Several critics of Kevin Williamson’s 2012 piece celebrating the Republican party’s record on civil rights charged that Williamson had conflated “Republican” and “conservative”: sure, the GOP of the ’50s and ’60s looks kosher on race if you ignore that fact that, back then, there used to be lots of liberal northeastern Republicans and conservative southern Democrats.
[A] lot of those so-called liberals from the northeast who supported civil rights look pretty good by today’s Republican standards: sober, free-enterprise, small-government guys. Not ideological flamethrowers, to be sure, but not as bad as we remember them.
It would appear that Williamson is up to something similar in his reappraisal of President Dwight Eisenhower in the current print edition of National Review:
Eisenhower may have sometimes called himself a progressive, but his bedrock priorities—a strong military, balanced budgets, and limited government—are classical conservativism.
Williamson never specified who “a lot of those so-called[!] liberals from the northeast” were. I’ll try to fill in the blanks (and extend the category to states like California and Maryland and Illinois): Jacob Javits. Ken Keating. Irving Ives. Clifford Case. Thomas Kuchel. Hugh Scott. Edward Brooke. Charles Mathias. Charles Percy.
I’ll stop there. For more, check out the book Geoffrey Kabaservice recently published about the defunct Rockefeller wing of the Republican party. I find it hard to imagine Williamson believes that Javits—who wrote a manifesto in 1964 assailing the Goldwater right—or any one of the aforementioned would make it in today’s Republican party. Judging from Williamson’s favorable summation of Ike’s record of prudence and caution on foreign policy, and his deft maneuvering around both the labor left and the McCarthy right, it seems to me he’s genuine when he writes that “Eisenhower had a deep appreciation for those most conservative of virtues: steadiness, judgment, predictability, attention to detail.”
There is more—much, much more—to conservatism, in other words, than “ideological flamethrowing.”
Maybe Williamson’s critics aren’t hip to what he’s trying to bring about: a revitalized Republican big tent.
I won’t go so far as to say Williamson agrees with Sen. Rand Paul, who said, “There’s room for people who believe in bigger government in our party.”
So I’ll say it for myself: The Republican party was better off when it had a moderate wing. A bona fide national party, if nothing else.
There’s no turning back the clock, of course. Republicans can no more reabsorb moderates (notice I didn’t say “independents“) than Democrats could successfully woo southern conservatives. A new coalition will have to be formed. But recognizing the greatness, the conservatism, of Ike is a worthy baby step. Dare I say it, Williamson and I are on the same page:
[W]here the ideologue sees a two-dimensional world with endpoints marked “Freedom” and “Slavery,” Ike saw the world in three dimensions. Just as his innate sense of realism and caution led him avoid unnecessary war, Ike’s fundamental lack of zeal helped him see that an ideological war on the New Deal would lead to, yes, quagmire—something very like what we’re experiencing today. Therefore, he employed his vice president, Richard Nixon, to run interference with the likes of Joseph McCarthy, and he quietly and unflashily went about the business of maintaing a course of peace, stability, and incremental racial progress.
When reading about war zones, it is easy to envision an endless battlefield, with uninterrupted explosions and turmoil. But Atlantic writer Cathy Huyghe pointed out Friday that, even in the midst of Syria’s turmoil, life goes on for many. Her story on Syrian winemakers highlighted the way people hold to hope in the midst of fear and death.
Karim Saadé and his family own a vineyard near Latakia, Syria, located on the outskirts of the Al-Ansariyah mountains in northwestern Syria. Because it is outside the towns experiencing heavy fighting, it has been safe from attack thus far. The Saadé family has had difficulty keeping workers, especially as the local currency has collapsed and taken an inflationary toll on wages. Despite these difficulties, Huyghe writes that the winemakers are “planting the seeds, literally, for the future: Derenoncourt pointed out that they’ve just bought fresh rootstock for new vines.” Her story suggests a deep sense of rootedness and loyalty to the land:
Fabrice Guiberteau, a winemaker at Château Kefraya in the fertile Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, can see the border with Syria from his vineyards. Despite the worries of a conflict so close to home, leaving Lebanon would be difficult, he said. ”It’s about having started something and wanting to see it through,” said Guiberteau, who previously made wine in Cognac, France, and Morocco before coming to Lebanon. The Saadé family has recently made new investments in material for Château Bargylus in Syria, he noted. As Karim Saadé says, “Wine ties you to the land, and you cannot just pack up and leave. It’s a signal to yourself and to others.”
The story reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. In the throes of World War I, American ambulance driver Lieutenant Henry learns to cope and survive. His deepest moments of fellowship, love, and communion usually surface around food and drink: especially wine and cognac. He risks his life on the battlefront just to procure cheese for his comrades’ pasta. The descriptions of wine – “clear red, tannic and lovely” – of eating spaghetti – “lifting the spaghetti on the fork until the loose strands hung clear then lowering it into the mouth, or else using a continuous lift and sucking into the mouth” – are nuanced and vivid. Hemingway breaks with his dry, concise style in order to make such scenes come alive. He shows the human lust to live, to enjoy all the beauties of appetite and existence, to endure in the midst of change. For these characters, the drink is indeed “a signal” of sorts.
New York Times contributors Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez identify a similar “signal” and community-building power in coffee amongst the American military. By World War II, they write, American servicemen consumed 32.5 pounds of coffee per capita, per year. Whether carefully brewed or burnt and bitter, coffee is a soldier’s “constant companion”:
As platoon commanders, we would often share with our platoon sergeants and squad leaders while we gathered around a map and discussed our plans for the day. Whether in the forests of North Carolina, the mountains of California, or the deserts of Afghanistan, the ritual provided a sense of continuity … Coffee was more than just a drink. It was a way to remember what it’s all about, a way to connect with old friends, a way to make sense of where our paths in life had taken us.
Lieutenant Henry and his soldiers fight, retreat, laugh, and philosophize around alcohol. It helps them cope; it comforts them in the midst of sorrow. Even for civilians like the Saadé family, it is their wine – their simple work and community it gives them – that helps them cope with fear of the ominous war. Their wine ties them to the land, and to each other.
There’s a little bookstore on C Street in Washington, D.C., with a slightly tattered window awning and dimly lit windows. On first glance, it looks quite gloomy. But then you step inside.
Immediately, you are engulfed in a cavern of books. They pile from floor to ceiling, glower down from towering bookshelves, and overwhelm every crevice of the store. When Capitol Hill Books’ website says “Every bit of space in the store has a book,” they aren’t joking.
The store’s sections are handwritten notes taped to the shelves, often with special “directions.” So often, these little notes anticipate my own thoughts. As I searched the fiction’s “D” section for Dostoevsky, I met this paper note Scotch-taped to the shelf: “If you’re looking for Dostoevsky” – with a friendly arrow pointing to a special section just a few shelves away. The whole store is like this: with unanticipated rabbit trails and person recommendations, all footnoted with a personal touch. If you want to discover a new unknown author, this bookstore is a perfect place to browse.
Charles Simic shared his love of independent bookstores in a Tuesday New York Review of Books blog post. He writes, “They were more discriminate and chaotic than public libraries and thus made browsing more of an adventure.” Through perusing shelves, he found books possessing humorous and often soulful material for the reader:
“Among the crowded shelves, one’s interest was aroused by the title or the appearance of a book. Then came the suspense of opening it, checking out the table of contents, and if it proved interesting, thumbing the pages, reading a bit here and there and looking for underlined passages and notes in the margins.”
Simic reminds readers that in used books, we meet more than the author – we also meet past readers, mysterious and diverse. My sister has an old Victorian era diary, filled with old newspaper clippings and ads. According to a frontispiece by the owner, this diary was one of the few possessions she salvaged from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Jim Toole, Capitol Hill Books’ owner, told People’s District in August 2011 that he has gathered 20,000+ volumes from estate sales, yard sales, and auctions. But he isn’t sure how much longer the bookstore will thrive: “Big book shops are closing down, and those two-faced bureaucratic Johnny Onenotes in the D.C. government scream out the window that they want to help small businesses, and then close the window. So, I have property taxes, Kindle, and Amazon working against me.”
One of my favorite notes in his bookstore offers the “Rules,” i.e. words prohibited on the premises: “Oh my God (or gosh),” “neat,” “sweet,” “like” (underlined several times in emphatic permanent marker), “you know,” “totally,” “whatever,” “perfect,” “that’s a good question,” “Kindle,” “Amazon,” and “have a good one.” Toole says when people use these words, he tells them to “get a thesaurus and stop being so mentally lame.”
This is the other innate appeal of the independent bookstore: its personal eclecticism and charm. Mr. Toole’s knowledge and sarcasm are evident in every handwritten note scattered throughout his store. The store’s deep caverns, hidden treasure troves, and “mystery section” make it unique from any other book seller – and honestly, even if it’s a little harder to find Dostoevsky, I prefer it this way.
David M. Shribman accused Americans of ruining August on Monday, through their cacophony of work, school and frantic scheduling. He remembers when August was “an idyll of idleness, a time of pure ease” – but nowadays, it’s ebbed into work and school obligations:
“Not so long ago—well within the memory of half the American population—August was the vacation month. It was a time, much anticipated and much appreciated, of leisure, languor, lassitude and lingering at the beach well into suppertime… What we’ve done to August has made it the cruelest month: infuriating work and inescapable school obligations amid intoxicating weather.”
The New York Times actually wrote a similar story in August 2006, called “The Rise of Shrinking-Vacation Syndrome.” Mike Pina, a spokesman for AAA, told author Timothy Egan that “The idea of somebody going away for two weeks is really becoming a thing of the past. It’s kind of sad, really, that people can’t seem to leave their jobs anymore.” Egan pointed to ”the heightened pace of American life, aided by ever-chattering electronic pocket companions,” for crippling people’s ability to escape or just be “slothful.”
Since Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous study of American life in Democracy in America, we’ve been a documented case of superior work ethic. This work ethic has become tantamount to our national identity – and some might argue, our obsession. Social critic Morris Berman has written Why America Failed and Spinning Straw Into Gold, two books aimed at the nation’s work-fixated culture. He told the Atlantic in an interview last week that America is “essentially about hustling, and that goes back more than 400 years.” Americans, for the most part, lack true community or neighborly connection. They see careers, professional ambition, and prestige as means to “the good life.” In this mindset, life and pleasures become results-obsessed.
Berman does think these trends have escalated in the recent past: he writes that as the U.S. began to “speed up” from about 1965 on, “a kind of industrial, corporate, consumer ‘frenzy’ took over, which meant there was no time for anything except getting and spending.” This fits with Shribman’s description of the new August: a month that is now results-obsessed in its educational and vocational pursuits. Classes for high schoolers can begin as early as August 5 (whereas Shribman documents a time when they began after Labor day). College students return to campus mid-August, and summer travel has dropped by 30 percent. Americans, it would appear, are eager to achieve – not relax.
This frenzied environment may not stem entirely from technological advances (though gadgets certainly help) or even historical precedent. The country’s current economic situation fosters a sense of vulnerability and job insecurity, and this increases our desire to put in extra hours at the office. In turn, that economic anxiety may push students toward college and a degree with greater alacrity.
The Atlantic ran a curious article last week. Under the headline “Why Americans All Believe They Are Middle Class”, Anat Shenker-Osorio argues that Americans are encouraged by politicians, the media, and even colloquial language to believe that they belong to the middle class, when in fact they do not. Shenker-Osorio observes:
The puzzle is why so many who do not fit the category (as median family income reported as just above $50,000 defines it) believe they do. Why does the description “middle-class nation” continue to feel appropriate, desirable, or both?
There’s not much of a puzzle here. According to a Pew poll that Shenker-Osorio cites in the piece, Americans don’t all think they’re middle class. On the contrary, they’re pretty good judges of where they belong in the class structure, at least as defined by the distribution of income.
In 2012, the poll showed 32 percent of American identifying as lower class or lower-middle class, 49 percent of Americans identifying as middle class, 15 percent of Americans identifying a upper-middle class, and 2 percent of Americans identifying as upper class. That correlates reasonably well with the 25 percent of American household with incomes of less than $25,000 a year, the 50 percent who earn between $25,000 and about $90,000 a year, the 20 percent who earn between $90,000 and $180,000, and the 5 percent who earn more than that.
The similarities are particularly striking when it comes to the top tier. The top 2 percent of American households have incomes of more than $450,000. That seems like a plausible cutoff for the 2 percent of Americans who call themselves “upper class”.
Regional variations are extremely important in understanding differences at the margins. Well-paid professionals are clustered in cities like New York and Washington. They tend to call themselves middle class or upper-middle class because taxes and high prices, especially for housing, constrain their standard of living. The reason is not that they’re trying to keep up with the Kardashians. In low-cost areas, on the other hand, it isn’t necessarily crazy to consider oneself middle class on a household income of, say, $30,000.
Moreover, class is about more than income. As the great sociologist Robert Nisbet observed, the concept of class developed to make sense of Victorian Britain. It referred partly to differences of wealth and economic activity: businessmen were middle class no matter how rich they were. But it also indicated different mores, speech, and even physical characteristics. When Britain imposed military conscription during the First World War, it discovered that working class recruits were significantly shorter than soldiers from the upper class.
Charles Murray and others have argued the United States is moving toward a similarly visible class system. But it’s still not easy to tell at glance (or a listen) to which class Americans belong. Most look and sound like they belong somewhere in the middle. That’s the historically consistent and still distinctively American phenomenon that the Pew poll reflects.
So it’s reasonable to see the U.S. as a middle-class society, even though far from all Americans identify as middle class. The question is whether it will remain one. The Pew numbers show the number of Americans who identify as middle class declining from 53 percent in 2008 to 49 percent in 2012. Far from indicating that Americans are victims of false consciousness, that figure suggests that the norms and expectations that defined American social reality in the 20th century are eroding fast.
Forbes contributor and CEI president Fred Smith has a different definition of the “culture war” than most: in a Monday op/ed, he argued that this war is economic at heart—waged between “the forces of economic dynamism and stasis.”
He offers two figures as inspiration for economic dynamism: the economist Deirdre McCloskey and Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge, an old miser redeemed through spiritual intervention. According to Smith’s thesis, Scrooge is not a villain; rather, he was a victim of the anti-capitalist society. He references McCloskey’s book Bourgeois Dignity, where she writes that the Industrial Revolution was predicated on a shift in rhetorical values. Capitalism thrived after talk of private property, commerce, and the bourgeoisie became accepting and laudatory. Before this point, principles of hierarchy and community undermined the innovating class. Prudence and faithfulness enjoyed higher standing than virtues necessary for modern capitalism—namely, dignity and liberty:
“I claim here that the modern world was made by a new, faithful dignity accorded to the bourgeois – in assuming his proper place – and by a new, hopeful liberty – in venturing forth. To assume one’s place and to venture, the dignity and the liberty, were new in their rhetorics. And both were necessary.”
Smith argues that Scrooge (and other “penny pinchers” like him) was unfairly vilified because he championed McCloskey’s innovative virtues: “a willingness to break ranks with the cultural tribal norms of their community (courage), confidence that this course was needed (faith), and belief that their actions would eventually be vindicated (hope).” In creating Scrooge, Smith believes Dickens hearkened to a time when “guilds took care of tradesmen, nobles took care of their lands and serfs, and everybody had a station … He seemed not to have understood how the breakthroughs made by the Scrooges of that earlier age had helped transform England from a stagnant feudal society into the industrial powerhouse of his day. Certainly, he found nothing heroic or admirable in such individuals.”
Perhaps it was difficult for Dickens to applaud Scrooge’s capitalist “virtues” when facing the moral depravity and squalor that overwhelmed industrial England at the time. A Christmas Carol is full of characters who are destitute yet generous; he painted pre-reformed Scrooge as the antithesis of these poor but happy people.
Wilhelm Röpke’s book A Humane Economy dovetails with the transformed Scrooge. Rather than accepting Smith’s fully liberated individualism, Röpke advocated the principled economics of the “decentrist,” who “thinks in terms of human beings and also knows and respects history.” The decentrist adheres to “established principles; he is swayed more by a hierarchy of norms and values, by reason and sober reflection, than by passions and feelings.” This hierarchy-respecting capitalist is rather divergent from McCloskey’s progressive innovator. But Röpke believed innovation and free market economics have limits:
The market economy is not everything. It must find its place in a higher order of things which is not ruled by supply and demand, free prices, and competition. It must be firmly contained within an all-embracing order of society in which the imperfections and harshness of economic freedom are corrected by law … Man can wholly fulfill his nature only by freely becoming part of a community and having a sense of solidarity with it. Otherwise he leads a miserable existence and he knows it.
Scrooge came to know it. He forsook his icy palace of individualism for a life of community. Dickens and Röpke both seem to suggest that the virtues of dignity and liberty must be tempered and complemented with one more virtue, once called the greatest of them all: love.
“I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually—memory yields.
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
“The Act of Killing” proves Nietzsche was too optimistic. This surreal documentary, which feels more like Variety Hour in Hell, began when filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer found that it was impossible to get survivors of the brutal 1965-6 anti-Communist campaign in Indonesia to describe their experiences. He settled for what he considered the next best thing: interviews with the perpetrators. And for the reason Jean-Luc Godard gives here, that turned out to be the key to making one of the most eye-opening documentaries I’ve ever seen.
Because the killers were so proud! They boasted–and they didn’t just boast about killing Commies. They boasted about lying, labeling everybody Communist in order to have an excuse to kill them; they boasted about corruption and bare-faced bribery. They boasted about the grubbiest little crimes as well as the atrocities. They call themselves premen, a term which the film translates as “gangster” but which–as they frequently point out–is derived from the English “free man.” It covers everybody from the man who scalps tickets outside the movie theater to the man who slaughters ethnic Chinese.
Oppenheimer asked these men to reenact their killings in whatever way they wished. At first the reenactments are fairly straightforward: This is how I would loop the wire around the guy’s neck, this is where I did it. Then, as Oppenheimer would play their reenactments back for them and ask how they wanted to do it over, the scenes start getting seriously wiggy. There are Western-themed reenactments and noir-themed ones, and a glorious dance scene in front of a waterfall in which a victim thanks his killer for sending him to Heaven. There are interrogation scenes in which the interrogators still have “victim” and “pretty lady” makeup on from previous scenes. It’s a vertiginous experience which makes a lot of points–for example, the gangsters are very up-front about the fact that they are consciously modeling themselves and their techniques after what they saw in movies, the way American mobsters adopted the style of The Godfather–and makes the audience feel like reality itself is up for grabs.
The premen created an identity in which violence, lies, and self-seeking were praiseworthy. “Relax and Rolex!”, as one of them chortles. They use “sadistic” as a neutral-to-positive term. I wondered whether not only fear but also the lack of any corresponding positive identity as a survivor explained the reluctance of their victims to go on the record. The killers are often explicit about their desire to create an internal reality in which their actions were admirable: They work hard to make themselves the heroes, not the villains.
In defending Paul against the smear that he’s some sort of neo-Confederate, Domenech points out that the actual Confederacy, however briefly it existed, was no friend of liberty, at least as today’s liberty movement defines it:
Gerson’s depiction of the libertarian view of the Confederacy is simply fraudulent. … Paleoconservatives may find much worthy of defense in the Confederate state, but consider: The Confederate Constitution amended the US Constitution to better facilitate technocratic rule. The Confederacy was the first to introduce mass conscription. The Confederacy staged a series of repressions and massacres against local autonomy (east Tennessee, central Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, western North Carolina, etc.). The Confederacy imposed an internal-passport regime for civilian travel later echoed by European autocracies. The Confederate state took over most of its own economy by war’s end. And the Wilsonian “progressives” contained a surprising number of Confederate sympathizers who saw it as a noble experiment and set about applying its principles in the form of the segregating the federal government, fomenting the Klan, and more. …
[F]or those who actually study history, the idea that the Confederacy was a liberty-oriented alternative to Lincoln and the Union is absurd – in many ways, its worst aspects were the forerunner of the modern technocratic top-down state.
This is all to the good. However, if I may, I think Domenech is a bit too harsh on Gerson. This revisionist, they-were-actually-the-opposite-of-what-you think appraisal of Southern ideologues will strike some as counterintuitive because it’s all too easy to confirm the stereotype that apparently exists in Gerson’s mind. (This is why it’s typically been left-liberals who snicker ironically at the antilibertarian legacy of the Confederacy.)
Here, for instance, is Randall G. Holcombe, writing for the Mises Institute in praise of the Confederate Constitution’s signal improvements on the Federal Constitution, with the latter’s “General Welfare” invitation to crony capitalism and pork-barrel spending: Read More…
The University of Wisconsin political scientist Andrew Kydd offers an interesting critique of the spread of concealed carry and stand your ground statutes. Departing from a Weberian definition of the state as a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, Kydd suggests that “[t]he United States is now embarked on an unprecedented experiment, in that it is a strong state, fully capable of suppressing private violence, but it is increasingly choosing not to.” Kydd attributes loosening restrictions on the possession and use of guns to a libertarian fantasy that “the absence of the state will lead to a paradise for individuals.” But he follows Hobbes in predicting grimmer consequences: the replacement of violence under law by anarchic clashes between mercenaries, clans, and vigilantes.
I share Kydd’s concern about the decriminalization of gun violence, which looks to me like a risky solution to an exaggerated problem (violent crime has been falling for years). But his thinking about the relation between violence and the state is too Hobbesian to be convincing. For Hobbes, the “state of war” and the juridical state were mutually exclusive; violence was subject either to monopoly control or anarchic diffusion. For Kydd, similarly, the choice is between, say, the modern UK, in which firearms are very tightly regulated, and Afghanistan, where the strong do what they can, and the weak do what they must.
In the history of political thought, however, this is a false alternative. Following Hobbes, Kydd ignores the (small “r”) republican model of organized violence, in which the law is executed by an armed citizen body. The classical republic is not a state in the Weberian sense because it lacks a standing army or regular police force. On the other hand, it is not simply anarchic: citizens who possess the means of coercion cooperate on a relatively informal basis to enforce laws whose authority they all recognize.
The republic, in this sense, has always been more ideal than reality. But it is an ideal that has played an important role in the development of American political culture, particularly in connection with guns. For the republican tradition, particularly as transmitted by the Country party in British politics, a well-armed, self-organized citizenry poses less of a threat to safety and liberty than a strong state. That is the reasoning behind the 2nd Amendment.
There are serious and perhaps insurmountable obstacles to the revival of this tradition today. Apart from technological changes since the 18th century, the republican theory of violence presumes a relatively small, mostly agrarian society with a strong conception of public virtue. The contemporary United States, by contrast, is more like a multinational empire: a political form that has historically required much more coercive practices of government. Even so, the republican tradition reminds us that Leviathan is not the only possible source of order. We can acknowledge its necessity without regretting its evil.