainly help improve my sagging sales but even more importantly would throw light on what is being argued in my work about Strauss, his hermeneutics, and his academic and political following.
I fully agree with Samuel Goldman on two points. He is correct in his conclusion that Strauss’s greatest contribution to scholarship may be his early (German) writings, more specifically his work on the relation between politics and religion in Spinoza. Moreover, I would add to this early achievement Strauss’s brilliant remarks on Carl Schmitt’s 1932 edition of Begriff des Politischen, which may have been the young Strauss’s most insightful work.
I also think Goldman is correct to assign more significance to Strauss as a scholar than my reviewer suggests. In my book I underline the extent of Strauss’s linguistic training and his prodigious reading in political thought. Although I share McIntyre’s skepticism about Strauss’s way of reading texts and although I find Strauss’s interpretive quirks magnified in his disciples, I would not deny that there is immense erudition in everything he wrote. His disciples impress me far less than the master, as Goldman would learn from reading my book. Finally I don’t think Goldman, who has written splendidly on classical conservatism, would dispute my conclusion and that of Kenneth McIntyre that neither Strauss nor his leading followers would qualify as “conservatives.” One can describe them more properly as Cold War liberals or fervent “liberal democrats,” to use their own phrase. Nor does the intensity of their desire to protect Israel from its enemies or their eagerness to spread America’s democratic creed if necessary by force add up to what Goldman, McIntyre, and I would consider to be true conservatism.