Daniel Larison

Huntsman And Oblivion

My column on Huntsman’s nomination and Republican foreign policy woes is now online.

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The Need For Eunomia

Re-reading the chapter on paideia and power from Persuasion and Power in Late Antiquity, I was struck by the following passage:

A lurking fear of arbitrary violence, untrammeled by legal and political constraints, insensibly shifted the weight of philosophical discussion towards ethical issues, involving self-formation and control of the passions.

It occurs to me that this states quite well my own thinking in promoting the idea of eunomia, my frequent references over the years to restraint, limits, asceticism and kenosis, and in criticizing abuses of power, unjust uses of force and violations of human dignity since late 2004. All of this is a recognition of the importance of restraint in curtailing these abuses, as well as an acknowledgment that in the absence of accountability for egregious abuses the best that can be done is to try to establish some measure of good order where one can.


The Swiss Option

In his discussion of military strength, foreign policy and the Swiss option, Conor has some interesting remarks, but he has missed one of the biggest flaws in the Hanson statement he is critiquing. First, Hanson:

It is generally known that Americans want it both ways — green giddiness and plenty of oil and gas for their cars and homes; lots of government services and low taxes; a big military but spasms of isolationism.

Now it’s true that Americans want to have things both ways in many respects, and I have made similar observations over the years, but the last of the three on this list is simply not the case. In the last century, there has never been a desire for a “big military” combined with “spasms of isolationism.” Arguably, the former displaced and eliminated the latter, and even that is not quite right. One of the problems with this remark is that there haven’t even been all that many “isolationists” (i.e., neutralists) after 1945, much less large enough numbers to send the entire nation into such “spasms.”

The so-called isolationists, who advocated neutrality in foreign wars that had nothing to do with us, did not on the whole favor a large military, either. Advocates of military build-ups, advocates of an active, internationalist position and advocates of entering, escalating or starting wars have been and are today largely the same people. Those who believe that America has the right and responsibility to project power all over the world also want to have the means to do so. (That doesn’t rule out miscalculation about how many forces are needed for any particular war, but in general those who call for a larger military are also among the most inclined to use it, and not just for strictly defensive operations.) Those who are very skeptical of the wisdom and justice of all this see no reason for perpetuating hegemony, and so tend to see no reason why we would need a military as large as the one we have. The trouble here is that most Americans are not all that skeptical, and for various reasons tend to have the most trust and pride in the military as a national institution, which makes opposition to “defense” spending a political loser for all but the safest members of Congress. Typically, if skeptics can just hold the line and prevent dramatic new increases in spending they are doing better than usual.

There is, of course, no real “isolationist” political force in the United States, and we have yet to see any meaningful “spasms of isolationism” in the post-war era. Even McGovern and most of his voters, much as I might respect the sentiment of “Come Home, America” and their opposition to Vietnam, did not really represent this. Except at the margins, the disagreements about Vietnam, like disagreements about Iraq today, were not between “isolationists” and their opponents, but between two different camps of internationalists who were disputing about how best to make policy for the superpower.

While there is no absolute contradiction between favoring a relatively large military and a neutral foreign policy–Switzerland shows this to be true–in the American context we have rarely seen the two combined. In his railing against FDR’s preparations for entry into war, Garet Garrett did make calls for building up defenses against any possible invasion or attack as part of his argument for continued neutrality, but on the whole it has been true that those who want to avoid foreign entanglements do not want to create a military force that would enable us to become entangled in foreign conflicts. One of the reasons why we have such a large military is that there are not all that many Americans who oppose foreign entanglements as such, and even fewer who have influence oppose them, much less do they see a problem with America’s superpower status.

So in this case, Americans are fairly consistent: most like and trust the military, they would regard the early republican hostility to standing armies quaint and perhaps even ridiculous, they tend to think highly of the military even when it is deployed on missions with which some of them disagree, and there is no sustained, organized political force resisting the pressure to give the military most of what it wants in terms of funding. There is no schizophrenia or confusion here, no case of wanting to have it both ways: we do not have “isolationist” policies, which is to say we do not remain neutral in conflicts that have nothing to do with us, because the public is accustomed to the government’s having the means and the inclination to become involved all over the world, and there is currently no significant force working to change the public’s mind about this. It need not stay that way, but that is the way it is.

Conor said something else that I found odd:

Though I cannot countenance neutrality in the Second World War [bold mine-DL], it is nevertheless demonstrable that the strategy redounded to the benefit of the Swiss, and the fact that they’ve prospered for 500 years, despite being adjacent to great powers that warred incessantly, suggests that isolationism can work far better than its critics imagine.

But if neutrality saved Switzerland from the ruin of war, occupation (most likely) and the physical and economic devastation that accompanies these things, how could Conor not countenance that? Might it be because it leads us to draw uncomfortable conclusions about what France and Britain and the United States ought to have done? Where was it written that the Swiss had to plunge their country into hell in 1939 when they had refused to do so in every war before it? There may have been people in Sweden or Austria in the early 1700s who would have said the same thing about the Thirty Years’ War, but I think we would look back on them today and think that they were rather odd. In another century or two, I suspect that WWII will be remembered more as the horrific denouement of the 20th century’s interrupted Thirty Years’ War, and people in the future will probably marvel that so much destruction was unleashed for what will seem to them to be fairly trivial disputes, much as most people today do regard most of the wars in which Switzerland refused to join over the centuries.


Not To Worry–Pretty Soon, No Republicans Will Be Influential

Gallup finds that the GOP is in retreat among almost all demographics. Meanwhile, Robert Stacy McCain does fierce battle against that most dangerous of creatures: the conservative who is taken seriously outside of the confines of the cocoon. The Gallup findings are interesting, because they show that conservatives are among the least likely to have stopped identifying themselves as Republicans, yet they remain convinced that pursuing an agenda geared towards appealing to them (and only to them) is the means to win back all the other people who have drifted away since ’01.

The Midwest figures are stunning: Republican ID in this region has dropped by nine points. This is not just the heartland, which the GOP is supposed to represent so well, but it has been the historic core of Republican politics at a national level since the founding of the party. Even having lost the Northeast is not quite as bad as being decimated in the Midwest. The GOP has even lost five points among married voters, six points among whites, seven points among men and nine points among middle-income voters, all of which are equal to or greater than the national average. This is the hollowing-out of the Republican coalition as we know it. McCain will be pleased to find that Republican ID among college graduates has dropped by ten points in the last eight years–the danger of more arrogant young punks involving themselves in conservative politics has been substantially reduced.


Doubt And Certainty

Ben Smith points us to the reaction of Michael Sean Winters, who was decidedly underwhelmed by Obama’s speech at Notre Dame, which Winters had hoped would be a “home run.” Winters found the praise of doubt that Obama offered to be mistaken and tone-deaf:

If that was the President’s best impersonation of Augustine, he gets an F. For starters, there is nothing ironic about faith. Secondly, a Catholic university is an odd place to give an essentially Protestant interpretation of what can, and cannot, be “known” by faith. Finally, it is not doubt that invites humility. It is faith itself – faith in a God who has not finished with His creation, faith in a God who counseled us to humility in His scriptures and who gave an example of humility if His own life when He walked the earth – that leads us to humility. And, I would have thought even a rudimentary knowledge of human psychology would suggest that self-righteousness is a temptation as well known to the doubters as to those possessed of true faith.

This seems quite right. Everyone is stricken with doubt at times, but it has to be understood that doubt, like an illness, is something from which one may suffer but which is something that needs to be remedied rather than perpetuated or celebrated. Physical illness can have a humbling effect, but a proper understanding of theological anthropology tells us that illness, like death, is part of our fallen state. Doubt is a function of a mind clouded by the passions–it is the result of confusion. It does not teach us anything, but rather prevents us from learning. It is important to see the difference between doubt and apophatic theology: one is the function of human confusion, the other is the necessary recognition of the unknowability of God in His essence. Obama misleadingly lumps the two together. As Obama would have it, because we cannot know God in Himself and cannot always understand what He wills for us we must therefore abandon all claims of certainty, even when these are founded in what God has told and revealed to us about Himself. Obama said, “It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what he asks of us,” but only for the first part of this is true. What God asks of us is well-known. In the Psalms, for example, He tells us, “Be still and know that I am God.” He has not said, “Be ironically detached and suppose that I might very well be God, depending on how the mood strikes you.” We hide behind doubt and any number of other convenient shields to protect our little selfish empires from the demands that we know God makes of us. He has said, “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and all thy soul and all thy mind and all thy strength.” What He asks of us is quite clear. Indeed, if there is anything we can say that we know with certainty, it is this.

Smith says that it was “less predictable” that Andrew found the speech admirable, but it was actually perfectly predictable. Andrew regularly promotes his idea of a “conservatism of doubt,” classes all expressions of religious certainty as fundamentalist and believes that the universal experience of doubt should somehow make doubt essential to a living faith. While I doubt I will ever manage to persuade Andrew on this point, this is rather like saying that the general experience of sin should make sin a crucial part of one’s faith, which is more obviously absurd but otherwise basically the same kind of argument.

Thomas Sunday is an interesting day. Following the first week after Pascha, we hear the Gospel reading that tells us of the Apostle Thomas’ doubt that the Lord has indeed risen. The One Whom we have been proclaiming to be truly risen ever since the week before has to appear to Thomas so that he may believe in the most fundamental truth of the faith, without which, the Apostle Paul has told us, our faith is in vain. In other words, St. Thomas’ doubt at that moment was a failure to believe in things not seen, and in that failure he was failing to believe the one thing that all disciples of Christ had to believe if their faith was to mean anything. If we look at it this way, we understand that doubt is not necessary, nor is it profitable, nor it is good, but it is rather a betrayal of the power and truth of faith. Doubt is a kind of denial of the Master. While we might understand how St. Peter, on the night the Lord gave Himself up for us, might have been so terrified as to deny that he knew the Lord, what excuse do we have to offer up such denials, much less wrap them up in faux-serious introspection and self-serving poses of humility?

Scott Richert has more on the speech, noting the “fair-minded words” anecdote that Obama keeps recycling every time he is called on to address matters of faith and ethics, especially in connection with abortion. This is an anecdote he has been using and reinventing for years as the occasion requires it. This “fair-minded words” dodge is one of the oldest tricks in Obama’s book, which is how he can continue to portray himself as some sort of reasonable interlocutor, especially on those basic issues of human dignity and justice concerning the unborn on which he is among the least reasonable and most reflexive and ideological. Perhaps if Obama were more prone to doubt the ideological certainties that prompt him to oppose any and all restrictions on abortion, he might then seem like less of a caricature on this issue and more like the reasonable person he wants us to think he is.

P.S. What part of “Do not be unbelieving, but believing” do people not understand?

Update: There is a relevant passage from the introductory article in Orthodox Readings of Augustine discussing the theology of Christos Yannaras:

Following Lossky, apophaticism for Yannaras is not simply defining God in terms of what God is not, but the affirmation that true knowledge of God occurs in mystical union with God. Although apophaticism does assert the incomprehensibility of God’s essence, it does not deny that God is known. Apophaticism points to a limit in the adequacy of human conceptualization of God not to silence theology, but to indicate that true knowledge of God is an ekstatic going beyond human reason in the experience of mystical union. The logic of divine-human communion, theosis, thus demands an apophatic method in theology, in the sense that it asserts the incomprehensibility of the divine essence; but this incomprehensibility implies that knowledge of God lies beyond reason in an ekstatic movement of participation in the divine energies.

Doubt does not facilitate this participation, but thwarts it by calling into question whether it is even possible.

Second Update: It is, of course, futile to continue debating this, but I do have another quote that will at least clarify why it is futile. Fr. John Behr, writing on the Nicene-Arian debates of the fourth century, said in “The question of Nicene orthodoxy”:

This is an important point: at stake are different paradigms, within which doctrinal formulations take flesh. The similarity of terms and expressions, yet difference of paradigm or imaginative framework, explains why most of the figures in the fourth century seem to be talking past each other, endlessly repeating the same point yet perennially perplexed as to why their opponents simply don’t get it.

Those who do not understand that doubt is contrary to and antithetical to faith keep using the words doubt and faith as if these usages were the same as those employed by the critics of Obama’s remarks. Once again, we are running up against the problem of Obama’s manifest heterodoxy (in which he is obviously far from alone), which makes every dispute over his statements on faith into an interminable grudge-match. Orthodox critics will apply standards and definitions to his words that he does not apply, and so he says what seems to him and those of like mind to be utterly unobjectionable, almost boilerplate, statements, but which are obviously nonsense to anyone with meaningful grounding in orthodox definitions. The endless argument over what Obama was saying, much less whether he was right in what he said, is unlikely to be resolved when the disputing parties are not even working within the same framework. This doesn’t mean that all frameworks are right, but merely that they are infuriatingly opaque to one another, so much so that there seems to be no possibility of agreement on the basic definitions of terms. Nothing could have better illustrated why dialogue and “fair-minded words” are utterly inadequate to any debate that involves such fundamental disagreements than the debates that Obama’s speech has provoked.

Third Update: H.C. Johns, guest blogging for John at Upturned Earth, has an excellent post that explains with much more patience what I was trying to say with my quote from Fr. Behr, and which does an admirable job of responding to Damon Linker’s comments on the debate. One of things that Johns says that is crucial for understanding the vastness of the chasm between the two sides here was this:

This difference is glaringly apparent in Linker’s response. His attitude towards doubt is thoroughly post-Cartesian: doubt for him directs us to the seen, to the experiences which ground proper understanding [bold mine-DL]. Because we are blind to the things named by revelatory tradition and lack a direct experiential confirmation, doubt demands we should withhold judgement. This mode of thinking has deep roots stretching back to the beginning of modernity, underlies our science and political process, and is deeply appealing at many levels, but note how different this is from Larison’s doubting: doubt here does not lead us away from truth. To the contrary, it is the only way to truth, and a truth which is obscured from the very beginning of inquiry.

I think Johns has described this correctly, and it is this emphasis on the visible that is the most troubling. Were we to have “direct confirmation,” our freedom would be curtailed. At the same time, to say that remaining in uncertainty is the “destiny of all thoughtful human beings” is to say that it is the destiny of all thoughtful human beings to remain out of communion with God for at least their entire earthly lives. This is a denial of the possibility of real incarnate faith, but just as important it is a denial of the Christian’s hope of entering into communion with God.

My view on this has been influenced to some degree by Dostoevsky’s understanding of the relationship between free will and faith, which places great emphasis not only on belief in things not seen, but a strong suspicion of believing things about God simply on the basis of visible signs. After all, the Lord said, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign, there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.” (Mt. 16:4) For Dostoevsky, the miraculous was real, but it was something that he also believed could infringe on free will and a freely-received faith.


Why Haven’t They Turned Lead Into Gold Yet?

The Palestinians could have transformed the Strip into the Singapore of the Mediterranean; instead, it became Hamastan. ~The Jerusalem Post

This is what we might expect from the Post’s editors, but it seems to me that this statement has reached a new level of absurdity that is remarkable even for this lot. One could observe that Singapore would not have been the Singapore we know today had it not been for a number of exceptionally favorable conditions that prevailed after WWII, and that it would probably not have grown into the commercial and financial center that it became if it did not have the security and peace of being under British rule for decades after the war and then quickly establishing its own independence over forty years ago. The Palestinians have been under occupation for almost as long as Singaporeans have had their own country, but the Palestinians are somehow to blame for not having created a new Singapore overnight under far worse conditions.

Having occupied Palestinian territory for decades and ruled over them as a subject people, Israel is supposed to be credited with leaving an impoverished, overcrowded enclave to the inevitable domination of the faction that was bound to control it, after having created the conditions that prompted the formation of Hamas and tacitly permitting it to grow as a counterweight to the PLO. Then, after just four years, most of which have been defined by embargo and occasional military operations, the failure to create Singapore on the Med will be used as evidence that Israeli policy has already been too generous. Singapore’s rise was fueled in no small part by foreign investment. Who would put their money in Gaza under current conditions of embargo and lack of sovereignty?


Now For Something Completely Different

Here is the video for Chris Cornell’s “Long Gone.”

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Solidarity Revisited

Richard and I are in agreement that monetary policy is the concern of elites and has little or no direct connection to popular attitudes, but I think he has misunderstood my references to social solidarity and citizenship. I mentioned these things as bulwarks against both personal irresponsibility and the related recourse to dependency on government remedies. If inflationary policies serve the interests of debtors, which encourages them to endorse such policies at the expense of the commonwealth and their less-indebted fellow citizens, repudiating these policies will require an understanding of the common good and the mutual obligation that fellow citizens owe to one another. No small part of the housing crisis is the result of defaults that result from people who abandon mortgages without any concern for how this affects their “neighbors,” whom they do not actually see as their neighbors except in the most minimal, physical sense. An ethic of remaining in a place despite hardship, rather than walking away to satisfy immediate desires, would teach us to resist this. This is why discussions of place, limits and restraint are essential to correcting many of the disorders afflicting our country today.

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Huntsman To China

Everyone seems to agree that the appointment of Utah’s Gov. Jon Huntsman as ambassador to China is a wise and politically brilliant move. I plan to have more to say about this, but one thing I will say now is that the nomination is a fascinating intersection of the Obama administration’s flirtations with foreign policy realism, the GOP’s increasingly unreasonable definition of what passes for a “moderate” (Huntsman’s heresies, such as they are, are actually quite mild), the enduring (and perfectly predictable) resistance to Mormon politicians in presidential politics, and the absence of credible high-profile Republican leadership on foreign policy in opposition to the administration. Related to foreign affairs, Huntsman may have been the most qualified and credible Republican office-holder outside of Congress, and he has now joined the administration. This suggests not only that the administration has captured the foreign policy center, as I was arguing earlier this week, but that those Republicans who might be best qualified to try to take it away from Obama are moving out of electoral politics and into diplomatic service on behalf of Obama’s administration.

P.S. Regarding the Giordano remark about Steele’s Romney gaffe, I would repeat that Steele’s gaffe was a true Kinsley gaffe in that it was an accidental statement of an impolitic truth. Mormonism was, and remains, a real political liability for Romney, as it would have been for Huntsman had he considered running in ’12. This makes all kinds of people uncomfortable for different reasons, but the main reason seems to be that East Coast elite conservatives have developed this strange habit of anointing prominent Mormon politicians who stand no chance of winning presidential nomination as future leaders of the party and they are finding it quite irritating that most Republican voters aren’t going along.

As for the Mormon outreach the Obama campaign did in early ’08, I would note that this yielded nothing in real electoral terms for the reasons that Romneyites are always telling us about–Mormons tend to be social conservatives and they usually back socially conservative politicians, and Obama was decidedly not one of those. Obama’s evangelical outreach yielded no meaningful gain for much the same reason. Evangelicals have been dissed and dismissed inside the coalition for decades, but they keep showing up and backing the party more actively than any other single group, so it is unlikely that Mormon voting patterns are going to change dramatically in the near future. Ironically, it is partly because of the stubborn loyalty of evangelicals to the Republican coalition that Mormon candidates are never going to win presidential nomination on the party’s ticket.


Recapturing The Center

My new column for The Week is now up. Here is the main point:

The faction most responsible for the GOP’s political failure is national security conservatives. Yet within the party, they remain unscathed, their assumptions about the use of American power largely unquestioned, and their gross errors in judgment forgotten or readily forgiven. Among the mainstream right, the foreign policy of the Bush administration is barely a subject of debate. Rather than reorienting Republican foreign policy towards a political center defined by realism, humility and restraint, the GOP’s leadership and activists have redoubled their commitment to Bush and Cheney’s hawkish stances and to a lock-step defense of the Bush administration’s policies.

This situation creates a strange incongruity. In one breath, conservatives will invoke a baseless claim that Bush’s excessive spending lost them the country, and in the next they will defend to the last Bush’s decisions as Commander-in-Chief. Yet these were the decisions that, more than anything else, led to Democratic victories and the GOP’s now toxic reputation. What is more, everyone outside the conservative bubble knows the narrative that mainstream conservatives tell themselves is false, which makes conservative professions of fiscal austerity and continued hawkishness even less likely to win public support.

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