And, in what I hope is my last post on foreign policy realism for the day, I think there’s a general problem with the oft-elided distinction between descriptive and prescriptive realism.
Descriptive realism is a theory of how international relations works. Interests drive the behavior of states, not sentiment or ideology. One Arab state may cooperate with the Jewish state against another Arab state; one Christian kingdom with a Muslim kingdom against another Christian kingdom; one Communist dictatorship with a capitalist democracy or fascist dictatorship against another Communist dictatorship – in each case depending on whether their bread is buttered on the relevant side. As such, if you want to predict what a state will do in a given circumstance, or in response to a given policy, examine their objective interests rather than what they declare their regime believes or what are its people’s sentiments and prejudices.
But this descriptive theory necessarily has prescriptive implications. If you believe that interests drive foreign relations, then a policy premised on another theory – that, for example, democracies will not go to war with one another, or that non-democratic regimes that depend on radical ideology are necessarily aggressive, or that alliances of sentiment and ideology are more enduring that alliances of convenience (or, for that matter, that states can effectively be manipulated against their national interests through the application of interest-group-based pressure within the system – a notion that both many supposed realists and some neoconservatives seem to believe far too easily, the difference between them being that some realists assume we are the ones being manipulated, while some neoconservatives assume it’s foreign regimes that we can manipulate effectively in this manner) – will prove itself ineffective in practice.
A state following a policy based on one of these premises will be surprised by unexpected rebuffs and betrayals and outbreaks of conflict, or may commit itself to action unnecessarily based on threats that don’t really exist. Descriptive realism implies, prescriptively, that an effective foreign policy will be crafted based on an understanding that other states will be motivated by a rational assessment of their own national interests. Both threats and opportunities will be assessed accordingly.
What it doesn’t do is say anything about the moral content of our own foreign policy. A given state could, perfectly reasonably, pursue a highly idealistic foreign policy while being guided by descriptive realism. Descriptive realism wouldn’t dictate that state’s goals, but would shape that state’s expectations of how its policy would play out in practice. That state would not assume that other states would recognize that it was pursuing an idealistic foreign policy, and adjust their own foreign policies in gratitude. Rather, it would assume that other states would react to its own idealism by interpreting it in terms of theories about our own assessment of our own national interest, and by evaluating it in terms of its effect on their own interests.
Analogously, the manager of a business could decline to enter a business line she thought unethical or immoral even if legal and profitable, notwithstanding assenting to the general proposition that her job is to maximize shareholder value. She is, after all, a human being in addition to being a manager. She just wouldn’t rationally assume that, because she chose to forego this business opportunity, other firms will do likewise; rather, she should assume that she has just handed a gift to whoever does choose to seize that opportunity.
My point being: descriptive realism does have prescriptive implications, but those implications do not include some kind of obligation to follow a prescriptively realist foreign policy.
Patrick Harris makes an interesting comment on my last post:
[E]ven though the realist preference for the anti-ideological pursuit of the national interest makes great sense to me, it’s very clear that nations do not always behave that way. I might suggest that the greater the constraints that security competition places on a given political situation, the more likely it is that actors will behave as realist theory will predict. In that case, the reason that the US is behaving that way it is despite having no substantial interest in the Syrian Civil War is precisely because we have very little directly at stake and do not anticipate immediate consequences for our core interests. Ideology and sentiment is given more free reign where material factors are less constraining. That doesn’t debunk realist theory, but it does demonstrate it’s limitations.
There’s a potent analogy to the agent-principal problem in corporate governance. Theoretically, corporations are organized to serve the interests of the shareholders – they have no independent interests of their own. In practice, of course, management’s interests and shareholders’ collective interests do not always coincide. Where there is robust competition for the shareholder dollar, for management positions, and for profits, that divergence shouldn’t be terribly important. Poor profit performance would be rapidly reflected in poor stock market performance, and in the cashiering of the incumbent managers.
By contrast, weak competition in any of these areas will result in a larger divergence. If a company has a “cash cow” that is not vulnerable to competition, management has a powerful incentive to over-invest in risky greenfield initiatives, even those with a negative expected value, in order to justify its own lucrative position to shareholders (the cash cow could probably be managed very cheaply, which wouldn’t be good for management). Limits on transferability or voting rights of shares or other restrictions that “lock in” shareholders to a particular investment will reduce the incentives on management to run a lean cost structure. Ditto for situations where managers can effective form a cartel, either controlling their own selection or bargaining collectively (or both).
Analogously, if the United States has extraordinary freedom of action (the equivalent of a “cash cow”), then the incentives to limit exposure to foreign policy liabilities are limited – and, indeed, the regime interests may be aligned, generally, with any policy that justifies their position, even if it has a negative expected value not only for the nation but for the regime itself (by limiting its future freedom of action).
I’ve talked in the past about the utility of “real options” theory for understanding the sometimes perplexing motivations of revisionist powers in the international system. (In a nutshell: if your power is expected to decline over time, it may make sense for you to take actions that have a chance of dramatically increasing your power, even if on an expected-value basis you will lose power faster. In options terms, it’s rational for you to pay a premium to buy volatility.) That kind of analysis is probably even more useful if applied to agents and interests within a system rather than to the system itself.
More generally, I think it can be useful to think about “realism” in terms other than expected value. I should have kept that in mind when writing my last post.
If I understand correctly, the “realist” view of foreign affairs is that states act entirely on the basis of objective national interests (as best they understand it). Ideology or sentiment may be deployed to rationalize policy, and thereby justify its costs to the citizenry, but it isn’t the driver of policy. Therefore, changes in regime – even radical changes in a regime’s character – don’t generally change foreign policy, because they don’t change that configuration of interests.
There’s obviously some truth to this, but there are also obviously limitations to any such completely reductionist theory. Of course, you can complicate the model by distinguishing “regime” interests from “national” interests, or by deploying an interest-group model of internal regime politics, and then seeing how interest-group interests might deform foreign policy away from the national interest, without positing the existence of forces other than interests that drive policy. But make the model sufficiently complicated and it ceases to be predictive.
But what possible interest-based model of foreign policy explains the Obama Administration’s recent decision to intervene, even modestly, in Syria?
The Assad regime is exceedingly nasty and not particularly friendly to America – but neither is it an important antagonist, and Syria has proved willing to deal with America in those rare instances when our interests have converged. The collapse of Syria into chaos potentially creates serious problems for American allies like Turkey and Israel, but this is an argument for either mediating an end to the civil war or tacitly accepting an Assad regime victory, not for intervening on the side of a fractured and highly questionable opposition.
Dan Drezner makes the argument that, in fact, American interests are served by prolonging the Syrian civil war, because this drains resources away from Iran and Hezbollah. This sounds like a version of the old “flypaper” justification for the occupation of Iraq – better Iran and Hezbollah should be fighting in Syria than . . . here? As with Iraq, the justification evaporates upon examination. Longstanding conflicts don’t weaken extremist groups, they add to their resources – even as they drain the overall resources of the society. A prolonged civil war will certainly weaken Syria, but I don’t see how it will materially weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon. And I’d be curious to see numbers on just how much of a drain the Syrian conflict is on Iran, even in monetary terms. Most importantly, what about the radicalizing effect of a prolonged civil war on Sunnis in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, etc? I was under the impression that preventing that radicalization was a really big foreign policy objective. And last, there’s Daniel Larison’s point that if the goal is to prolong the civil war, it’s counter-productive to put American credibility on the line by publicly choosing sides. It would be far more sensible for us to covertly support the rebels while publicly advocating a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Drezner’s argument feels like an attempt to impose coherence on a policy that is driven by other factors.
Is there an interest-group explanation for American policy? Israel has no love for Assad, but the Israelis are more concerned about the possibility of chaos on their northern border than anything else, and are far from sanguine that a successor regime would be any more friendly than Assad’s has been. The American oil industry has no reason to favor instability in the region, and has no particular interests in Syria. The “military-industrial complex” gains little from our involvement in these kinds of bloody messes on the ground, and it’s a stretch to see how involvement in Syria is going to help sell more drones or bombers, except as an instance of the general rule, “more war is good.” Unless you believe there are literally no tradeoffs, Syria seems like a bad square on which to place the kind of bet that could pay off with large contracts.
What does that leave? Three possibilities come to my mind.
First possibility: we’re doing it for our Arab allies. America’s Sunni allies – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc. – clearly favor a rebel victory. Arguably, we are doing them a favor. At the time of the Libyan adventure, I understood American policy as basically being driven by a desire to “help” France (and, to a lesser extent, to UK), which strongly favored intervention. And France wanted to oust Qaddafi because their client had just been driven from Tunisia without Paris lifting a finger to support him; it would just look bad if “people power” could topple a French-backed dictator but not a dictator who had worse relations with the West (or, worse, was backed by Italy). Our policy also appeared to be driven by a desire among the Gulf states to get rid of a guy who had been a persistent annoyance in the Arab League. But actually committing to a rebel victory in Syria is a much bigger favor. And it’s really unclear what we are getting in exchange. I’d like to see a realist actually do the “pro-” and “con-” analysis on this one before I’d accept that we’re publicly arming the Syrian rebels because we “need” to satisfy our Sunni Arab allies.
Second possibility: we’re doing it to influence the rebels. It’s possible that we see a rebel victory as a realistic prospect, and want to make sure that we have “friends” among the victors. In particular, we want to make sure that anti-American terrorist groups don’t wind up dominating a post-Assad Syria. The problem with this idea is twofold. First, it’s not clear that this sort of strategy works – it’s not clear that these kinds of friends stay bought once the smoke clears, nor that we don’t wind up merely pushing rival factions into more open opposition to America. But that’s a lesson we never seem to learn, so put it aside. More importantly, the timing doesn’t work. America is stepping up its support for the rebels at the very moment that it’s widely reported that the Assad regime is winning. If we were trying to curry favor with rebel factions, we’d have gotten involved much earlier.
The third possibility: that the American government sees itself as necessarily implicated in the Syrian conflict simply by virtue of our deep involvement across the region, and so cannot plausibly avoid being blamed for whatever outcome transpires. We cannot, in other words, have a hands-off policy – the only question is what our hands will be seen doing. And they need to be seen as doing something that has a positive propaganda value internationally. This is, roughly, the justification that was offered for intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina and later in Kosovo: that it would be “unacceptable” for the Serbs to get away with massacres and ethnic cleansing in the “heart of Europe” and therefore America needed to engineer, by some combination of diplomacy, military aid, and outright military intervention, a resolution reasonably favorable to the non-Serb side in the former Yugoslavia.
I see two problems with this analysis from a realist perspective. First of all, it seems clear that the advocates of intervention are creating the situation that they ostensibly are concerned about: the implication of American credibility in conflicts far from any direct American interest. From a realist perspective, why would a regime continually extend its credibility further in order to preserve it from challenge? Isn’t it obvious that this describes a kind of foreign policy equivalent of a Ponzi scheme?
But the bigger problem from a theoretical perspective is that this stretches the definition of “realism” to the breaking point. If a “realist” explanation of America’s Syria policy is that the American regime sees its interests as served by promoting the notion that America is the global hegemon responsible for problems that it did not clearly cause, cannot clearly solve, and that do not directly implicate its interests, then that’s as much as to say that “realism” is not a realistic policy for America. At which point, what’s left of realism as a theory?
Hence my original question. Is there a convincing realist explanation for America’s Syria policy? And if not – if American policy is being driven by forces divorced not only from the national interest but from a clearly-discernable parochial interest of the regime or powerful interest groups – then what are the implications for realism as a descriptive theory of foreign affairs?
Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten. On that mystery and not on the madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe the church is founded and founded irremovably because founded, like the world, macro and microcosm, upon the void. Upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood. Amor matris, subjective and objective genitive, may be the only true thing in life. Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?
–Stephen Dedalus in chapter 9 of Ulysses by James Joyce
Happy Father’s Day and Bloomsday everyone.
A few years ago, I spent some time with a group of young American actors who had studied at the Moscow Art Theater for four years, then come back to America to form a theater company of their own, Studio Six. They put on several innovative productions, the most interesting of which were a play based on a Chekhov short story and a play based on a portion of a Dostoevsky novel, and what I liked about both pieces was the fact that you never lost sight of the fact that you were watching theater – and yet maintained a firm emotional connection with the characters behaving so theatrically. You were, somehow, kept analytically distant and emotionally close at the same time.
Classic Stage’s wonderful current production of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle reminded me of my old friends from Studio Six on multiple levels.
Most obviously, because the production is framed by a conceit that it is being staged by a group of Russian actors in 1990 or 1991 – right as the Soviet Union is falling apart around them. The frame is used to wonderful comic effect repeatedly over the course of the evening, first with the lights going out leaving the troupe hanging around in the dark singing the Internationale (which had been dropped as the Soviet anthem in 1944 – but there wouldn’t be much of a joke in singing this); then with a request to the audience to join the actors on stage to serve as guests at a wedding (because, due to the management’s “extravagant incompetence” there are not enough actors to do the scene); and later leading the audience in a sing-along of an exceptionally simple chorus to one of the many songs (it consisted of a single syllable: “oh,” which they helpfully raised on signs).
And it is used to expressive effect in the many ways that wonderful theatrical effects are achieved with impoverished means: suitcases strewn across the stage to represent a rickety bridge over a chasm; sponges squeezed into metal pails to represent the sound of snow melting off the roof – these are the kinds of tricks that any small theater company might invent, but their poverty resonated differently with the late-Soviet setting. (And kudos to director Brian Kulick, lighting designer Justin Townsend, and set designer Tony Straiges for the collective achievement of creating this resonant world.)
But more because, contra Brecht’s own theatrical theories, these “alienating” maneuvers that remind us we are watching a play don’t take us out of the story – they bring us deeper into it. They are telling another story: a story about why this story is being told.
To recap the main story that is being told: Grusha, the servant woman (the very affecting Elizabeth A. Davis), cares for the abandoned infant son of the hated Governor and his heartless materialist harpy of a wife (played with great comic zest by Mary Testa, who plays a couple of other nasty old lady roles as well), saving him from capture (and likely death) when the revolution breaks out, spiriting him out of town, entering into a loveless match (with a farmer faking his death to avoid the draft, played with real menace by Jason Babinsky, who’s also excellent as the Lawyer in the climactic trial) to ensure he has a roof over his head (she doesn’t know what has become of her beloved soldier, played with powerful simplicity by Alex Hurt), and raising him as a mother – until the revolutionary tide is reversed, and his mother demands his return.
She is brought before a corrupt judge, Azdak (who’s got his own story that takes up most of the play’s second act – he’s played with the full 1.21 gigawatts by Chrisopher Lloyd, who brings the house down with his hilarious judgment of a medical malpractice case, but he also plays the narrator in the first half, and does so very unobtrusively). He must decide who the true mother is. After listening to testimony, he cannot decide – on the one hand, he hates the old Governor and his wife (his whole judicial philosophy is to combine utterly venal corruption with a firm thumb on the little guy’s side of the scale); on the other hand, they have bribed him, and Grusha can’t afford to. On the one hand, Grusha clearly loves the boy (who is played, by the way, by a terribly sad puppet, manipulated by Tom Riis Farrell, who also plays several other roles, though he is most affecting as the leader of the Russian acting troupe in the frame story); on the other hand, if he awards the child to his biological mother, the kid will grow up rich, and safe.
And so he resorts to the chalk circle of the title (Caucasian because the play nominally takes place in feudal Georgia, although the actors of the frame story appear to have set it in their present). The boy is placed in the center. Each woman claimant grabs an arm. And whoever wrests him out of the circle wins him. Grusha can’t do it – she loses him twice, in fact, never pulling on his arm at all – and cries out: what is she supposed to do, tear him to bits? And yet the corrupt and cynical judge Azdak awards her the boy, and the play ends with the announcement that Azdak’s brief tenure as judge was later remembered as a kind of golden age.
What is this climactic scene about? It’s a happy ending, because the only unequivocally good character is rewarded, and that reward appears to be the result of pure human feeling, not the outcome of some kind of class conflict. But why the chalk circle? What’s the purpose of this trial by ordeal?
The play is supposed to derive from a 14th century Chinese play, but it has always reminded me of an earlier precursor, the story of Solomon splitting the baby. In that story, King Solomon must judge a case where two women claim the same child. He proposes to cut the baby in half. One woman agrees – the other withdraws her claim to save the child. And so King Solomon awards the baby to the mother who withdrew, because obviously the true mother would rather lose the child than see it killed.
The biblical text says that, when they heard the story of this judgment, the people “feared the king” [1 Kings 3:28]. “Fear” in biblical Hebrew may be better translated “awe” in some circumstances, but I prefer to read it as fear – because there’s a political meaning behind the story. Solomon’s father, David, ruled a kingdom beset by civil strife; he had to put down a revolt by his own son, and then another by the northern tribes. Solomon himself was only able to claim the throne after a struggle with his older brother (as David was only able to claim the throne after the deaths of Saul and Jonathan). Avoiding a repeat of his father’s bloody reign must have been a central concern of the new king.
And that’s the subtext of the story. The baby is the united kingdom of Israel and Judah. King Solomon is willing to divide the baby with a sword if that’s what the mothers demand, which will lead to the baby’s death. But the true mother – the one who really loves the baby – will surrender all rights rather than see the baby killed.
That interpretation of the biblical story came to my mind as the play came to a close, because of the last move that the actors make – and they are, briefly, actors again, telling us the story of Brecht’s play. What they do is, they all squeeze into the chalk circle, and the lights go down.
What does that mean? Well, remember, this is 1990 or 1991. The Soviet Union is falling apart. It’s not just that the world is changing – their country is splitting into pieces, formally and legally, and nobody knows where it will stop. Moreover, we now know that their country was about to be pillaged by those best-positioned to take advantage of the post-Communist chaos. The question anyone might ask, casting their minds back into that moment in time, is: who really loves the baby?
Because that’s who they identify with by entering the circle. Not with Grusha, the good mother. With the baby, who doesn’t want to be torn to pieces.
It’s a beautiful, hilarious, and genuinely moving production – and I haven’t even mentioned the lovely original music by Duncan Sheik. Go see it.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle plays at Classic Stage Company through June 23rd.
Daniel Larison objects to my attempt to narrow the meaning of “hawk”:
If the hawk label doesn’t refer in general to those advocating for aggressive and militarized policies, I’m not sure what it could mean. When I refer to Syria hawks, I mean those people calling for increased arms supplies to the opposition or military action against the Syrian government. Syria hawks obviously don’t include all hawks, and they may not even include all neoconservatives, but as a shorthand I don’t know how else we would describe them. The most accurate alternative I can think of is interventionist, but I don’t see why hawk shouldn’t be used to describe supporters of aggressive policies in Syria, Iran, or anywhere else.
I guess I think there’s some value in distinguishing people who, when he sees an enemy, believes he must be crushed less he wreak terrible harm upon us, and the kind of plumed-helmeted Mrs. Jellyby eager to interpose American might between the world’s victims and their victimizers, wherever they may be, or the kind of fellow who simply can’t stand the thought that anything is happening anywhere without his being in charge of the situation. All are frequently styled hawks, I admit, but I think distinguishing between them terminologically would be useful if it could be accomplished.
The “hawk/dove” dichotomy, in my mind, should properly refer to threats and one’s preferred response. The hawk sees a given threat as large and growing, and is prepared to take strenuous measures, including the use of violence, to meet the threat. That can be literal, if we’re talking about hawks in a foreign policy context, or figurative, if we’re talking about “deficit hawks” or “drug war hawks” or what-have-you. Doves either don’t see the threat as large or growing or are unprepared to take strenuous measures, or to contemplate violence, to meet the threat.
The primary policy debate about Iran, for example, makes sense to frame in terms of hawks and doves. The hawk would argue that military action against Iran will likely prove – or has already proved – necessary to prevent the unacceptable threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon, and that we must prepare for such action now so that we are not surprised by events. The dove would disagree, either arguing that the evidence of an Iranian nuclear program is poor, or that a nuclear-armed Iran, while undesirable, is tolerable, or that military action would prove counter-productive as a response, or that there is a real possibility of peaceful resolution of our differences. Whatever. Personally, I’m something of an Iran dove, but I recognize the hawk/dove divide as the appropriate framing for the discussion, and I understand the hawk’s arguments in their own terms.
But with Syria, it is much less clear what a “hawk” means, in my understanding of the word, because it is far from clear what the threat is, or whether, indeed, there is an enemy. The chief argument on the part of advocates for Syrian intervention is that if we don’t do something, events will take a course beyond our control. Perhaps Assad will win; perhaps the rebels will win, but will resent us for not helping them; perhaps the war will drag on and spread to neighboring countries; perhaps Syria will fall apart entirely with parts of the country being taken over by terrorists; and whatever happens, thousands, even tens of thousands more people will die. War is proposed not to counter a specific threat, but to assert control over a chaotic situation. The enemy is the unknown itself.
I don’t want to call people making arguments like these “hawks” because I think that grants an argument that hasn’t properly been made: that we are debating about how serious to take and how seriously to respond to a threat. We aren’t debating about that yet, because a coherent picture of an adversary posing a threat has not yet been drawn by the advocates of military action. Because they are not really proposing action to meet a threat – they are proposing action so as to be involved.
To make the point more clearly: you could make an entirely plausible case, on the basis of national interest, for siding with Assad, sending him arms, aiding him in his battle against al-Qaeda-supported terrorist rebels. Unlike with Iran, there is no preexisting enmity established between the United States and Syria. Syria was our ally in 1991 in the Gulf War against Iraq. And Assad, while assuredly a devil, is at least the devil we know; the rebels, meanwhile, include elements very similar to the sorts of groups we were fighting during the worst days of the Iraq War.
So: if we hypothesize another domestic faction advocating entering the Syrian civil war on Assad’s side, or at least against the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups fighting him, would we also call that group “Syria hawks,” even though they (in this scenario) advocate the opposite course of action from the “Syria hawks” who favor toppling Assad?
I suspect, in fact, that we would. Indeed, I could imagine some of the same people currently advocating war against Assad turning around and advocating a prolonged military involvement to defeat some of his current enemies. Which is precisely the problem I have with the terminology of “hawk” applied to these situations.
Here’s another analogy: it would be very strange to see an “inflation hawk” who advocated a much tighter monetary policy than that favored by the Fed turn around and quickly become a “deflation hawk” advocating a much looser monetary policy than that favored by the Fed. We would expect, at a minimum, to see some acknowledgment of a change of mind, and that her prior view was proved incorrect by events – she would not have advocated such tight money then had she known we were about to be thrown into deflation. But it would not be weird at all to see a self-styled hawk in international affairs advocate military action on very nearly all sides of a question simultaneously. That’s an indication of decidedly confused thinking. The term “hawk” masks that confusion with a facade of resolution and seriousness.
The hawk, like the dove, is a noble bird. There is a place, in any discussion, for the person who takes the grimmest view of potential threats, just as there is a place for the person who takes the most sanguine view. For that matter, there is a place for the person who is particularly concerned about this threat, but not terribly concerned about that threat – the climate hawk who’s also a deficit dove, the China hawk who’s also an Iran dove, etc.
We do need a term for people who are eager to fight without being very clear on whom they want to fight or why. I just don’t want that term to be “hawk.”
Perhaps we should call them grackles.
Peter Beinart thinks “neoconservatism” has lost any distinctive meaning. It no longer has anything to do with the kind of right-leaning empirical social science that characterized the original neoconservatives, nor does it imply someone who used to be on the left but moved right. Nor does it distinctively mean a hawk or an advocate of spreading democracy, since there are liberals who favor democratization and neocons (like Krauthammer) who oppose it, while “hawk” is simply too broad.
So, Beinart suggests a change in terminology:
There’s a better way. Retire “neocon,” which is rarely used coherently, if it even can be anymore, and often leads commentators (sometimes unwittingly) into dangerous territory. Call the people who want America to dominate the world militarily without the constraints of international institutions and international law “imperialists.” Yes, the term has negative connotations, but what distinguishes people like Kristol and Abrams from those liberals who also support military force in places like Bosnia and Syria is precisely the former’s open scorn for the idea that America should be bound by rules that other nations help craft. Liberal interventionists trace their intellectual ancestry to Woodrow Wilson, who tried to turn international affairs into a sphere regulated by law. Neocons scorn Wilson and revere Theodore Roosevelt, who believed, at least for part of his career, in unfettered American power.
Roosevelt is commonly called an imperialist. And some of his neocon disciples have embraced the term too. After 9/11, Max Boot argued in The Weekly Standard that the United States should “embrace its imperial role.” Niall Ferguson, who would be ranked among the world’s most prominent neoconservatives if he hadn’t been born a Christian in Scotland, has written an entire book arguing that America is an empire and should be a better one.
If people like Kristol and Abrams think “imperialist” undersells their commitment to universal ideals, they can call themselves “democratic imperialists,” thus distinguishing themselves from “realist imperialists” like Krauthammer and Bolton.
I see where he’s coming from, but I think he suffers from an excess of idealism. It’s true that liberal hawks pay more lip service to the idea of a law-like international order, but in practice they have been more than willing to bend the rules to achieve what they consider appropriate goals. The Kosovo war was conducted without any authorization from the United Nations; since it was also not a response to an attack on any NATO member, it’s hard to see what the justification was in international law. Both the Iraq War, which widely supported by liberal hawks, and the Libyan intervention, which was their project, substantially exceeded the mandate the United Nations was willing to extend. These were projects to use American power to shape events, not examples of constructing international norms that are broadly constraining.
Moreover, the international institutions for collective security and collective restraint that liberal internationalists are so proud of were substantially designed to legitimate American dominance. Indeed, if global American hegemony is equated with imperialism, Wilson himself is not so easily classified in some kind of contrast to imperialism. The Washington consensus today is that America must maintain such hegemony and prevent any serious rival from developing. If favoring hegemony makes you an imperialist, then it’s an even less-restrictive term than neoconservative or hawk.
I may be that we need a new term, not so much because “neoconservative” has come to mean “Jewish conservative” but because nobody knows what the word means (nor really ever did – the word began as an insult, after all). But finding a new word is not so easy.
“Hawk” won’t do because it doesn’t make any sense in many contexts. Many neoconservatives are eager for war in Syria. But is that a “hawkish” perspective? Hawks are properly those who are skeptical about the possibility of peaceful relations with potential rivals, and who favor erring on the side of greater military preparedness and a more forceful response to challenge. None of that describes a desire to dictate the outcome of the Syrian civil war, nor many of the other neoconservative pet projects of the past generation.
“Imperialist” or “hegemonist” won’t do because there is a broad consensus in favor of American hegemony that goes way beyond the neoconservative tribe. And if we’re to somehow distinguish “imperialists” from “hegemonists” or others – like Beinart himself – who believe in an American-led international order, how would we do it? Is it a matter of degree? Of kind? After all, even the neoconservatives don’t favor a literal American Empire, with indefinite American rule over far-flung foreign provinces. At least not yet.
And, as Beinart persuasively argues, democratism won’t do either, because some neoconservatives are less than enthusiastic about promoting democracy either with the sword or not, while there are plenty of liberals who do favor democracy promotion, some even by force (though many not).
So what’s distinctive about the neocons?
If I had to identify something distinctive about neoconservatives these days, it’s not hawkishness nor belief in the spread of democracy nor fidelity to the notion of American hegemony. I think the distinctive characteristic is an almost mystical belief in the power of the will in international affairs, the notion that victory ultimately belongs to the party who really, really wants it. Relatedly, there is a notion – common to Krauthammer and Kristol, Bolton and Boot, Ferguson and Kagan and McCain – that a robust willingness to use force is itself a sign of national health. I don’t think “imperialism” is the best word for capturing that nuance, and for now I will delicately decline to suggest another.
On the other hand, I think anti-imperialist is a very promising term. As Beinart notes:
This typology also offers a comfortable niche for Ron and Rand Paul, who, although commonly called isolationists, don’t want to isolate America from international commerce. A better term for them is “anti-imperialist,” or what Walter Russell Mead has called “Jeffersonian,” as their core belief is that America’s transformation from a republic into an empire imperils freedom at home.
I think the “anti-imperialist” coalition is potentially larger than just Jeffersonians; why not include dovish Hamiltonians (like myself) and genuine believers in international law under the tent? Indeed, I think the term is potentially quite useful, in that it identifies a common enemy – the consensus Washington assumption that global American hegemony ought to be preserved, entrenched and where possible extended – rather than a common vantage point of attack. Genuine believers in a law-based international order could make common cause with libertarian-inclined non-interventionists – but not if they have to agree on what they are fighting for, rather than what they are fighting against. If they do that, they’ll have a falling out over national sovereignty. Similarly, war-skeptical Hamiltonians would reject either an overly intrusive supra-national infrastructure or an ideology that was strictly opposed to interventionism. But they might be eager to ally with people with such views against efforts to prosecute new wars, or entrench the assumption of American hegemony internationally.
If nothing else, “anti-imperialist” seems like a pretty good description of what holds together the motley crew at this magazine, not all of whom are ideologically committed to anti-interventionism and not all of whom are nostalgic for the America First right.
Harold Bloom, in The Anxiety of Influence and subsequent work, articulates a theory of poetry whereby the young poet is inspired by an older poet, but then fears producing weak work that is merely derivative of his great precursor. This anxiety of influence prompts a struggle to overcome that influence which requires a deep change in the poet himself (emptying himself of his anxious ego), but also a deep change in the precursor, in which the precursor is not so much killed (he’s functionally already dead) as consumed, his work so radically reinterpreted that the young poet effectively becomes its new author.
It’s a potent metaphor, and one that I come back to when I encounter work generally acknowledged great that I find myself irritated by. A good example is Saul Bellow, whom I’ve just about given up on after gnashing my teeth all the way through The Adventures of Augie March. The compulsiveness with which Bellow shows off his broad but shallow knowledge, the importance he attributes to his erotic impulses, his unshakeable conviction that his author surrogates are adorable, these things drive me to distraction. And I realize, reluctantly, that it is in part because I share these attributes, but lack Bellow’s freedom from self-consciousness about them. I do not want to be like him, and yet I recognize that he has a freedom that I deny myself to my detriment. I want to choose another father.
Ibsen is another one of these gods I resent, and denigrate in consequence. I can articulate all the reasons why I frequently don’t love his work – his plots feel too contrived, his symbolism clunky, his characters badly dated – and then, if I am honest, I must say: those things don’t seem to bother you about, say, Dickens. Just possibly your aversion has more to do with his male heroes, not only so frank in their hungers (I adore Roth, and nobody’s more frankly hungry than he), but so convinced that those hungers are justified, that the failure of life to satisfy them is tragic, and their accomplishments in the face of that failure genuinely heroic. I wish, on some level, I had that conviction, and yet, on another, I’m relieved I don’t.
There’s probably no Ibsen play better for approaching this nexus of anxiety and resentment than The Master Builder, and the current production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music does an excellent job of throwing that nexus into sharp relief.
Director Andrei Belgrader has set the play vaguely in period, but the erector set structure (designed by Santo Loquasto) that dominates the stage seems intended to invoke a more modernist idea of a “master builder,” and both the language and the body habitus of the principal characters has been modernized as well. This makes the first act of the play wonderfully accessible. I thought, watching John Turturro’s Halvard Solness spar first with Kaja Fosli (Kelly Hutchinson), his assistant who is hopelessly in love with him (a love that is not requited); then with his wife, Aline (Katherine Borowitz), who tartly notes her husband’s roving eye through a terrifyingly frozen smile; and most sparkingly, with the young minx, Hilde Wangel (Wrenn Schmidt), who has come to claim Solness as her destined prince – I thought I was watching Strindberg, the passions roiling these people were so vivid. I also thought, well, if we’re being so up-front about Solness’s mid-life crisis, and Hilde’s father lust for him, well, I was dying to know where we’d go from there.
But where we go is deeply disappointing in that Ibsen way. There’s ever more talk of the phallic steeples that Solness once built, but now refuses to (because he’s angry at God for being bigger than him). Solness intimates that he believes he has a magical power to conjure up what he wishes, a crazy metaphor for the creative process that never properly connects to the psychological reality of these characters. Hilde spends some quality time with Mrs. Solness, and comes away disturbed that the woman she aimed to oust is a human, and a human in pain, which drains her character of much of her previous interest. On the other hand, Borowitz’s portrait of a psychologically shattered woman (she never got over the loss of her doll collection in a fire, but seems resigned to the death of her twin children to fever), was the most interesting on view, and one that I wish had resonated more with the rest of the play. But no, we’re going to have to swing back to our titular master builder, and whether he will muster the courage to personally climb the tower of his new residence, and hang the ceremonial wreath thereon. (Spoiler alert: he climbs, and falls to his death. It’s unfortunately an unavoidably comic moment.)
I don’t know what I would do to salvage this masterpiece from its absurdities. Leaving the theatre, it occurred to me that Solness bears some of the signs of a Randian superman. He’s self-made, growing rich and powerful without jumping through the proper credentialing hoops (he calls himself a master builder rather than an architect because he doesn’t have the degree). His work is the pure expression of his own vision, unswayed by the demands of God or man. Indeed, he is convinced that his will gives him the magical power to conjure up his desire. And younger women are practically throwing themselves at him. So perhaps it would be instructive to play him as Howard Roark, building skyscrapers rather than steeples, towers in the park rather than bourgeois homes. It would certainly provide more punch to the relationship between Solness and his junior, Ragnar Brovik (Max Gordon Moore), whom Solness has deliberately kept down so that he can continue to reign supreme among builders. Given the ever-increasing potency of Rand’s myths in our culture, a portrait of an aging Roark might actually be instructive.
Ultimately, though, what I want to see is Solness’s – and Ibsen’s – pretensions punctured. And it’s not clear to me that the play allows that. Solness is supposed to be a tragic God-man. But it’s hard for me to care about his fall when I never wanted to believe in him in the first place.
The Master Builder plays at the BAM Harvey Theatre through June 9th.
The first image of Stratford’s thought-provoking new production of Measure For Measure is of a large-boned woman, in a mask and thick heels, pounding on a gate far upstage. Frantic attendants come, open the gate, and let the woman in – and she removes mask, wig, heels, makeup, to reveal herself as Geraint Wyn Davies – or, rather, Vincentio, Duke of Vienna. The attendants withdraw, and for a minute the Duke smokes a cigarette, collecting himself before the drama begins.
Or, I should say, the next drama. Because this opening puts us on notice: this man needs drama in his life, and is already adept at finding it when it does not find him.
Measure is a puzzle, and Duke Vincentio is at the heart of that puzzle. Is he a good man manipulating people to come to their better selves? Is he a Machiavellian hypocrite, as full of vice as the city he knows needs to be reformed? Is he a weak man, afraid to confront villainy directly, and who therefore prefers to work behind the scenes? Or is he more than a man, a kind of figure of Divine Providence, the hidden hand who is always working for our good, though we don’t see it? Director Martha Henry’s approach to the puzzle is to refuse to solve it – to embrace the ambiguities of the character and of the play, and say, in effect: he is those ambiguities, and that is precisely what makes him fascinating.
To summarize the story of the subsequent drama briefly: Duke Vincentio leaves Vienna in the care of his deputy, Angelo, assisted by his other deputy, Escalus. But he returns in disguise as a friar to see how they are handling things in his absence. Angelo, a rigidly righteous fellow, restores to force a variety of strict laws against sexual offenses, and condemns Claudio to death for fornication – even though he is ready and willing to marry the woman pregnant by him (indeed, the marriage was already arranged, though the details of the dowry were still being negotiated). Isabella, Claudio’s sister, is about to enter a convent, permanently to withdraw from the world and from male company, when she is importuned by the bawdy Lucio to plead for her brother, Claudio’s life.
Angelo, though, falls in love with Isabella, precisely because of her apparent saintliness, and makes her an offer: if she’ll sleep with him, he’ll let Claudio go. Isabella refuses, tells Claudio he must die; Claudio pleads for life; and into the breach between siblings strides the disguised Duke, with a plan to right all wrongs: save Claudio; force Angelo to marry a woman, Marianna, whom he dumped unceremoniously five years earlier; and preserve Isabella’s chastity by substituting Marianna for Isabella at the assignation (the classic “bed trick” ploy also used in All’s Well That Ends Well).
This plan runs into hitch after hitch – the bed trick works, but Angelo breaks his promise to spare Claudio; attempt to forestall Claudio’s death by substituting another prisoner run into snags as well, but eventually the plan comes together. The Duke isn’t done, though, but chooses to prolong the drama by refusing to reveal Claudio’s salvation to Isabella, or to reveal his hidden presence to Angelo and Escalus. Everything comes together in an absurd final scene when the Duke in both his own and his borrowed monkish identity return to Vienna; only after he is unmasked by Lucio does the Duke perforce reveal his doubleness, and also, eventually, that Claudio lives. At which point, in a final absurdity, he proposes marriage to Isabella.
So who is this old fantastical Duke of dark corners?
* * *
Like Hamlet and Prospero, Duke Vincentio is a theatrical director (though the concept is anachronistic for an Elizabethan play, they all manipulate people into playing their desired parts in a staged drama, so it makes sense to call them that). But where their predisposition to manipulate people in this way gives us insight into the depths of their character, Duke Vincentio’s motives only get more puzzling.
When he gives his deputies, Angelo and Escalus, their commissions, to rule in his stead during his absence, he gives them no explanation for his departure. He does provide an explanation to Friar Thomas, who furnishes him with the disguise under which which he will return to observe Vienna in his absence. He has been too lenient a ruler, he says, and the consequence has been a dangerous decay of the social order. But it would appear tyrannous for him to suddenly impose the law strictly, and so he has given this task to Angelo.
This justifies his departure – but why return in disguise?
More reasons for this action
At our more leisure shall I render you;
Only, this one: Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be.
He is, in other words, conducting a bit of an experiment, as God does with Job, or the Duke brothers do with Eddie Murphy in “Trading Places” – he lacks only a companion with whom to wager. He is not, like Henry V before the battle, wandering disguised in order to get a true picture of his people’s morale; nor is he, like any number of Shakespearean characters, disguised out of prudence. He’s just curious what will happen.
* * *
How are we to take this behavior? Well, it depends on who we think he is. The Christian apologetic tradition in interpreting the play reads Vincentio as a kind of figure of divine providence, working behind the scenes to arrange a happy ending for the drama. In that kind of reading, the experiment is very akin to God’s testing of Job. And the play, in turn, becomes Isabella’s, since she has the grandest dramatic arc of the story.
Isabella starts out eager for the most restrictive rule available, and is so disgusted by her brother’s act of sleeping with his intended wife a bit early that she can barely bring herself to plead for his life. When he begs her to save him by doing this little sin (a wonderful moment by Christopher Prentice), she calls his plea a kind of incest to “take life” from his sister’s shame (which, if you think about it more, isn’t quite right; it is the child, the product of incest, who “takes life” from violation; this is one of a number of classically Freudian slips by this father-fixated girl whom Shakespeare – uncannily – made Viennese). But by the end of the play, though she thinks her brother dead by Angelo’s hand, yet at Marianna’s request she pleads for Angelo’s life, saying Claudio died justly according to the law, while Angelo cannot be condemned for fornication or adultery because he slept only with his affianced wife. And this is the act that leads the Duke to unmask the still-living Claudio, and to propose marriage to her.
As I say, the Christian apologetic approach makes this Isabella’s play, a play about achieving truly selfless Christian forgiveness. And if that is the play that Martha Henry wanted to direct, she had an excellent Isabella in Carmen Grant – the first I’ve seen who I really believed wanted to be a nun, who really seemed disgusted by sex, and whose forgiveness of Angelo at the end felt like the final achievement of the selflessness that she sought at the beginning. I would compare her journey to that of Tolstoy’s Father Sergius, who also starts out trying to be holy, and fails precisely because of trying. Father Sergius is only able to finally be holy when he gives up on the idea of defending himself from sin (because he fails, catastrophically, to avoid the temptations of a rather succubus-like girl who comes to visit his cell), and sees himself as hopelessly . . . human. And, ceasing to seek holiness, he simply is holy, no longer having desires to satisfy. So, Isabella, ceasing to seek justice on those who have sinned – against her – finds her way to see the human pain even in Angelo, and finally achieves the holiness she sought by no longer seeking it by fleeing sin, but comprehending it.
She also has, in Tom Rooney, a nearly perfect Angelo. I have never felt so clearly the self-loathing that is at this man’s heart, and which he has turned outward upon the world. It’s a very nice touch that, when we first meet his Angelo, so fiercely correct in his behavior, his clothes are in disarray. Immediately, we understand the struggle this man has undergone to maintain his rectitude. It humanizes him from the very start, and sets us up for his final scene, when he begs for death – there’s no relief in his plea, but a final expression of what he has always felt, the whole play through.
* * *
Henry, in other words, has her Christian allegory ready to hand, if that’s what she wanted. And it plays, powerfully, on-stage. But this is only a viable reading if you completely ignore the Duke’s actual behavior during the play. His weirdly manic and impulsive behavior, after all, hardly comports well with the notion that he represents a secret divine plan.
Moreover, take a look at the only extended soliloquy the Duke has in the play (unlike Hamlet and Prospero – and unlike Angelo in Measure itself - Duke Vincentio is not given to unburdening himself directly to the audience). It’s at the end of Act III, at the moment the Duke has conceived his plan for the bed trick, but before he has put it into effect:
He who the sword of heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe;
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand, and virtue go;
More nor less to others paying
Than by self-offences weighing.
Shame to him whose cruel striking
Kills for faults of his own liking!
Twice treble shame on Angelo,
To weed my vice and let his grow!
O, what may man within him hide,
Though angel on the outward side!
How may likeness made in crimes,
Making practise on the times,
To draw with idle spiders’ strings
Most ponderous and substantial things!
Craft against vice I must apply:
With Angelo to-night shall lie
His old betrothed but despised;
So disguise shall, by the disguised,
Pay with falsehood false exacting,
And perform an old contracting.
This is the most extensive view we get into the mind of the man who is directing the play. Twenty-two lines of rhymed iambic tetrameter – which doesn’t rule out greatness – “Now my charms are all o’erthrown” is twenty lines in the same meter, also rhymed – but put to put the two speeches one beside the other is to reveal just how awful this verse is. If this is the mind of God, heaven help us all, and poets especially. I suspect that Henry and Wyn Davies agree with me, because in this production, he declaims the childish doggerel with precisely the glee of a child who’s thought of some terribly clever trick.
Finally, if this Duke is supposed to be a figure of Divine Providence, then how is it that his own plan only comes off because of an unexpected gift from an unseen God?
* * *
The scene is in the prison. Duke Vincentio, having learned that Angelo will not pardon Claudio as he promised, is searching for a way to trick him, and stall for time. He initially suggests executing the murderer Barnardine and substituting his head for Claudio’s (which Angelo has requested specifically to receive – why is a good question, since he is tormented by his own determination to kill him and so forestall vengeance; this would seem to be a new manifestation of his essential self-loathing), but this doesn’t come off as Barnardine (played, in this production, as a great shambling pile by Robert Persichini – more on him anon) refuses “to die for any man’s persuasion.” All appears lost – until the Provost (the affecting Stephen Russell) recalls that they have a pirate in the prison, Ragozine, who just died of a fever, and who looks an awful lot like Claudio. Problem solved!
Except, this was a problem entirely of the playwright’s making. He had a solution to hand – Barnardine. Having created a convenient enough solution, he sets it aside for other, polemical purposes (for which I thank old Will – Barnardine’s scene is one of the greatest in the play). Now he has the problem again. And he solves it by the same means – a convenient head to substitute – except that now we, in the audience, are acutely aware of the way the playwright is manipulating us. One convenient head might have been accepted as necessary for the plot to work – but a second? And perfectly matched? And precisely because we are aware of the plot machinery working behind the scenes, this awareness redounds upon the Duke, who is doing the manipulation on stage, where we can see. He cannot be Divine Providence if he is dependent on Divine Providence as much as anybody else. And the whole idea of Divine Providence is rendered ridiculous by this kind of big, blinking arrow pointing at it.
The prison scene is important structurally as well in letting us know whose play this really is. Stanley Cavell (whom I can’t seem to avoid going back to again and again) in his discussion of the Shakespearean origins of the classic American romantic comedy, talks about the trip to the “green world” – archetypically the Forest of Arden – to which the heroine needs to retreat as part of her journey (back) to love and (re)marriage. And he finds a version of this green world in a variety of American romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. The principal exception is “His Girl Friday” which does feature a trip to a different world – but in an ironic inversion of the green world trope, it’s the “black world” of the prison, where Rosalind Russell interviews the condemned man and thereby gets her (and Cary Grant) the story.
Well, this play also has a trip to the black world – to the prison, with the condemned. But the key journey isn’t made by Isabella, who visits Claudio early on. It’s by the Duke, in his search for a substitute for Claudio. He lights first on Barnardine – but Barnardine, as noted, will not die. But not only will he not die, he grips the Duke in his shaggy hands and forces him to the ground, before retreating to his cell. It’s quite scary – nobody seems to know how far Barnardine will go with this particular game, but Persichini mingles his potential for violence with a deep tenderness that is deeper and eerier than any other portrayal of Barnardine I’ve seen. This, it seems to me, is the moment when the Duke, if he is ever going to be, is brought face to face with the truth about what he is and the stakes of the game he is playing. And then he gets a reprieve, in the form of Ragozine, so that he can be left with his ambiguities intact.
Before I move on, I also want to say that the scene is a highlight not only of the play but of this production. Every part is played magnificently – Randy Hughson’s Pompey Bum truly comes into his own as assistant to Abhorson – and Abhorson! E. B. Smith is both terrifying and hilarious as the executioner, intoning his lines with a solemn madness that owes something to Agent Rogersz and even making the “every true man’s apparel fits your thief” bit play. I wish I could have seen a whole play of this scene.
* * *
So the Duke, from my perspective, must be a character, to be persuasive. And to its great credit, that’s what Henry and Wyn Davies treat him as. But, to their further credit, they don’t make him a persuasive character by narrowing him. They refuse to resolve any of the ambiguities in his character. They simply embrace them.
Duke Vincentio plans the bed trick to wed Angelo to Marianna, his five-years-abandoned fiancée. What’s been going on these five years? There are a variety of textual suggestions that the Duke has had some degree of intercourse with Marianna, possibly in both senses of the word. If we knew that were the case, we’d know the Duke was just covering his tracks – more hypocrisy. If the production covered those tracks, we’d never see them, and never ask the question. But this production leaves it ambiguous. There’s an electric sexual chemistry between Wyn Davies’s Duke and the luscious Sarah Afful’s Marianna – when she leaves the stage, Wyn Davies has to fan his nether regions to cool off – but Afful also plays Marianna with a kind of innocence; there’s no clear intimation of behind-doors conspiracy, or that Isabella is also, in a sense, being tricked.
Duke Vincentio, disguised as a friar, is repeatedly accosted by Lucio, who proclaims that the Duke would never be doing the horrible things Angelo is doing, because he was a “better woodman” than Angelo – Lucio rivals Mercutio as a fountain of sexual puns. Moreover, he claims to know this directly. Does he? We remember that first scene, of the Duke returning in drag from God knows what escapade. But we don’t actually know what the escapade was. We don’t know what this Duke likes to do. We know he likes to watch. And while Wyn Davies is unnerved by Lucio – unnerved enough that when, still disguised, he asks Escalus what his opinion is of the Duke, you sense he not sure what kind of answer he’ll get; he’s not so much testing Escalus as using him as a reality check. But we’re not sure whether he’s worried he’ll be found out, or if he’s worried he’s been misunderstood.
This ambiguity-embracing approach plays out to the very end of the play, when we never clearly get a fix on what the Duke is after with respect to Isabella. Did he fall in love with her at some point? If he did, I missed it – anyway, she doesn’t seem like his type (not if he’s got the hots for Marianna). For once, his lunatic proposal doesn’t elicit a strained incredulity from Isabella – she’s achieved sufficient selflessness that whatever will come, will come – but that leaves us even more completely in the dark.
I wound up deciding that the proposal was intended to harken back to the beginning of the production, when the Duke appeared in drag. Perhaps he was looking for a woman who would accept, and forgive, his own peculiar needs. Perhaps his plan all along was to create her, by whatever manipulations were necessary.
The last “shot” of the production gives us a fully confident Duke haloed with one spot, while the other captures Stephen Ouimette’s Lucio, looking perplexed and aghast – at his fate or the Duke’s, we can’t quite tell. I think I know what the production was trying to say with this juxtaposition, but I don’t think it quite got there because Lucio is not given sufficient free rein in this version of the play. Henry seems to want him to be “nicer” than Lucio usually is, but the result is merely that he isn’t as funny as I know Ouimette can be. (The same problem afflicts the talented Patricia Collins as the whore, Mistress Overdone, and Hughson’s Pompey prior to his imprisonment.) Moreover, why is he married, in this production, not to a “punk” (a whore) but to a policewoman? I’m all for playing around with the sense of the text for an effect, but in this case I didn’t know what the effect was. The juxtaposition of Lucio and the Duke in the end was another embrace of ambiguity, but in this case not as obviously fruitful, at least to me.
The production is not perfect – what production is? The pacing of the comedy, for example, felt slow to me (with the exception of Brian Tree’s Elbow, who is perfectly metronomic), and this play needs its comic relief. And because of its treatment of Lucio, I felt like the play didn’t feel entirely comfortable with its own view of human sexual desire – as if letting Lucio be as bawdy as he wants to be would somehow undermine our sympathy. But this production grasped certain nettles more confidently than any of the half-dozen other productions of this play I’ve seen. Most importantly, it refused to reduce the play by “solving” its core problems. The result is deeply thought-provoking, and very worth taking in, ideally more than once.
I look forward to doing so.
Measure For Measure plays at the Tom Patterson Theatre through September 21st.
And speaking of Alan Jacobs, I very much enjoyed his other recent post on whether he’s a conservative. His answer, in brief: he’s not sure, doesn’t really care, is definitely not a Republican, but holds to three overarching political principles that he thinks might be relevant to answering the question: he’s a consistent pro-life Christian, he believes in the principle of subsidiarity, and he laments our neglect of the wisdom of our ancestors.
In terms of core principles, I don’t really line up with this. I am neither a Christian nor consistently pro-life, though I have great respect for what I tend to speak of as the Tolstoyan tendency in religion and politics. Similarly, I’m not consistent in my preferences about what level of organization is best for solving problems – there are things that big, established organizations do better, and things better left to small, local, spontaneous efforts, and the funny thing is that the latter, if they prove really successful, have an alarming tendency to evolve into the former. But I very much value the perspective that does consistently prefer problems be handled at the lowest possible level, and agree that this perspective is a vital counterweight to the preference for big-ism that predominates in our society today. For all these reasons, and others, I’m very happy to be associated with this magazine.
If I am a conservative (and I don’t really care whether I’m so described – I’m functionally on the left these days politically-speaking, and when people ask I describe myself as TAC’s “house liberal” because that’s easier than explaining all the ways in which it’s more complicated than that), it’s for temperamental reasons. I have a Burkean suspicion that everything is the way it is for a reason – reasons which may be lousy, but still must be reckoned with before rushing off to change things. As well, I am increasingly of the conviction that happiness in life depends first and foremost on laboring in fields one loves. And they say everyone is most conservative about what he or she knows, and loves, best.
But I’m also someone with a natural taste for political wonkery, and with a natural affinity for the reformist tendency politically – for those who, little by little and brick upon brick seek to build a better city. And so I was equally keen to read what Ross Douthat outlined as the “reform conservative agenda” for our times.
Here’s his list:
a. A tax reform that caps deductions and lowers rates, but also reduces the burden on working parents and the lower middle class, whether through an expanded child tax credit or some other means of reducing payroll tax liability. (Other measures that might improve the prospects of low-skilled men, ranging from a larger earned income tax credit to criminal justice reforms that reduce the incarceration rate, should also be part of the conversation.)
b. A repeal or revision of Obamacare that aims to ease us toward a system of near-universal catastrophic health insurance, and includes some kind of flat tax credit or voucher explicitly designed for that purpose.
c. A Medicare reform along the lines of the Wyden-Ryan premium support proposal, and a Social Security reform focused on means testing and extending work lives rather than a renewed push for private accounts.
d. An immigration reform that tilts much more toward Canadian-style recruitment of high-skilled workers, and that doesn’t necessarily seek to accelerate the pace of low-skilled immigration. (Any amnesty should follow the implementation of E-Verify rather than the other way around, guest worker programs should not be expanded, etc.)
e. A “market monetarist” monetary policy as an alternative both to further fiscal stimulus and to the tight money/fiscal austerity combination advanced by many Republicans today.
f. An attack not only on explicit subsidies for powerful incumbents (farm subsidies, etc.) but also other protections and implicit guarantees, in arenas ranging from copyright law to the problem of “Too Big To Fail.”
This is an interesting list, and there’s much that I agree with there. I strongly favor item (f), which isn’t really on the agenda of either major party today. Item (e) is quite interesting, and it’s indicative of just how far to the right the center of gravity at this magazine is that people like Ross Douthat and Ramesh Ponnuru are arguing for a looser monetary policy as an alternative to fiscal stimulus while TAC is far more sympathetic to goldbug arguments. I’ve been nervous about market monetarism in the past, but Scott Sumner’s persistence has made me much more comfortable over time. In any event, a policy debate between market monetarists and Keynesians would be much more substantive and productive than what we’ve seen the past few years.
Items (b) and (c) are insufficient as a health-care agenda in and of themselves, but (leaving aside any discussion of Social Security for the time being) I could see them working well as part of a Brad Delong-plan style reform of health-care, which also involves making a great deal of basic preventative care “cheaper than free.” (And, by the way, I don’t think (b) and (c) in any way require repealing Obamacare – rather, I think they could only work within the rubric of either Obamacare’s regulated exchanges or single-payer healthcare, because those are the only ways to establish universality without simply dumping all the sickest people on the government’s tab).
As for (d) I am troubled by the current approach to immigration reform for all the reasons Ron Unz has articulated, and I agree with his view that a large hike in the minimum wage is an important prerequisite to tackling immigration properly. Beyond this, my preferred approach would be to auction visas, both to let the market decide which skills are genuinely scarce and so that there was revenue to offset the costs of immigration, which are currently paid by the public at large while the benefits accrue predominantly to employers and the immigrants themselves.
And that leaves item (a), and Ross’s addendum on taxes:
You’ll notice, in what I’ve included and what I’ve left out above, that there are also things that a G.O.P. reformed along these lines wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t embrace (or re-embrace) a cap-and-trade bill, or any sweeping regulatory response to climate change. (The influence of Jim Manzi is strong here.) It wouldn’t endorse further tax increases — or not unless something like the Wyden-Ryan Medicare plan was actually on the table.
I can understand, from a negotiating perspective, why it would be useful to say: we won’t agree to new taxes unless we get something important in return policy-wise. I can understand, as well, from a coalition-building perspective why it might be prudent to pay lip service at a minimum to the lower-marginal-rates orthodoxy. But is there any reason to call this part of the “reform conservative agenda?” Is there anything reformist about this? Anything based on actual conviction about what the best policy might be?
For a generation now, Republican orthodoxy on taxes has been that marginal rates must not go up, ever, for any reason – and, ideally, no taxes should go up, ever, for any reason. But when total Federal receipts remain lower as a percentage of GDP than at any time between 1960 and 2000, and when taxes at all levels remain lower in the United States than in any other major industrialized country, is it plausible that the aggregate level of taxation (as opposed to the inefficiency of the tax system) is a serious economic problem? Or that, even if economic inequality per se is deemed not the core economic problem, that the problem with our tax system is that it is too progressive?
There’s a big debate to be had about what our tax system should look like, and the conservative position historically has been that we should be taxing consumption more and investment less (which is why ruling out carbon taxes seems to me a strange policy choice). In an era of increasing inequality, I think the burden is on conservative tax reformers to find ways to achieve that shift without reducing progressivity. But if the conservative movement shibboleths that cuts in the top marginal rate are always desirable, and aggregate increases in revenue are always to be opposed, and new categories of taxation cannot be contemplated – if these aren’t challenged, then how can the right be a serious participant in these debates? And isn’t that what reformists are aiming for – to be taken seriously as participants in policy debates?
If I were articulating a “reform conservative agenda,” front and center would be the statement that anti-tax ideology must cease to be the defining core of the conservative agenda. Because as things stand right now, that’s what the core consists of, and everything else is negotiable so long as that core is preserved. And that is we you got the catastrophic policy agenda of the last conservative Republican President.
But, like I said, I don’t care whether I’m a conservative. So why should you listen to me?