This is school break week for my son, so we’re away on a family vacation. And because I don’t understand the concept of “beach read” I brought Michel Houellebecq’s acclaimed novel, The Elementary Particles along. (Soumission is not yet available in English; this is preparatory reading for when it is.) I will hopefully finish it today.
I have a bunch of thoughts about the book, which has struck me by turns as touchingly sharp in its portrait of one very sad character (Bruno, who feels like something of an author-surrogate) and quite dull in its sweeping indictments, which amount to the assertion that this character, in his boredom and misery, is the exemplary hero of our age. It strikes me that the need to assert this – to pontificate upon the nature of society – is an index of failure as a novelist, the inability to see the world through any lens but that of his deeply alienated protagonist. That’s not how Dostoevsky’s Underground Man or Gogol’s mad diarist – or Roth’s Portnoy – earn our empathy, and through that empathy our appreciation for their understanding of the world.
I keep feeling that what Houellebecq sees as a novel of ideas is really just a novel of punditry, a degenerate notion of an idea that really amounts to an attitude or orientation. When Tolstoy or George Eliot lecture me in the midst of a novel, I put up with it because I know I am in the presence of actual ideas worth grappling with. With Houellebecq, so far at least, all I get is the feeling that I know the type, I’ve heard this before, and if I haven’t already been convinced I’m not going to be.
Perhaps that just means he was still searching for his ideal form, and perhaps now he has found it: what Mark Lilla, in his thought-provoking review of Soumission, called a “dystopian conversion tale.” We’ll see what I think when that novel comes out in English. But color me skeptical: I don’t think that ideas, the currents of civilization, can actually be blamed for one’s own personal inability to connect with other human beings or find meaning. The Elementary Particles is best when it stares unflinchingly at that condition as embodied in a single person, and worst when it engages in the evasion of blaming the world for that condition.
There’s a lesson in that for novelists – but also for pundits.
Let’s take a quick look back at my before-they’re-hatched analysis of the latest Israeli election’s chickens, and see how I did.
1. This election is not about the rise of the left or the fall of the right, but about a reshuffling of the left and right into new configurations.
Likud is now projected to win about 30 seats. Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu are now projected to win 14 seats, for a national bloc total of 44 seats.
That same bloc has 43 seats in the current Knesset.
2. This election is about the fickle center.
In the prior Knesset, there were two “centrist” parties: Hatenuah and Yesh Atid. They had 25 seats between them, and sat in the government in the last Knesset. This time, Hatenuah ran on a joint list with Labor as the Zionist Union, and Yesh Atid was widely expected to be a partner of the Zionist Union rather than Likud.
Well, Yesh Atid is projected to have lost 8 seats, and we don’t know how many seats the center-left lost, but if you add Meretz, Hatenuah and Labor together, that coalition went from 27 seats to a projected 28 seats.
However, a new center-right party – Kulanu – was born in this election, led by another defector from Likud unhappy with Netanyahu. Kulanu won 10 seats.
So, in broad strokes, the centrist leaders from the last Knesset have decided to switch from center-right t0 center-left. As a consequence, they lost a bunch of seats to a new center-right party.
3. This election is about the rise of the Joint Arab List.
The Joint Arab List did indeed come in third, with a projected 13 seats. What this means for the future depends on what the Arab parties do with their newfound clout.
If I were to advise them, it would undoubtedly come off as trolling. But it seems to me that the only way ultimately to effect change is to make political demands: we will sit in coalition if you agree to such and such. The Arab parties are now a large enough bloc, as a joint force, that they should start saying what that if consists of. Then the left-wing Zionist parties can debate whether it’s worth acceding to those demands or not.
I can guarantee you that the gap will be too large right now. But that doesn’t mean it will be too large forever. It won’t start narrowing, though, until someone lays down a plausible marker for where the negotiation begins.
4. This election proves the Israeli electorate doesn’t really believe Netanyahu’s scare-mongering on Iran.
Correct: but it also proves that the Israeli electorate does believe his scare-mongering on the Israeli Arab vote and on negotiations with the Palestinians. His final pitch was: you have to stop the left from winning because the left is soft on the national question, and the only way to stop the left from winning is to vote Likud, not for any other right-wing party. The pitch worked: the other right-wing parties dropped, in some cases by more than projected, but Likud surged.
5. The election proves that parliamentary systems aren’t all that.
Consider the rise of the Arab bloc. Why isn’t the third-largest party in the Knesset a plausible coalition partner?
Well, perhaps the problem is a structural one. So long as Israel has a proportional-rep system, there’s a natural logic to having Arab parties. So long as there are Arab parties, they will gravitate toward the center of gravity of Arab politics – which is decisively opposed to Zionism as such. So any Zionist party that forms a coalition with them has to navigate, as part of the coalition agreement, the question of the nature of the state.
By contrast, if Israel had a quasi-Presidential system, the President could campaign for Arab votes along with Jewish votes. The Arab vote would naturally gravitate toward the left side of the aggregate Israeli spectrum, Jewish and Arab together. And the Arab vote would, by definition, matter in a way that it still does not today.
On the other hand, it’s possible that under a Presidential system the Jewish vote would simply move more to the right as the left became more associated with Arab votes, so that Arab voters were just as effectively shut out of the system. After all, Mississippi voters divide very neatly on racial lines, resulting in right-wing and white domination at the gubernatorial level (regardless of whether the party expressing that domination is Democratic or Republican).
But that result would just reinforce my point that the decisive questions relate to the underlying structure of a given society, and that good institutions can at best marginally ameliorate deep divisions in that society. Israel’s institutions aren’t doing an obviously better job of that than American institutions.
Tomorrow, Israelis go to the polls, in an election called by the sitting prime minister to strengthen his hand, and that looks increasingly likely to weaken it, and possibly to cost him his office. But the true import of the election may lie elsewhere. Herewith five matters to consider about the upcoming election.
1. This election is not about the rise of the left or the fall of the right, but about a reshuffling of the left and right into new configurations. Currently, Labor and Hatenuah (“The Movement”), a moderate party founded by a Likud defector, have 21 seats between them. These two parties are now running as an alliance, the Zionist Union, projected to win about 25 seats. Meretz, the most left-wing Zionist party, has 6 seats, and Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”), a centrist (on security and national questions), secularist and liberal party has 19 seats. These are the most-plausible coalition partners for the Zionist Union, and they are projected to win about 5 and 12 seats respectively. In other words, a coalition currently totaling 46 seats is expected to drop to 42 seats, plus or minus.
The right is a mirror image. Likud currently has 18 seats. Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is Our Home”) has 13 seats, and Habayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”) has 12. In the new Knesset, Likud is projected to have around 22 seats, Yisrael Beineinu to shrink to 5 seats, and Habayit Hayehudi to 11 seats – but a new center-right party, Kulanu (“All of Us”) founded by a breakaway Likud MK, is expected to garner about 9 seats, and is a likely partner for a Likud-led coalition. So a bloc currently numbering 43 seats is expected to grow to 47 seats.
Meanwhile, in the same polls that show the Zionist Union outpolling Likud, Isaac Herzog, head of the Labor party that forms the largest part of the Zionist Union, trails Benjamin Netanyahu by 14 points on the question of who was the “most appropriate” candidate to be prime minister.
And that’s supposed to be a big left-wing victory.
2. This election is about the fickle center. What’s wrong with the above analysis is that Yesh Atid and Hatenuah were both members of the 19th Knesset governing coalition that Netanyahu lead, but now they are expected to be part of a center-left government. As a result, both parties are projected to lose seats – but their rumps will be better coalition partners for the left. So this election does mean a shift to the left: a shift of centrist party-leaders who now prefer a center-left coalition to a center-right one.
More to the point, for the first time in a while these centrist parties are not running as alternatives to left and right, but as logical partners for the left. Yesh Atid expects to join a Labor-led government. Hatenuah is running on a joint list with Labor. The typical pattern recently is for such parties to collapse completely – as Kadima and Shinui did. If that doesn’t happen, it’s a kind of victory for the left.
So perhaps the better way to describe the election is: the left was so weak going into this election that even a significant set of defections from the center-right is not enough to get them close to being a governing coalition.
3. This election is about the rise of the Joint Arab List. Israel’s Arab citizen have full political rights, and there are several parties representing largely Arab voters in the Knesset, including an Arab nationalist party, two Islamist parties, and a formally non-sectarian party that has some Jewish members and leadership, a descendant of Israel’s old Communist party. This year, for the first time, all of these parties have united into a single joint list under the new leadership of Ayman Odeh of Hadash (the former Communists).
These diverse (indeed, ideologically contradictory) parties have united because of a new law raising the vote percentage threshold for inclusion in the Knesset. Every one of them was at some risk of not clearing the new bar; if they did not hang together, they might very well hang separately. As a result, the joint list, though projected to win not many more seats than the collection of constituent parties currently hold, may wind up being the third-latest party in the Knesset.
Does that matter? In terms of coalition politics, probably not. The list has said they would not serve in a Zionist government, and the major parties have all ruled out including the list in their governments anyway. That doesn’t preclude the Arab-dominated parties from supporting a congenial governing coalition from the outside – but if would do so together they would likely have done so separately.
The real significance will be if the parties are able to work together over a longer period of time, and thereby transform Israeli Arab politics into something with a bit more heft. There are really only two plausible happy futures for Israel’s Arab population: recognition as a national minority and concomitant greater autonomy for Arab-dominated areas within Israel; or greater integration into an Israel that has evolved in an explicitly post-Zionist direction.
Hadash, the leading partner in the joint list, explicitly advocates the latter, but either goal will require the existence of a party with substantial heft that can put itself in a position to make demands of the Israeli state. Whether the joint list evolves in that direction remains to be seen.
4. This election proves the Israeli electorate doesn’t really believe Netanyahu’s scare-mongering on Iran. If there were any validity to that scare-mongering, and Israel faced an unprecedented risk to its very existence, many things would be happening, none of which are. The major parties would be talking about the necessity of a unity government. There would be across-the-board support for the prime minister in his efforts to rally international support for Israel in its hour of crisis. There would be grim debate about what Israel will do if it cannot rally that support, and must act alone. You would see, in other words, all the signs Israel exhibited in the run-up to war in 1967.
Instead, Netanyahu has been undermined by economic discontent, but even more so by a sense of fatigue with his schtick, which hasn’t changed over his entire tenure in politics. Netanyahu’s pitch has always emphasized warning of the enormous threats Israel faces, and the unreliability of all other candidates in standing up to those threats. He has made no progress in actually addressing those threats because, from Netanyahu’s ideological perspective, progress is not actually possible; the threats are permanent and need to be faced with implacable resolve forever. Unless one exercises the kind of totalitarian control of a North Korean god-king, this is a viewpoint that wears thin after some time, even if the objective threats are significant and longstanding.
5. The election proves that parliamentary systems aren’t all that. Matt Yglesias made a bit of a stir a couple of weeks ago predicting the doom of American democracy because we have a presidential rather than a parliamentary system. Under a presidential system, you have two branches – executive and legislative – that each have substantial authority, and that each get a mandate directly from the people. As a result, when they clash, there’s no “principled” way to resolve the conflict, raising the specter of endless gridlock, extra-constitutional attempts to do an end-run around that gridlock, and finally civil strife between partisans of each opposing faction.
The fact that France’s presidential fifth republic has proven much more stable than the preceding two parliamentary republics should have been enough to raise real questions about this thesis, but Israel provides another useful counter-example. Because of proportional representation, Israel has always had a riot of parties representing distinct demographic segments or ideological interests, and has never had a majority government (every government has been a coalition). But in this next election, the most popular candidate for head of government (Netanyahu still is that) may lose the election, the winning party may prove unable to form a government (because of a lack of plausible coalition allies), and any coalition that does form may well have to reject the views of a substantial majority of voters on certain crucial issues (for example, the relationship between religion and state) in order to build a functional coalition.
Moreover, apart from the parties representing discrete segments of the population (ultra-Orthodox Jews, settlers, Israeli Arabs), no party will be able to identify a constituency to which it is accountable, as would be the case in a district-based system. This is one reason for the perennial instability of Israel’s political system: the voters do not have any clear way of assigning blame and punishing those who have failed to deliver on lunchbox issues, and so increasingly vote on identity-based questions.
Israel tried to resolve these longstanding problems two decades ago by switching to a quasi-presidential system involving direct popular election of the prime minister. This, of course, only made the problems worse.
All of which suggests that, relative to the underlying social structure, institutional design may not be quite as important as some political scientists think.
Rod Dreher is convinced the GOP establishment has finally decided to ditch social conservatism entirely:
A large group of Republicans have signed a “friend of the court” brief supporting same-sex marriage. The conservative friend who tipped me off to this says:
It’s quite the litany of GOP staffers, politicians, and consultants. It’s getting increasingly harder to contend that social conservatives have any home in the GOP. I think we’re in the process of transitioning from “useful idiots” to “political liability.” Social conservatives like to ask, “Why would you want a ‘bigot’ to bake you a cake anyway?” Well, why would you want to be part of liberal party anyway?
Let any social and religious conservatives who have eyes to see recognize that this list represents the GOP Establishment. You have likely heard of only a few of these folks, but the list represents the people who actually make the party work. The social liberals have won decisively. Let there be no more illusions.
And from this he concludes . . . that social conservatives would “still be compelled to vote Republican,” based on the “hope that there are some principled libertarians in the GOP.”
Principled liberals who care about actual religious liberty are simply presumed not to exist. Similarly, no thought whatsoever is given to the possible existence of unprincipled liberals who could be swayed by the prospect of a large number of votes.
But why not? Wouldn’t it be worth a bit of effort to find out if they exist? Wouldn’t it be worth a great deal of effort to try to cultivate such people? Wouldn’t it seem to be a better use of energy than continuing a strategy that, by Dreher’s own lights, has gone from failure to failure?
The analogy is often made between social conservative support of the GOP and African-American support of the Democrats. But the analogy is imperfect. Both groups fret periodically that overwhelming loyalty to one party makes it easy for that party to take them for granted. But most African-American voters have a set of bedrock economic interests dovetail better with the Democratic Party’s positions than with those of the GOP. If the GOP were the party of reversing mass-incarceration, greater scrutiny of the power of the police, etc., with the Democrats taking the opposite side on all these matters, and if the GOP overwhelmingly rejected appeals to white racial solidarity, then, over time, the African-American vote might split between those who voted more based on economic interest and those who voted more based on issues related to personal freedom – roughly the way the African-American vote split after FDR and before LBJ. Until that day, there’s no contest.
Now, I think it is very much in the African-American community’s interests to try to bring that day about. I think it’s more in their interest than it is in the GOP’s interest, which is why I think African-American leaders should be courting Rand Paul and other GOP libertarians rather than the other way around. But precisely because the interests of the African-American community are diverse, and because so many of them fit better within the Democratic issue matrix, I can understand why most African-American leaders don’t see the point in trying to cultivate options outside the Democratic Party.
But if Dreher is correct (and I’m not saying he is), then social conservative support for the GOP is single-issue driven. It’s “all about religious freedom,” he says. If that one issue were taken off the table, socially conservative voters would be free to vote their consciences – and their economic interests. If he really believes that, why is he so sure that there is no trade to be done there? That there is no point in even trying to negotiate with the other party?
Let’s imagine a handful of significant figures in the religious right stating publicly that their support was up for grabs based on a single issue: religious freedom. Come up with legislation providing adequate protection, and any candidate signing on would earn their support – or their firm neutrality if both candidates signed on. This would be true regardless of those candidates other views – including on social issues. Meanwhile, absolutely no further support would be provided to either party generally.
Does Dreher really think that the Democratic Party wouldn’t take a serious look at somebody credible who said that? Or that such a statement wouldn’t at least prompt a real debate in Democratic ranks about how to respond?
Dreher talks a lot about the Benedict Option, the building of independent communities organized around a common moral and spiritual commitment, which could keep the flame of Christian civilization alive during a new dark age. He always stresses that he doesn’t mean withdrawing from the world, but merely seceding from the larger culture. Well, there are such communities in America, and it’s worth noting how some of them play the political game.
Consider Kiryas Joel. This village in Orange County, New York, was designed as an enclave of the Satmar Hasidic sect. Satmar are the most insular of Hasidic sects, going to enormous lengths to keep themselves uncontaminated by the larger culture. But they participate in commerce – and they most certainly participate in politics. Specifically, they vote as a bloc for whichever candidate best-supports the narrow interests of the community.
And, funny thing, but politicians respond to incentives. This is a community that rigidly separates the sexes and imposes a draconian standard of personal modesty – and that strives mightily to impose that norm as a public matter in their community. Don’t even talk about homosexuality. But none of that prevented a Democratic candidate for Congress from earning their support by promising to help them with facilitating the community’s growth. And with their help, he narrowly won his election against a Republican who had previously earned the Satmar community’s favor.
I am not writing a brief for Kiryas Joel or Satmar. I think that kind of insulation is extremely destructive, not only for the individuals involved but for any kind of authentic spiritual life. But it seems to me that this is what the Benedict Option looks like in the real world – or, rather, this is a somewhat extreme end of what it might mean.
And my real point is that that approach – a focus on nurturing a spiritual community, maintaining however much integration with the rest of the world as is compatible with that priority, and orienting one’s politics on the specific needs of your community – is completely compatible with playing the two parties off against each other. Satmar stands opposed to basically everything the Democratic Party stands for. Heck, it stands opposed to basically everything America stands for. For that matter, it stands opposed to basically everything the rest of the American Jewish community stands for as well – it’s resolutely anti-Zionist, extremely socially conservative, refuses to cooperate with non-Hasidic groups – it even has a hard time getting along even with other Hasidic groups. And it still gets courted by Democrats.
And their freedom is pretty darned secure.
If that’s really the only issue, well, there you go. And if it isn’t the only issue, then let’s talk about the whole panoply of possible questions that might rightly affect somebody’s vote, and make an open-minded assessment of the relative merits of different candidates and parties. Anything is better than, in the wake of what you see as another round of betrayal and abuse, working to convince yourself you have no alternatives.
Hamilton, the wildly unlikely new hip-hop musical about the “ten-dollar founding father without a father” based on the Ron Chernow biography, has been hyped so much I almost didn’t want to see it. But believe the hype: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical is truly revolutionary – and also a deeply moving work of art, and a sincere love letter to a particular vision of America.
Start with the music. Yes, it’s been 20 years since Rent established the viability of the musical in a contemporary musical idiom, almost 30 years since a rap-influenced song from a Broadway musical first charted, and Mr. Miranda himself has done musicals before in a hip-hop/R&B mode. But Hamilton takes it to a whole new level, in part because the individual numbers don’t have sharp corners, but weave into each other. This is musical storytelling par excellence, and the music feels supremely at home in our world. And on top of that it’s really good.
That would be impressive enough an achievement in telling a contemporary story. But this is a historical play, about a period far removed from our mores as well as our music. Or is it? The most unexpected achievement of Hamilton is that it genuinely bridges that huge gap in time. It doesn’t make us feel like we are in a period piece, nor does it engage in cutesy anachronism. Instead, it makes us feel like what happened then, with these people, could be happening right next door; that the founding fathers were our close cousins in spirit; that we would know each other if we met.
We see the fetish for dueling not as some romantic archaism, but as very akin to the contests for honor and supremacy that bloody streets today; we see the tomcatting and consequent sex scandals and we know not just “it was ever thus with men in power” but that we could have a conversation with these 18th-century types, and we’d know what we were talking about. By the time Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and Alexander Hamilton are engaging in rap battles about policy in front of George Washington (Christopher Jackson), it not only feels completely appropriate, the substance of discussion is actually clearer than it would be from, well, treating it like a seminar.
The sheer amount of territory covered is breathtaking. We start with a panorama of colonial New York, and Hamilton’s arrival from the West Indies. We have the drama of the revolutionary war. The debate over the Constitution. Then the conflict between Hamilton and Jefferson in the Washington administration. Then the “revolution of 1800″ and Aaron Burr. It’s a huge canvas – and a vast amount of expository information is imparted at lightning speed. And we hear it. We take it in. Just as an educational achievement, it’s a wonder.
But this isn’t “Schoolhouse Rock!” There’s a beautiful, even heartbreaking three-sided love story with Hamilton’s wife, Eliza (Philippa Soo) and her sister, Angelica Schuyler (Reneé Elise Goldsberry). There’s a powerful story of fathers and sons, with Washington playing Hamilton’s surrogate father and Hamilton struggling to set his own son, Philip (Anthony Ramos) on an honorable path. And there’s Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), the chorus figure as well as the nemesis, who comes off as just as much an American exemplar as Hamilton, who poignantly represents the rage of the second-place finisher in a winner-take-all meritocracy, the would-be Gatsby who couldn’t quite pull off the trick of total self-creation.
And then there’s Hamilton himself. Played by Mr. Miranda (when was the last time that happened on Broadway – book by, music by, lyrics by, and starring), he is both perpetually young and prematurely old. (“I’m just 19 but my mind is older” he sings, and sounds like he’s about 12.) His story is a quintessentially American one, of a young guy on the make and determined to make it to the top on his own merits and in his own way, and because this is his story and America’s story that turns out to be what America was about all along. Yes, there’s lots of high-minded talk of revolution and freedom but what that comes down to when you strip away the pretense is a bunch of guys who didn’t want to wait, who were ready to take their shot and weren’t going to give it away.
That’s not the only way to understand America by any means, but it is a pretty good way in for a contemporary audience – and not just a New York audience. More to the point, Hamilton, a young hustler who couldn’t hide his own ambition if he wanted to, but who also had a profound sense of honor and integrity for which he was willing to sacrifice, well, ultimately everything, is the perfect figure to deliver the message that those are attributes that can coexist in a single person, and a single nation.
Oh, and a brief word about the casting. Nearly the entire cast is non-white (the big exception among named roles is George III, played by Jonathan Groff), but this isn’t exactly black Shakespeare either. This is emphatically not color-blind casting, nor (obviously) traditionally color-conscious casting. Every actor on stage plays his or her part(s) (there’s quite a bit of double-casting – some of it very clever) in his or her own skin, and voice, while also playing these characters from a very different era. But because the language moves so smoothly between the contemporary and the period, the actors can embody their characters without projecting double consciousness. It can almost make you believe in an America where, though we bear the monumental stain of slavery (which comes up repeatedly in the show), we’ve managed to wash out the twin stain of white supremacy, and see these founding fathers also as founding brothers. Almost.
The show isn’t perfect – nothing is – but I think it will only get better as it transitions to Broadway. They’ll have the opportunity to tighten up a second act that gets a bit episodic now (always a risk in a biopic). The show will benefit, I think, from the bigger sound you can create in a Broadway house, and some of the choreography will benefit from a bit more elbow room – though, honestly, what it would really benefit from is bringing it to the audience, Great Comet-style. (I get chills imagining how the duels would play if the audience were between the combatants.)
But they’ll really have achieved something if they bring it all the way to the audience – if schools from East New York to West Hollywood decide that instead of showing “1776,” this year they’ll have the kids perform the Hamilton-Jefferson rap duels. Then we’ll know Mr. Miranda didn’t just reach the bourgeois – he rocked the boulevard.
Hamilton runs at New York’s Public Theater through May 3rd, but good luck getting a ticket – it’s way sold out. Tickets for the Broadway run beginning July 13th at the Richard Rogers theater just went on sale.
Daniel Larison is not nearly outraged enough by the Senate’s intrusion into the negotiations with Iran. What Senator Cotton and his colleagues are doing is deliberately trying to cripple America’s ability to conduct foreign policy. And, at least in terms of domestic politics, it may well work.
First of all, let’s dispense with the notion that there is any principled Constitutional question at issue whatsoever. Senator Tom Cotton does not believe for one instant that the President is incapable of entering into binding agreements with foreign governments, nor does he believe that Congress or subsequent administrations can dispense with such agreements without cost. We know this because he believes that the Budapest Memorandum – which was not a treaty and was not submitted to the Senate for ratification – constitutes a binding promise to support Ukraine in its conflict with Russian-backed separatists, and that he believes failing to live up to this promise poses grave danger to the credibility of U.S. foreign policy generally. Here is video of Senator Cotton saying as much.
So imagine, if you will, a Senate faction opposed to the Budapest Memorandum (perhaps out of fear that it signing it would oblige America to do precisely what Senator Cotton thinks it does oblige us to do) sending a letter to the Ukrainian president in 1994 alerting them that such an agreement would properly have to be submitted to the Senate for ratification, and might well fail, and that a subsequent president could revoke its guarantees at will. A hypothetical Senator Cotton-equivalent would readily understand that the purpose of such an effort was to obstruct the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy, and would be alarmed at the implications for the credibility of America’s commitments around the world.
Right? Of course right.
This has nothing whatsoever to do with the Senate’s responsibility with respect to “advice and consent,” and nothing to do with asserting the legislature’s proper role in foreign affairs – a role that the legislature continues conspicuously to abdicate. (The Obama administration has been in regular violation of the War Powers Resolution for years, but while individual senators and representatives have pointed this out from time to time, Congress has taken no action, and I don’t expect it ever will.) I don’t expect much from most of the crowd of signatories, but Senator Paul in particular should be excoriated for participating in this stunt. If he thinks this is a “constitutionally conservative” move, he needs to have his head handed to him by people who actually know what they are talking about.
Substantively, the view of the Republican leadership appears to be that any of America’s threats to use force, however ambiguous or slight, must be backed up vigorously for fear of a loss of “credibility.” Diplomatic agreements, however, are not to be taken seriously, because they may be discarded whenever a new leadership disagrees with what a previous administration agreed to. They affirmatively wish such agreements not to be credible, so that they are never entered into. And, funnily enough, if you cripple America’s diplomacy you’ll have lots of opportunities to demonstrate the “credibility” of America’s threats to use force. Which is exactly the goal – because such situations play to the GOP’s strengths as a brand.
And unfortunately, the Republican leadership may well be able to achieve their goals. Not internationally – I doubt the Iranians did more than roll their eyes at this stunt – but domestically. It turns out to be relatively easy to manipulate the public into supporting a more aggressive foreign policy. If talks with Iran fail (which they might have done regardless), it is vanishingly unlikely that the American people will blame the GOP leadership in any way that matters. On the contrary: if the talks fail, the country will be more supportive of a more aggressive stance toward Iran, which will redound to the benefit of the GOP generally and its more hawkish members in particular. So long as that’s the electoral dynamic, there are literally no disincentives for this kind of outrageous behavior.
To paraphrase the immortal words of Senator McConnell, the negotiations with Iran may prove to have been a hostage worth shooting.
A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of [morally relativistic] thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
This comes from Common Core standards, McBrayer says. What’s wrong with this? McBrayer goes on:
First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.
But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both.
It’s pretty shocking to read the examples he found, and the evidence from his own child’s moral reasoning that this instruction is having a corrosive effect. McBrayer concludes:
In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.
This kind of nihilism cannot work in the real world, the world that they will encounter, the philosopher says. Read the whole thing. It’s important.
Well, I suppose it is important – but are we entirely sure that second-graders are prepared to handle Gettier counterexamples?
More seriously, let’s look at a very real-world second grade type example, and see where facts and opinions enter into the discussion.
Eddie takes Billy’s cookie without permission. Billy protests to the teacher. What are the facts of the case?
- Eddie took the cookie.
- The cookie belonged to Billy.
- Billy did not give Eddie permission.
These are all facts of the case. If they can be established, then we know what happened.
To know what consequence follows, you need to know some other facts – facts of law. In this case, these are:
- Taking other people’s things without permission is not allowed.
- The teacher is the one who determines what happened, and what the consequence is if a student does something that is not allowed.
Those are the facts of the law: matters of the rules and who has jurisdiction over a given question. The teacher duly establishes the facts, and sends Eddie to the principal’s office.
What would be an example of an opinion? Well, Eddie could say that his punishment of being sent to the principal’s office is unfair, because he gave Billy a cookie last week so Billy has to give him a cookie this week. That’s an opinion. It’s certainly not a fact.
It’s also moral reasoning, and it should properly be engaged, so as to develop Eddie’s moral reasoning further. The teacher should say that he understands it feels unfair that Billy didn’t reciprocate in cookie exchange, but that this still doesn’t justify taking Eddie’s cookie without permission because – and here the teacher would have to give a second-grade level explanation of why this is wrong. For example: if everybody took whatever they thought they deserved, people would be taking from each other all the time, and there would be lots of fights. Or: how would you feel if you were Billy and somebody took your cookie without permission because he felt you owed it to him? Wouldn’t you feel that was wrong? Regardless of what he said, he would need to present an argument – which could be debated. Because that’s how moral reasoning works.
But he would also have to say: even if it feels unfair, Eddie has to suck it up, because the fact is that he, the teacher, gets to decide this question.
The point is: a debate about whether or not it’s wrong for Eddie to take Billy’s cookie is different in kind from a debate about whether or not Eddie actually took Billy’s cookie, and we need some kind of nomenclature for distinguishing the two questions. “Fact” versus “opinion” will do fine.
If there’s a problem here at all, it’s not with what constitutes a fact but with what constitutes an opinion – that is to say, a failure to distinguish between an opinion and a preference. For example: the statement “vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream” is an opinion. It’s also a stupid opinion because “best flavor of ice cream” is not really a thing. What the speaker really means is “I like vanilla ice cream best” or possibly “most people like vanilla ice cream best.” Either of those statements are statements of fact, not opinion – facts about individual preferences.
Now, what about “George Washington was the greatest American President?” That’s clearly a question of opinion, not fact, right? Ok – but is it a stupid opinion like “vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream?” The answer depends on whether a word like “greatest” has any social meaning. If it doesn’t – if we can’t reason together about what makes for greatness – then it’s a stupid opinion, because the only statements we can actually make are factual statements about personal preferences, our own or others’. But if it does – if we can reason together about what greatness means, its relationship to goodness, or to sheer historical importance – then it’s not a stupid opinion, because we can share it, debate it, and have our minds changed about it.
Which brings me to a final test proposition.
“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet.” Fact? Or opinion?
Obviously, it’s a problem if you teach the above proposition as an example of fact. And if it isn’t a fact, then it’s an opinion. But if you were a pious Muslim parent, and learned that your child was taught that a central tenet of your religion was “just a matter of opinion,” you’d be unhappy, right? That statement is certainly more than a statement of fact about personal preference (“I like Islam best!”) – but it’s also not really something subject to public dispute, by which I don’t mean that such dispute is blasphemous or forbidden but that it’s a category error, at least within modernity, to argue with a proposition like the above in the way that you might argue about whether it was right or wrong for Eddie to take Billy’s cookie, or whether George Washington was the greatest President.
The statement, “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet,” is a creedal statement, an affirmation. It’s something more forceful and substantial than a preference, not really subject to public reason like an opinion, and not subject to verification like a fact. It belongs in its own category of statements.
My question is whether McBrayer thinks moral truths belong in that same category. If so, then I would say that he is the one arguing against moral reasoning – arguing, in fact, that moral reasoning is impossible and that therefore what we need to teach children is obedience to moral commands. That view has a venerable history in Western and non-Western philosophy, but I dissent from it.
If he doesn’t think moral truths belong in that category, then I think he is just objecting to the specific words chosen by the Common Core, and not to the distinction itself. Because the distinction hanging over the bulletin board is entirely valid and even essential to moral reasoning. If it’s not being used that way, to promote the development of moral reasoning, but instead to wall us all off from each other with our indisputable personal preferences, the problem isn’t with the distinction itself, but with the fact (if it is the case) that we’re taking our view of opinion from Jeffrey Lebowski.
Once upon a time, Berlin was where the world was most likely to end, the point where the armies of freedom and of tyranny — or, if you prefer, the armies of progress and of reaction — stood eyeball to eyeball, wondering who would blink first.
At the height of superpower tension, right as the Berlin Wall was being constructed, Billy Wilder directed the film One, Two, Three, about the divided city and continent — and one Coca Cola executive’s schemes to conquer both sides of the Iron Curtain. The film’s satire was wide-ranging, encompassing conniving American executives, spoiled Southern belles, inadequately de-Nazified German workers. And our great superpower rival — against which America stood ready to incinerate half the world, and against which we were enjoined by our new president to “bear any burden, pay any price” — was portrayed as poor and incompetent, its officials petty, lustful, backstabbing, and clownish. In other words: not much different from the folks at Coca Cola.
It is unfortunately difficult to imagine a similar film being made today. And that’s a shame. It would be helpful if we could remember that our rivals and enemies share with us a full respective measure of human stupidity and vice. It would be even more helpful if we could remember just how extraordinarily weak our current enemies are, relative to ourselves and relative to those we’ve faced in the past.
I say this not because I believe knowledge of our common humanity will enable us to see past our differences, nor because if we realized how weak our opponents are we would be bolder in confronting them. On the contrary: every single war fought by humanity was fought between groups of human beings, and most of the time both sides recognized that fact. And substantially weaker opponents are frequently able to deny their would-be conquerors victory — just ask George III. Or, for that matter, George W. Bush.
But if we had a more realistic view of our opponents, then we would realize that our conflicts with them are far less existential than we are often led to believe. Which would be comforting, because many of them are also far less likely to be resolvable than we would like to believe, either by diplomacy or by force.
Andrew Bacevich begins his book, Washington Rules with a meditation on Berlin similarly intended to call attention to how much we got wrong about the Cold War. Specifically, right after the wall came down, he crossed over into East Berlin – and he saw, suddenly, just how weak an opponent the Communist East was. That insight led him to question the verities of much of his prior Cold War thinking. In much of the rest of the American establishment, it led instead to triumphalism. And triumphalism has now turned to an existential crisis as we realize that we cannot actually dictate terms to the entire world.
My own view is that the situation with Russia is hopeless. We have very few levers to change Russian behavior in the short term. Risking war over Crimea or eastern Ukraine would be absurd, sanctions are unlikely to have any material effect, and arming the Ukrainian government will just escalate the scale and cost of civil war. Meanwhile, Russia under Putin or under a successor is unlikely to be ready to admit that it has come to a stable accommodation with the West even if one were offered. Neither carrots nor sticks are likely to be efficacious.
But the situation is also not very serious. Russian revanchism is bad news for Ukrainians, Moldovans, Georgians, etc. Their independence just got much more expensive than they can afford. But the international system will not fall apart if we are unable to reverse Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, nor is Russia crazy enough to attack Germany, or even Finland. We should keep the situation in perspective and set policy accordingly.
The situation in Iran is not similarly hopeless, but we shouldn’t get our hopes up too much either. Iran is not going to be “turned” into a U.S. ally – because that wouldn’t actually serve either American or Iranian interests. But Iran does have a lot to gain from normal relations with the United States, and very little to gain from actually building a nuclear weapon. It’s possible that there is a window currently open to ending a period of fruitless hostility, and it behooves us to make every effort to go through it if it is.
But it’s also possible that there is no such window, that Iran’s regime depends too much for its legitimacy on active hostility to the West and to the United States specifically, and that therefore we really are in a zero-sum situation. That may be the most likely scenario, in fact. But even in that case, we can’t lose sight of the overwhelming disparity in power and resources between the United States and Iran, and the relative insignificance of the latter in the larger scheme of world affairs. A failure to improve relations with Iran would be a disappointment. It would not be a catastrophe.
There is really only one country on earth of whom one could say that whether we manage our relationship with them well or poorly has potentially existential implications, and that is China, whose importance to the world economy and to the future environmental health of the planet rivals ours, and whose potential military strength does as well. Fortunately, we don’t seem to be doing as catastrophic a job on that front as we sometimes seem to be elsewhere.
So on China, I’m nervously optimistic. On the rest of the world, a cheerful pessimism strikes me as a useful tonic.
Teachout is reviewing a new Hope biography, by Richard Zoglin that calls Hope the “entertainer of the century.” Why is it that Hope was phenomenally popular for much of the 20th century, but is now virtually unknown by people under the age of 60? Teachout says:
But Zoglin, for all his admirable thoroughness, inexplicably fails to emphasize the central fact about Hope and his career—one that not only goes a long way toward explaining why he was so successful, but also why we no longer find him funny.
Simply: He wasn’t Jewish.
What was missing from his style? Even though Hope was a first-generation European immigrant, there was nothing remotely ethnic about his stage manner. He was among the few successful WASP comics of his generation, and despite the fact that he hired such Jewish writers as Larry Gelbart and Mel Shavelson, the jokes they penned for him lacked the sharp ironic tang of Jewish humor that is to this day one of the essential ingredients in American comedy.
So, clearly we need a list of currently living non-Jewish comedians of note.
I’m tempted to start with Eddie Murphy and Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock and so forth, but I understand that this would be met with “That’s not what I meant.” Ditto if I decided to mention Tina Fey or Amy Pohler or heck, Carol Burnett, who is still out there doing great work and whose classic show has aged marvelously well. Anybody who’s plausibly an outsider is, by a kind of magic switcheroo, an insider. Which is completely unfair. You don’t get much more all-American than Bill Cosby (and the cloud he’s now under has no bearing on this particular question).
I guess I could mention Patton Oswalt or Louis CK or Zach Galifianakis or Stephen Colbert but I’m sure they’d all get axed for being too interesting. So what are we really saying here? That anything non-bland is implicitly Jewish, like the way anybody from New York is implicitly Jewish? That’s ridiculous, right? What – are we going to posthumously circumcise Charlie Chaplin because he’s aged better than Hope has?
Fine: are there any genuinely non-threatening but perfectly successful comics who are white, male, not Jewish, all-American, still living, and who, let’s put it this way, just don’t seem like Lenny’s children.
Here’s my very quickly assembled, too-short list of extremely well-known names:
- Johnny Carson. Check out his classic bits. Are they the funniest bits in history? No. Have they aged well? Surprisingly.
- Throw in Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien – heck, throw in David Letterman. Contrary to popular belief, Jews did not invent irony – just ask the British. We invented anger.
- Dana Carvey. You don’t make a career playing George H. W. Bush by seeming even vaguely Jewish.
- Will Ferrell. Leader of the Frat Pack. Not Jewish. Not even Italian.
- Steve Martin. An oddball? Sure. Threatening? Not really. Jewish? Not at all.
- Hey, what about Drew Carey? By any reasonable measure, Carey is extremely successful and well-known. If you don’t think he’s funny, you’re moving the goal posts.
Give me a bit of time with the Google and I’m sure I could put together a much longer list. American comedy, like America, is much more diverse now than it was in Hope’s day. That doesn’t mean there are no non-ethnic comedians, or that white bread comedians can only be funny by aping a “Jewish” style. It just means that there’s no one style, and no one comic, who can be as overwhelmingly dominant as Hope was in his day.
Bob Hope’s work may have aged poorly because that just sometimes happens. Somebody who is just made for a particular era doesn’t age well into another. Somebody else ages better. But that applies to Jewish comedians as well. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner will be funny forever. You know who also hasn’t aged so great? Lenny Bruce, the original Jewish rebel comedian.
You know who else feels more and more dated as time goes by?
(h/t Steve Sailer for that delightful bit of Canadian humor. Hey – do Canucks count?)
UPDATE: For those who are interested, Adam Gopnik’s take on Hope can be found here.
Damon Linker has a new column about Jeb Bush and the Iraq War that really should be several columns – it goes in so many fruitful directions, but isn’t able fully to explore any of them. But that’s the nice thing about having an old-school blog – I can spend as much space as I like exploring whatever I wish.
The first potential column is about how Jeb Bush will have a hard time addressing the Iraq War:
[The Iraq War] remains very unpopular outside the fever swamps of the far right, so defending the decision to launch it could be a kiss of death in the general election. Calling it a mistake, on the other hand, would be viewed as a swipe at his brother, which would risk looking peevish and threaten to ignite a GOP civil war.
I have no idea how Jeb will finagle the issue. (Judging by his statements so far, he’ll try to have it both ways by asserting he’s his “own man” while hiring a bunch of retreads from his brother’s old neocon-ish foreign policy team.)
I actually think this is going to be much easier than Linker thinks. Bush doesn’t need to come out full-throatedly in favor of or against the Iraq War to win the GOP primary. He can just say that his brother was somewhat naive about how tenacious our enemies would be, and hence the first couple of years after the invasion went really badly. But by the end of his term he had won the war that Obama then lost. This appears to be exactly what Republican primary voters want to hear: they don’t want to re-litigate that war, but rather to frame any discussion about that war in the context of where they want to go from here, which is toward crushing ISIS mercilessly.
In the general election, then, he will face a candidate – Clinton – who supported the Iraq War wholeheartedly, and the Libyan war, and pushed for direct intervention in Syria. So Bush will not have to do any “defending” of the decision to invade Iraq. On the contrary – he’ll be able to go on the offensive with respect to more recent foreign policy failures. Clinton, after all, has a track record. Jeb Bush does not. It’s just a depressing fact that so long as there are two solid hawks up there on stage, we will not get a meaningful foreign policy debate in the general election.
That’s why we badly need a peace candidate in the race. But I only grow firmer in my conviction that there isn’t really a constituency for one.
Linker’s second potential column is about how, to-date, we’ve re-litigated the Iraq War the wrong way:
Ever since it became clear in the first months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction in the country, the Iraq War debate has focused on intelligence failures and how the administration of George W. Bush (aided and abetted by mainstream media outlets) supposedly misled the public into supporting the war.
This has always been a distraction and a misconstrual of the state of the argument prior to the invasion.
The fact is that just about every intelligence agency in the world (and not just the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans) believed that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs. The debate hinged on whether these weapons constituted a threat sufficiently large enough to justify toppling Hussein. I came down firmly on the side of No, along with Barack Obama, Pat Buchanan, Dominque de Villepin, and a few staffers at The Nation. (That’s an exaggeration, but not by much. Or so it felt at the time.)
This is a hugely important point, but one that substantially undercuts his first potential column. We’ve re-litigated Iraq this way precisely because it is very comfortable ground for hawks. And that’s exactly why the question “well, if Iraq really did have WMD, would the invasion have been justified then?” will not be asked in 2016.
We know that because we’re actively debating the Iranian nuclear program, and how we should deal with it, right now. That program is a known fact. We don’t know whether the Iranians intend to build a bomb, but it is reasonable to assume that the goal of the program is to make the country nuclear-capable. From the perspective of the hawks, the goal of diplomacy is to prevent that outcome – and if we can’t prevent that outcome through some combination of diplomacy and sanctions, we have to be prepared to use force in the “last resort.” Of course, that threat itself shapes the contours of diplomacy in ways that may prevent diplomacy’s success.
To make the contrary case, the case for ruling out the use of force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, you have to make the case that war would be worse than allowing Iran to succeed. That doesn’t mean giving up – there are other carrots and sticks that can be deployed to, hopefully, find a middle ground that allows Iran to say it is developing a nuclear capability while allowing the rest of the international community to say that it has proper safeguards in place to prevent Iran from easily “breaking out” and building nuclear weapons – and that provides proper incentives (positive as well as negative) for Iran to want to remain a non-nuclear state. But it means recognizing that the hawks might be right about Iran’s intentions with respect to its nuclear program – that it intends to get a bomb eventually one way or another – and concluding that preemptive war is still not worth it.
That’s not a case that anybody running in the general election in 2016 is likely to make – including Rand Paul in the unlikely event he gets the GOP nod.
Linker’s third potential column is about what really motivated going into Iraq:
Immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, there seemed to be a realization on the part of some in the foreign policy establishment both inside and outside the Bush administration that the events of that morning signaled something new: sub-state actors could declare war and inflict levels of harm we formerly assumed only a state could accomplish.
That’s what was going to make the War on Terror different. After Afghanistan, it wouldn’t be waged against states. It would target sub-state actors within states — usually states too weak to combat terrorists operating within their borders. This meant the war would be largely covert, with victories unheralded and defeats unannounced. Its signature would be special-ops raids, surgical missile strikes, and drone warfare.
But as we had already learned by the summer of 2002, when planning for the invasion of Iraq really got rolling, this new kind of war could be frustrating. It didn’t produce enormous casualties, like traditional land wars often do, but it also produced little glory. Victory was muddy, indeterminate. The war’s governing mood was ambivalence. The enemy could easily melt away into obscurity only to crop up in another country thousands of miles away. It could be maddening, like a global game of Whack-a-Mole.
And that, more than anything else, is why we found it so tempting to declare war on a country. Finally something familiar! Something satisfying!
Except that the Iraq War wasn’t just a distraction. It actively set back the War on Terror by creating a new failed state, right under our noses, where Islamist terrorism could breed. (As everyone now knows, the Islamic State was incubated in the chaos of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.)
There are several problems with this chronology – starting with the fact that the planning for the Iraq War began in the 1990s, with support from both parties, and that a big part of the motivation for the Iraq War was that the Persian Gulf War – a classic war between states – had such an “unsatisfying” outcome.
Linker suggests that we invaded Iraq because that fit our “Cold War” mindset, a mindset we were more comfortable with than we were with the ambiguous War on Terror. But this is highly problematic. The Soviet Union itself was only intermittently seen as simply a state in a world of states; at least as often – and almost exclusively if we’re talking about the American right – it was viewed as the head, or, better, the lead instrument, of a transnational, ideological force known as Communism. And many of the conflicts of the Cold War were fought not between but within states. The Soviet Union supported revolutionary movements around the world; the United States sponsored counter-revolutionary forces, including coups (Iran, Chile, Guatemala, etc.) and, by the 1980s, insurgencies (Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, etc.).
More importantly, of the three largest inter-state conflicts of the period – Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan – two resulted in total defeat for the more directly-engaged superpower, and one resulted in a bloody and painful stalemate. There’s a reason why many Americans, particularly but not exclusively on the right, were never comfortable with the Cold War – precisely because it was “unsatisfying” in all the ways that Linker describes the War on Terror as being.
These problems reading the past lead Linker to a questionable conclusion:
Barack Obama seemed to understand all of this. He strongly opposed the Iraq War and as president quickly returned the War on Terror to its original strategy of employing mainly covert ops and drone strikes.
And yet, as if to prove that he could be just as foolish as George W. Bush, Obama repeated his predecessor’s mistake when he approved air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya. This time it wasn’t fear that tempted a president to act. Obama’s a Democrat, after all, so he was motivated by a bleeding heart — by the humanitarian imperative to protect the rebellious civilians of Benghazi against the Libyan air force.
And it worked. Until it didn’t.
Just like in Baghdad.
The problem here is not the analysis of Libya (I can quibble over how “humanitarian” the motives really were, but that would truly be a quibble), but the implicit argument that President Obama got the War on Terror “right” prior to or apart from Libya. The evidence from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, west Africa and elsewhere is at best equivocal on that point. Covert ops and drone strikes have indeed killed lots of bad guys. It’s not obvious that we are making “progress” though.
This, of course, is Linker’s point about the War on Terror being ambiguous, without clear metrics for victory, etc. But, as with the Iranian nuclear program, if we really want to have a debate about this question, we have to ask not only what means are more successful and what are more counterproductive, but how we respond if all options present a real likelihood of further destabilization.
Linker’s ultimate conclusion – that someone needs to stand up for the devils we know (Assad, Qaddafi, Hussein, Mubarak, etc.) against the devils we don’t (al Qaeda, ISIS, etc.) – sounds world-wearily serious, but it’s actually comforting, because it suggests that there is actually a clear choice to be made, just one that leaves us feeling morally ambiguous and unsatisfied. But I don’t think the choices are nearly that clear.
That doesn’t mean we should opt for insane-but-clear over less-insane-but-muddled.
It just means that we shouldn’t hold out much hope for a robust debate that includes the deeply pessimistic perspective on our current conflict that, I have come to suspect, Linker and I share.