A decade ago James Bovard warned about additional powers that might be added to the Patriot Act, powers that would increase the scope of federal surveillance of citizens:
Section 101 of the proposed bill, titled “Individual Terrorists as Foreign Powers,” would revise the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to permit the U.S. government to label individuals who are suspected terrorists—including American citizens—as “foreign powers” for the purpose of conducting total surveillance of their activities. This alteration nullifies all Fourth Amendment rights of the target, allowing the government to tap phones, search computers, and read e-mail—even when there is no evidence that a citizen is violating any statute. If Section 101 becomes law, the more people the feds wrongfully accuse of being terrorists, the more power federal agents will receive.
Americans suspected of gathering information for a foreign power could be subject to FISA surveillance even though they were violating no law and the information gathered did not pertain to national security. The administration’s confidential explanation of proposed Section 102 notes, “Requiring the additional showing that the intelligence gathering violates the laws of the United States is both unnecessary and counterproductive, as such activities threaten the national security regardless of whether they are illegal.” But, as the ACLU noted, “This amendment would permit electronic surveillance of a local activist who was preparing a report on human rights for London-based Amnesty International, a ‘foreign political organization,’ even if the activist was not engaged in any violation of law.”
Prism, the NSA program Edward Snowden has revealed, does not (so far as we know) extend to reading the electronic communications exhaustively cataloged by the agency, but in other respects it vastly exceeds the data-grabbing Bovard described. And Prism is a program that a relatively low-level employee of a government contractor had access to; there’s sure to be much more above Snowden’s pay grade.
Bovard’s own work amounts to citizen surveillance of abusive government, and this seems like a good time to bone up on it, with books Terrorism and Tyranny and Attention Deficit Democracy—as well as Bovard’s Kindle-only memoir, Public Policy Hooligan, my short take on which can be found here.
The New York Times Magazine includes a regular advice column under the title “The Ethicist”. Readers submit accounts of their dilemmas, to which the Ethicist proposes solutions. The founding Ethicist was the comedy writer Randy Cohen. In 2011, Cohen was replaced by the novelist Chuck Klosterman.
Cohen’s version of ethics was little more than the application of liberal politics to matters of lost wallets or unintentional eavesdropping. For Cohen, persons were neither good nor evil and acts neither right nor wrong, at least in any categorical sense. Rather, society was to blame for putting people in uncomfortable situations.
Cohen’s politicized version of situational ethics resembled a BoBo version of the Eichmann defense. Even so, it was preferable to Klosterman’s rudderless speculations. Last week, Klosterman advised a reader that it was ethical to submit the same paper to two college classes, even though this was likely against the academic integrity policies of the student’s university. The reason: “I can’t isolate anything about this practice that harms other people, provides you with an unfair advantage or engenders an unjustified reward.”
As a number of commenters observed, this argument is mind-bogglingly stupid. To mention only the most obvious objection, it ignores the probability that the student had already committed to not doing things like turning in the same paper for different classes. Many universities make observance of an academic integrity policy a condition of enrollment, and sometimes for the submission of specific assignments.
So the very first thing the student should have done was check the standards he had either expressly or tacitly accepted. At the colleges where I’ve taught, students are informed early and often of the policies for this sort of thing, and sometimes have to sign documents indicating their understanding.
Moreover, it’s pretty clear that the turning in the same paper for different classes does provide an unfair advantage over students who follow the rules. After all, they have to do much more work to complete their courses. In addition to his refusal to consider the ethical significance of the student’s voluntary commitments, Klosterman didn’t think very hard about the way college works.
In light of Jamie Malanowski’s piece arguing for a moral-hygienic renaming of Army bases named after Confederate generals, I thought it’d be worth sharing Garry Wills’s measured assessment of the most famous of those generals, Robert E. Lee:
Colonel Robert E. Lee was no secessionist in 1860—he said that if he owned all the slaves in the South, he would give them up to save the Union he had fought for. Yet, as a professional soldier, he had only three choices— (a) to remain in the federal army and help destroy his own state, in the process killing his friends, his relatives, the countymen closest to him; or (b) to resign his commission and stand by idle, watching others ravage his homeland and kill his friends; or (c) though convinced of the futility of secession, to stand, once it came, between his people and those who would harm them. …
It might be objected that Lee was not choosing his country—the United States, the Union—but something opposed to his country. Yet Lee did not think of the nation as a legal unit indivisible, a judicial entity with one National Will (that Will ordering him to fight). Nor did he justify his choice on the grounds that he had a new country, the Confederacy, established by the right of self-determination. This whole cast of thought was foreign to him—as would have been E.M. Forster’s famous dictum: “I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” Forster equates, in the modern manner, country with Cause. Lee did not. He was not fighting for any Cause, for slavery or the Confederacy. For him, country meant one’s friends—the bond of affection that exists among countrymen; and when a rift opened in this union of persons, he had to choose those to whom he was bound by primary rather than secondary ties.
The Wilsonian turns his country’s citizens into a Cause, and then—having performed that depersonalizing operation—he personifies the Cause, gives it a “self” to be determined from within or repressed from without, to act selflessly or selfishly. But Lee’s people were actual persons, not a personified idea. He did not ask whether they were acting selflessly or selfishly; they had no unitary self to surrender or impose on others. They were a social complexus, of erring, noble, idiotic men. He knew it was in their interest to remain part of the Union, part of a larger band of countrymen. Choosing between these levels of his own people was an insane thing—but he was put by war (an insane thing) in a position where he had to choose. …
Lee did not help his fellow Virginians because they were right, or because he approved of anything they wanted to do as a body. He joined them only when it became a choice of killing one’s own, or watching them be killed, or protecting as many of them as he could at the risk of dying with them. Only at that last extremity was he edged over to their side.
Readers familiar at all with me know that I’m glad I’m living in Lincoln’s America, as opposed to Jefferson Davis’s. But it won’t do simply to call Lee a “traitor” and end it there. As this long passage of Wills’s (I hope) demonstrates, the matter is far more complicated. The Confederacy was not a monolithic evil, like Nazism, and in my opinion our military bases do not need to be “de-Confederacized.”
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…
About a third of the way through The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, Rod Dreher paints a moving portrait of a community tending to one of its own:
The news hit the West Feliciana community like a cyclone. As the day wore on a hundred or more friends mobbed the hospital. Some offered to move in with the Lemings to care for the children while Ruthie fought [her cancer]. John Bickham told Paw that he would sell everything he had to pay for Ruthie’s medical bills if it came to that. At the middle school the teachers did their best to get through the day, but kept breaking down. All over town people prepared food and took it by the Leming house, which, this being Starhill, sat unlocked.
“We were surrounded by so much love,” Mam recalls. “It was the most horrible day of our lives, but we could feel the love of all these good people. There was nothing we could have wanted or needed that wasn’t done before we asked. And they were there. Do you know what that means? People were there.”
The inspiring collective response of this small Louisiana town seems to me a paradigmatic real-life example of the kind of civil society that Yuval Levin (as well as TAC’s Samuel Goldman) champions here as a Burkean rebuke to harsh conservative rhetoric about the “culture of dependency”:
We are all dependent on others. The question is whether we are dependent on people we know, and they on us—in ways that foster family and community, build habits of restraint and dignity, and instill in us responsibility and a sense of obligation—or we are dependent on distant, neutral, universal systems of benefits that help provide for our material wants without connecting us to any local and immediate nexus of care and obligation. It is not dependence per se, which is a universal fact of human life, but dependence without mutual obligation, that corrupts the soul. Such technocratic provision enables precisely the illusion of independence from the people around us and from the requirements of any moral code they might uphold. It is corrosive not because it instills a true sense of dependence but because it inspires a false sense of independence and so frees us from the sorts of moral habits of mutual obligation that alone can make us free.
I don’t want to speak for Rod here. Nor do I want to superimpose on The Little Way, a deeply personal meditation on social and family bonds, a polemical or partisan quality that it in fact mercifully avoids. But I don’t think I’m misreading Rod at all in saying that technocracy is not what enabled his particular illusion of independence. That illusion stemmed from the desires of his own heart: a desire to escape the stifling atmosphere of rural America and discover the wider world; to pursue a life of the mind; to experience, as the British playwright David Hare put it in his screenplay for The Hours, the “violent jolt” of life in the metropolis.
Our culture stokes this desire, and in no small way our economy depends on it. When politicians tirelessly invoke the “American Dream,” when we celebrate social mobility and “churn,” we are encouraging millions of young Rod Drehers to leave their Starhills and become “boomers,” as the poet Wendell Berry (via Wallace Stegner) describes those whose ambition compels them to leave home.
To make the point in the context of our ongoing clash over immigration, do we not at least unwittingly celebrate the dilution of communities when we hold up as heroes those who leave behind their friends and extended families to pursue employment in America? To borrow the simple phraseology of Rod’s mother, a young man who leaves a village in Latin America or South Asia is no longer there. Read More…
Here’s C-SPAN’s video of American Conservative contributor and Daily Caller News Foundation editor James Antle discussing his new book, Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? In his talk, Antle makes the point that Republicans can prevent bigger government and scale back or even eliminate existing programs, if they’re willing to pay a political price for doing so:
The most successful conservative Congress in history, actually, in my argument was the do-nothing Congress after World War II, where Robert Taft was the leader of a very successful long-term movement to control federal spending. They didn’t repeal the New Deal, but where they decided to strike, they struck decisively. They abolished programs, they didn’t trim them. They eliminated price controls and the militarization of the U.S. economy; they didn’t sort of tinker around its edges. They cut military spending. They also prevented the enactment of something that would have been way to the left of Obamacare, a British National Health Service-style of national healthcare that was being supported by the Truman administration. They didn’t have a lot of public opinion on their side, they didn’t have a friendly president, they had a very hostile president in Harry Truman, who was a firm believer in the New Deal consensus, but nevertheless they were successful.
One reason however why their work has not been replicated very often is that politically they were the least successful. Ronald Reagan was re-elected. The Republicans held the Senate during the Reagan years until the 1986 elections. After the Gingrich elections, the Republicans controlled the House until the 2006 elections, so they had the House for 12 years, and the Senate for most of that time period. The do-nothing Congress was voted out in the next election. But in terms of actually saving this country from a much bigger government, and making it possible for us to even have the debates that we were having with Reagan and Gingrich, I don’t think you can argue with their success.
Watch his C-SPAN talk, or buy the book, for more.
Longtime American Conservative contributing editor W. James Antle has an important new book out, Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped. Antle’s answer, regular readers will not be surprised to learn, is that it can only be stopped with great effort—and at great political cost:
Government programs are like weeds. If they are merely trimmed, they will grow back. They must be uprooted when possible.
But another lesson is that big government can be curtailed, even when it is not reversed. Not achieving all of your policy objectives doesn’t mean you haven’t accomplished anything important.
Success must also be measured by something more ambitious than prevailing at the ballot box. Of the three reforming Congresses we’ve looked at, the one that was least successful at getting itself reelected scored the most enduring victories against big government. Republicans controlled the Senate for six years under Reagan and the House for twelve years after Gingrich led them to victory in 1994. But they put a smaller dent in big government than the “do- nothing” Republicans of 1947–48, who lost their majority in 1948. By the time the Democrats retook the House in 2006, the congressional GOP was their partner in big government.
You can read a longer excerpt at Human Events, but that too gives only a hint of how carefully Antle has thought the case through—particularly the evidence provided by the suicidal but effective “Do-Nothing Congress” of the Truman era. (As Antle pointed out in an event for the book earlier this week, at the time Truman supported a national healthcare plan—not anything like Obamacare, but rather an outright government-run medical system similar to the British National Health Service. The “Do-Nothing Congress” actually did something quite significant in stopping that.)
Order the book here or through the link in the first paragraph of this post.
And speaking of books, you can support The American Conservative and get a signed (or even personalized) copy of Rod Dreher’s powerful new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, by making a donation here. Doing so will help us continue to bring you more of Rod Dreher, James Antle, and all the other incisive writers you’ve come to expect from TAC.
…but how much fun would that be?
In the vein of Spencer Ackerman’s strategic analysis of the Battle of Hoth, an explanation of the most vexing question in Lord of the Rings: Why couldn’t Frodo just fly into Mordor on one of those giant eagles?
The author gives a potential plan and takes on 12 claims of eagle-skeptics, finding them all wanting. The best argument for trekking versus flying, he says, is simply the need to tell a good story:
To mind, the strongest argument that there is nothing to rule out the “eagles” plan, and that this is simply a hole in the plot, is that the matter is not discussed at the Council of Elrond. Every possible plan is discussed: sending the Ring to Tom Bombadil to keep, guarding it in Imladris or Lórien or the Havens, sending it across the ocean, dropping it into the ocean, using it, etc. In each instance, there is a good explanation given to rule out the plan; this is the literary device by which Tolkien sets up the quest to Mt. Doom as the direction which the story must take.
In all of this discussion, no mention is made of the possibility that the eagles could help in taking the Ring to Mt. Doom. …
Since Gandalf had just related his rescue from Orthanc just prior to the discussion of the various possible plans, the eagles would have been in the thought of everybody at the Council of Elrond, and it is very likely that somebody would have brought the possibility up. But they do not, and I think there are two possible explanations: 1) the possibility never occurred to Tolkien, or 2) Tolkien realized he had a problem and opted not to draw attention to it. In either case, the matter should be counted as a hole in the plot.
Sam Tanenhaus has an important article in the New Republic on movement conservatism’s entanglement with the ideological underpinnings of slavery. This is hardly a secret. Liberals have read coded racism into “states’ rights” rhetoric for decades. But Tanenhaus is making a subtler point. Conservatives are not closet racists; rather, as evidenced by their talk of nullification and their flirtation with electoral college rigging, they have internalized the sectionalist dogma of Sen. John Calhoun in such a way that seals their demographic fate. Conservative Republicans risk becoming a “lost cause” party that’s designed to “resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority,” Tanenhaus writes.
Like I said, I think it’s an important article. Conservatives should read, and grapple with, it. Still, it seems to me that Tanhenhaus’s characterization of Calhoun as a “crank” (if a brilliant one) is reductive. Postwar conservative popularizers like Russell Kirk included him in their pantheon with appropriate reflection. Kirk, in The Conservative Mind, was well aware of the difficulty of reconciling the institutional defense of slavery with an ethical conservatism:
[B]y 1824, John Randolph demonstrated that the problem of slavery was linked inescapably with loose or strict construction of the Constitution, state powers, and internal improvements. From the latter year onward, therefore, the slavery controversy confuses and blurs any analysis of political principle in the South: the historian can hardly discern where, for instance, real love for state sovereignty leaves off and interested pleading for slave-property commences.
In the end, Kirk conceded, Southern conservatism failed. “No political philosophy has had a briefer span of triumph,” he wrote. Moreover, its adherents “never apprehended much more” of Calhoun and Randolph’s doctrines “than their apology for slavery.” After the Civil War, agrarian conservatism survived in the South—but as an unlovely echo of the real thing. As “instinct unlit by principle.”
To the extent that Tanenhaus hears this echo, this instinctual rage, from today’s party of “old white guys,” he’s right to recoil from it. Yet as Kirk insisted, there’s more to Calhoun than that. The poet-historian Peter Viereck, whom Tanenhaus approvingly cites as a pre-movement dispositional conservative, also refused to completely disavow Calhoun. He located in Calhoun the same well-founded fear of unchecked majoritarianism found in the Adamses (with due allowance for the fact that John Q. was a bitter opponent of Calhoun’s), Madison, Coleridge, Santayana, Irving Babbitt, and Niebuhr.
Viereck wrote in 1956:
Contrast Napoleon’s dictatorship, based on universal suffrage, with the traditional Bourbon monarchy, which ruled not by popular referendum but by historical prescriptive right. Neither side of that contrast was even remotely desirable from freedom’s viewpoint; but the monarchical alternative was at least the less absolute and less statist of the two, since concrete traditions do more to check a bad Bourbon king than abstract Rights of Man and universal suffrage do to check a bad Bonapartist dictator.
Democracy is housebroken, is tolerant, humane, civil-libertarian, only after being filtered, traditionalized, constitutionalized through indirect representation.
In the end, it took more than protest and agitation to completely overturn the institution that Calhoun defended. It required elite antidemocratic force—in the form of the Supreme Court and the 101st Airborne Division. The complicated truth is that the “minority-interest” theory that Tanenhaus rejects can be employed to safeguard the institutions of racism as well as the individual liberties of racial minorities.
Last year I quit drinking, and read a ton of Dostoyevsky. Sadly, I was unable to play the Dostoyevsky Drinking Game–which I recommend to you all–but I did get a chance to see some of the weird resonances between what I was reading and what I was experiencing. Most of what follows is about the Pevear/Volonkhosky translations (except for The Gambler, which I read in MacAndrew’s translation) and there are spoilers for two nineteenth-century novels.