Noah Millman

How Jim Webb Should Handle the Culture War

Well, it’s semi-official: Jim Webb has formed an exploratory committee to run for President in 2016. As I’ve written before, while I don’t rate Webb’s chances particularly highly, I think it would be highly salutary for Clinton to face a serious challenge, generally and on foreign policy in particular.

But is that the debate we’ll get?

Webb’s campaign is going to be severely under-funded, and Webb himself is going to start out of the gate a terrible campaigner, so it may be that Clinton will simply ignore him and we won’t get any debate at all. But if she wants to make him instantly irrelevant, the last thing she’d do is engage him. Rather, all she – or, rather, her surrogates – need to do is to position him as a culture war conservative, someone who is at best iffy and at worst outright hostile on women’s equality, gay rights, affirmative action, immigration, and so on down the line. Once that becomes the story, that will likely be the only story – the only one that matters, anyway. And then, either he sinks without a trace or, if he gets a little bit of traction, it’ll be another story about how culturally conservative working class whites who rejected Obama are rejecting Clinton as well. Which, in turn, will further facilitate their consolidation as a GOP voting bloc – precisely the opposite of what Webb intends to achieve.

So what can he do to make it more likely that he is read as challenging Clinton on foreign policy and economic policy primarily, which I believe is what he wants?

I think – and I admit, I’m in danger of committing the pundit’s fallacy here – that he needs to get out in front of this kind of positioning with counter-positioning.

He can’t simply disavow his past positions on these issues – first of all because in some cases he still believes them (in other cases, not), and second because that would vitiate a primary source of his appeal as someone who actually stands by what he believes. Rather, he needs to make it clear that he’s not running on them – that, in fact, he’s in part running against them as organizing principles of our politics.

He needs to say, in effect, that he used to be a Republican because the GOP seemed like the party of people like him: a Scots-Irish military man. But when he left the GOP, it wasn’t just because he’d decided its policies were wrong – though they were. He also left because he no longer was willing to respond to that kind of appeal, an appeal to identity. Because that appeal made it hard for him to see the ways in which the GOP’s actual policies were detrimental to ordinary Americans.

Heck, he can quote Thomas Frank if he likes. The point of saying all this is to say further: and I didn’t join the Democratic Party in order to adopt a new identity, or to keep fighting the culture war but now from the other side. There are issues, he can say, on which my views have changed. And there are issues where I respect that my party and I don’t agree 100%. And there are also issues where I will try to convince my party to change. (For that matter, there are issues where Webb didn’t need to change to be in the mainstream of the Democratic Party – like abortion – and issues where Webb is more liberal than many Democrats – like penal reform and executive power.) But I am not running to make the Democratic Party more appealing to people who look like me, or who have my cultural background. I became a Democrat because I realized that the Democratic Party already held the best promise of standing for ordinary Americans, and for rejecting the kinds of policies, foreign and domestic, that have done them so much harm. And I’m running for President to make sure the Democratic nominee keeps that promise.

And then he needs to make the case for a new foreign policy and a new economic policy, in each case organized around husbanding and building up American strength rather than taking it for granted while frittering it away.

Webb is never going to be the great progressive hope – and that’s fine. Indeed, it’s better than fine. It’s better for Clinton to be challenged on foreign and economic policy by a Jim Webb than a Bernie Sanders. People who aren’t the usual suspects might just listen. But he needs to avoid being defined by the cultural signals he gives off. Otherwise, instead of opening up a vital conversation about policy, he’s going to wind up making it just a little bit easier for the GOP to avoid that conversation altogether.

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Libya and the Tides of History

I want to commend Daniel Larison for continuing to talk about the Libyan war, which should, by rights, be pretty central to any discussion of our current foreign policy. I just wanted to add a quick 2 cents, because the Libyan war is the paradigm case of the “assist the tides of history” theory of foreign policy that Larison has written about before, and that still holds way too much sway out there in policymaker land.

We should remember the context of the Libyan war. The Arab Spring had sprung. Dictators from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond were gone or were being pressured to leave. But by and large these were strongmen who ruled friendly Arab countries. Were we really going to sit back and let our friends get overthrown, while we let our enemies stay in power by brute force? No, we weren’t. (As well, the Libyan war originated as an Anglo-French project. Were we really going to demand they help us with our democracy-promoting wars, but refuse to help them with theirs? No, we weren’t.)

So we gave a little assistance to the “tides of history.” We made sure that Qaddafi fell, and we hinted that Assad would have to fall as well (though we really hoped we wouldn’t have to do anything to make that actually happen).

It turned out, though, that what mattered most for the trajectory of these post-revolutionary states was the internal condition of the country in question. Tunisia turned out pretty well, perhaps vindicating those who point to its higher per-capital GDP, perhaps vindicating those who point to the relative weakness of Islamist groups in the country, and I’m sure there are other theories. Egypt, though, slid back into a dictatorship comparable to the pre-revolutionary situation except even more obvious in its military character. Libya, meanwhile, problematic from the beginning, now seems to be slipping towards outright chaos.

To extend the nautical metaphor perhaps too far: the tide came in, and some boats caught it. Others didn’t. We pushed some out into the water to “help” them catch the tide. Of those, the ones that caught it were the ones that already had capable crews. The ones that didn’t – sank.

Back during the 2012 Presidential campaign, I wrote about another aquatic metaphor for foreign policy, and talked about “surfing” the “tides” of history, rather than trying to control them:

President Obama and Mitt Romney both assume that America is invested in events around the world, and in the Middle East in particular. But they understand that investment differently.

President Obama understands America’s centrality as an inescapable fact that, while valuable, imposes on America unique burdens. Sometimes those burdens are burdens of action, and sometimes they are burdens of restraint. President Obama is not really interested in reducing that burden – as, say, a Rand Paul would be. But he’s interested in managing it well, and maintaining American centrality (hegemony, if you prefer) by means of good management.

What does that mean for the Arab Spring/Islamist Awakening? Not any one thing, as should be clear from Obama’s record so far, which includes declining to get involved in the Tunisian revolution, trying to ease Mubarak out of office without abandoning the Egyptian military, isolating but refusing to intervene in the Syrian civil war, and actively intervening on the side of the rebels in Libya. That pattern, to me, suggests a man trying to get on the “right side” of events more than trying to dictate them. That’s not intended to be a criticism – it’s a description. King Canute was not particularly wise to try to dictate to the ocean rather than getting on the right side of the tide.

I believe Obama views the so-called Arab Spring as driven by the internal currents of the Arab world, and not something America can control. Given America’s inescapable centrality, however, those currents can’t simply be ignored, which means we have to surf those unpredictable waves as best one can, so as to keep our own interests afloat. Inevitably, sometimes we’re going to get wet doing so.

I stand by much of that description, but it’s far more clear to me now than it was in 2012 that Libya really was more about trying to “dictate” the tides rather than trying to “surf” them. The narrative of the Arab Spring just wouldn’t have been as satisfying if Qaddafi and Assad had remained in power while Mubarak fell. We wanted to make sure the story came out the way we wanted it to. And now here we are.

There are many lessons to take from the Libyan war. We have much more power to do harm than we have to do good, particularly when we’re talking about the application of military force. We are, in general, much more ignorant than we realize about the internal conditions in other countries, and these conditions matter much more to outcomes than we realize. Just because a given operation is designed to minimize direct risk to American assets doesn’t mean that we won’t have incurred obligations and commitments that will pose risks down the road. And so forth – all arguments that have been made on Larison’s blog and elsewhere in TAC.

But another lesson is that thinking in terms of narrative satisfaction can blind us to the reality of conditions that will actually determine the outcome. Just because it would be a lot more satisfying, emotionally, for the next “beat” to be for Qaddafi to fall, doesn’t mean that’s the beat we’re going to get. And if we “force” a re-write, we’re in a whole new story altogether.

Because this is my blog, you know what I’m going to do now. I’m going to go to Shakespeare, who, as always, was way ahead of all of us. Remember that scene in Julius Caesar that started the whole tidal metaphor thing?

BRUTUS
What do you think
Of marching to Philippi presently?

CASSIUS
I do not think it good.

BRUTUS
Your reason?

CASSIUS
This it is:
‘Tis better that the enemy seek us:
So shall he waste his means, weary his soldiers,
Doing himself offence; whilst we, lying still,
Are full of rest, defense, and nimbleness.

BRUTUS
Good reasons must, of force, give place to better.
The people ‘twixt Philippi and this ground
Do stand but in a forced affection;
For they have grudged us contribution:
The enemy, marching along by them,
By them shall make a fuller number up,
Come on refresh’d, new-added, and encouraged;
From which advantage shall we cut him off,
If at Philippi we do face him there,
These people at our back.

CASSIUS
Hear me, good brother.

BRUTUS
Under your pardon. You must note beside,
That we have tried the utmost of our friends,
Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe:
The enemy increaseth every day;
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Brutus sounds like he’s winning this argument. But he isn’t. Cassius knows the correlation of forces is already against him, and that a direct confrontation is likely to prove fatal. He is trying to conserve the assets he knows he has. Brutus’s response says nothing about the likelihood of actually winning at Philippi. He just expects the correlation of forces to get even worse, so he figures it’s better to take the gamble now. And not even trying to win would be too unsatisfying to consider. He’s not worried about sinking. He’s worried about a life “bound in shallows and in miseries.”

Brutus’s counsel is the right one for a drama. We like characters who say “never tell me the odds” and just go for it. They’re romantic. But under the surface, it’s the counsel of despair, of somebody who expects to lose and just wants to lose gallantly. Brutus, the “noblest Roman of them all,” was also a self-righteous prig lousy at retaining allies and stupid enough to let his most dangerous enemy go – and, before that, was pathetically easy for Cassius to manipulate into a “venture” that never had very good odds of success. Does this sound like somebody who would have been a successful ruler for Rome? Who would even have had the chance to be the ruler, even if fortune brought him victory at Philippi?

The story we’d write, if we sent the 82nd airborne to Philippi, would be far less narratively-satisfying than we imagine. How much less so than that when we’ve no Brutus to champion.

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Do We Know the Answers To Our Economic Problems?

I’ve been following a thread today about how the Democratic Party can get their mojo back, in which everybody agrees that the key is to do more to actually help working class (but actually working) voters.

The thread started with Harold Meyerson complaining that the Democrats have been depending on demographics – the “coalition of the ascendant” – for victory, and that the 2014 elections should prove once and for all that this is insufficient. Unless they can deliver broad-based prosperity, they are going to lose:

Sixty-three percent of respondents told pollsters they believed that the U.S. economic system generally favors the wealthy, while just 32 percent said that it is fair to most. And a wave of ballot measures to raise state or city minimum wages carried wherever they were put before voters — from deepest-blue San Francisco and Oakland to solid-red Nebraska, South Dakota, Arkansas and Alaska.

Yet Democrats were singularly unable to take advantage of such unarguably populist sentiments. Never mind their failure to win in red states or hold the Senate. They failed to turn out their voters, or persuade the hitherto persuadable, in such blue bastions as Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois, where they lost governors’ races. Even in the people’s republic of Vermont, the incumbent Democratic governor won so narrowly that the race will be tossed to the legislature (as Vermont law requires when no gubernatorial candidate breaks 50 percent). If current margins hold, there will be just 18 Democratic governors in January, and just eight in the 31 states that don’t border the Atlantic or Pacific.

Tuesday’s verdict makes clear that the Democrats cannot win by demographics alone.

Noam Scheiber agrees, and adds that, in his view, there’s nothing basically standing in the way of re-jiggering the Democratic message. They don’t need to abandon social liberalism, just emphasize economic populism more. And they don’t need to worry that economic populism will alienate their more upscale, college-educated demographics, because said populism is increasingly acceptable in those quarters:

The white working class is increasingly open to social liberalism, or at least not put off by it. As Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin observed this summer, 54 percent of the white working class born after 1980 think gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, according to data assembled from the 2012 election. (This tolerance diminishes as people get older, but even middle-aged working class voters are relatively open-minded on this issue.)

Teixeira and Halpin also cite a recent Center for American Progress poll that asked people about their views on racial and ethnic diversity. In that poll, 64 percent of white working class voters (overall, not just Millennials) agreed that “Americans will learn more from one another and be enriched by exposure to many different cultures.” Sixty-two percent agreed that “diverse workplaces and schools will help make American businesses more innovative and competitive.” A slight majority even agreed that “the entry of new people into the American workforce will increase our tax base and help support our retiree population.”

For their part, college grads are increasingly sympathetic toward economic populism, according to recent polling from Pew. The percentage of college grads who believe “[t]here is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies” has jumped 16 points since it bottomed out in the mid-1990s at 59 percent. The percentage who believe “corporations make too much profit” has jumped eight points since its low of 42 percent in the late ‘90s. The percentage who believe “Wall Street makes an important contribution to the American economy” has dropped 12 points since 2009 (when Pew first asked the question), to 66 percent.

Long story short, there’s a coalition available to Democrats that knits together working class minorities and college-educated voters and slices heavily into the GOP’s margins among the white working class. (As Teixeira and Halpin point out, Democrats don’t need a majority of the white working class to hold their own in the midterms. They just need to stop getting crushed.) The basis of the coalition isn’t a retreat from social progressivism, but making economic populism the party’s centerpiece, as opposed to the mix of mildly progressive economic policies (marginally higher taxes on the wealthy, marginally tougher regulation of Wall Street) and staunchly progressive social policies that define the party today. The politics of this approach work not just because populism is a “message” that a majority of voters want to hear. But because, unlike the status quo, it can actually improve their economic prospects, as Harold Meyerson recently pointed out.

Finally, Kevin Drum throws a bit of cold water by gently suggesting that the Democrats’ problem isn’t just failing to deliver on promises of prosperity, but declining expectations specifically turn working class voters against the prime beneficiaries of the welfare state:

I agree that social liberalism isn’t quite the deal killer it used to be. Scheiber and Teixera are right about that. It’s still an issue—especially gun control, which remains more potent than a lot of liberals like to acknowledge—but it’s fading somewhat in areas like abortion and gay marriage. . . .

But if that’s the case, why does the WWC continue to loathe Democrats so badly? I think the answer is as old as the discussion itself: They hate welfare. There was a hope among some Democrats that Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform would remove this millstone from around Democrats’ necks, and for a few years during the dotcom boom it probably did. The combination of tougher work rules and a booming economy made it a less contentious topic.

But when the economy stagnates and life gets harder, people get meaner. That’s just human nature. And the economy has been stagnating for the working class for well over a decade—and then practically collapsing ever since 2008.

So who does the WWC take out its anger on? Largely, the answer is the poor. In particular, the undeserving poor. Liberals may hate this distinction, but it doesn’t matter if we hate it. Lots of ordinary people make this distinction as a matter of simple common sense, and the WWC makes it more than any. That’s because they’re closer to it. For them, the poor aren’t merely a set of statistics or a cause to be championed. They’re the folks next door who don’t do a lick of work but somehow keep getting government checks paid for by their tax dollars. For a lot of members of the WWC, this is personal in a way it just isn’t for the kind of people who read this blog.

And who is it that’s responsible for this infuriating flow of government money to the shiftless? Democrats. We fight to save food stamps. We fight for WIC. We fight for Medicaid expansion. We fight for Obamacare. We fight to move poor families into nearby housing.

This is a big problem because these are all things that benefit the poor but barely touch the working class. Does it matter that the working class barely pays for most of these programs in the first place, since their federal income taxes tend to be pretty low? Nope. They’re still paying taxes, and it seems like they never get anything for it. It’s always someone else.

I could throw a bunch of responses into the mix here. For example: Schreiber is clearly overestimating the appeal of economic populism to upscale Democratic voters. 66% still think Wall Street makes an important contribution to the economy? That’s not exactly pitchfork territory. Drum, meanwhile, gives away the store when he says, of a list of priorities that include food stamps and Medicaid and Obamacare, that “these are all things that benefit the poor but barely touch the working class.” Last I checked, large percentages of work-eligible SNAP recipients are actually working, many elderly people in need of nursing care avail themselves of Medicaid’s benefits, and Obamacare was supposed to improve insurance markets particularly for those vulnerable to losing their insurance, which very much includes big swathes of the working class.

But the real point is, I feel like everybody in this conversation is dancing around the most important question: is there somebody out there who knows what will actually work? It’s not hard to articulate what either Democrats or Republicans would need to do to win. Simply say: our top priority is getting unemployment down and wages up. Not our only priority, but our top priority. And then actually deliver on that top priority.

Delivering turns out to be a bit tough, though – for both parties. Let me first look at the Republican side of things. President Bush took office just as the American economy started to tip into recession. After the 9-11 attacks, he had wide popular support even as the economy dipped further. The midterms translated that support into stronger legislative backing. He had a Fed Chair from his own party who wanted to see him succeed. If there were some well-known silver bullet that would have delivered robust economic performance, even if it broke with Republican orthodoxy here or there, don’t you think he would have pushed for it? Remember, this is President who gave us No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, Sarbanes-Oxely and McCain-Feingold. These were all major departures from Republican orthodoxy. It’s just that none of them were measures aimed directly at getting unemployment down and wages up. And economic performance was pretty lackluster throughout the Bush Presidency.

Now, on the Democratic side, President Obama was elected with a huge majority right as America dipped not merely into a recession but into a near-depression in the wake of a historic financial crisis. He faced intense opposition from Republicans in Congress, yes, but does anyone doubt where the political momentum was? That if there were some well-known silver bullet to deliver robust economic performance, he could have steamrolled any opposition? He did manage to pass Obamacare, eventually; he did manage to pass a huge stimulus bill (though not as big a bill as his own advisors thought was necessary); he did manage to pass Dodd-Frank. But the recovery was slow and fitful and wages in particular took a haircut with the crisis and haven’t recovered at all since then. And other than legislating a rise in the minimum wage, there really hasn’t been anything in the Democratic playbook that speaks directly to this issue.

Demographic appeals are the last refuge of a party without solutions to the problems voters care about most. Both parties, when faced with the failure of their economic policies to deliver the kind of broad prosperity that would lead to large reelection margins, turned to demographic appeals to “turn out” their base for victory. That worked well enough for the GOP in 2004 and for the Democrats in 2012, but left each party respectively with nothing to run on in 2006 and 2014. At which point each party in turn got a thorough shellacking.

The problem is structural. Wages have stagnated for decades. Recoveries in employment have been painfully slow in each of the last three recessions. This has been true under united governments of both parties and under divided governments. The most parsimonious conclusion to draw is that the main policymakers in both parties genuinely don’t know how to solve this problem.

That doesn’t mean there are no solutions, of course. There may be solutions within the standard policymaking playbook, or solutions may require more radical changes to our political or economic system. But if the solutions are out there, they are not known - that is to say, they are not generally accepted as knowledge. Which means pushing them is not some kind of electoral magic. I have my own notions of what is needed. But I’m under no illusions that there’s some kind of consensus that my notions are right. I’m under no illusions that there’s any kind of consensus at all on how to tackle what is plainly a long-term structural problem affecting the entire developed world.

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Inherent Vice

I understand what Damon Linker is getting at in his latest column, on the steady advance of marijuana decriminalization and legalization. But I’m developing something of a peeve against his framework, according to which the advance of “moral libertarianism” makes it impossible for us to understand the moral arguments against legalization:

Americans increasingly believe that individuals should be free to engage in behavior that harms no one besides the person who consensually chooses to engage in it, especially when the harm is either minimal or wrapped up with traditionalist religious convictions that (supposedly) have no business being backed up by law and the coercive power of the state. Once the solvent of moral libertarianism is applied to just about any contrary argument, that argument’s cogency dissolves right before our eyes.

And then we are left with an absence of reasons not to engage in behavior that was once presumed to be both immoral and justifiably illegal.

I understand his argument, and I like John Stuart Mill as much or more than the next guy. And I’m aware that a juvenile libertarianism according to which, “who says?” and “you gonna make me?” are treated as powerful arguments has gotten more popular. But I’ve still got a peeve, and my peeve, like Linker’s argument, has multiple parts.

First of all, what is Linker referring to when he talks about “behavior that was once presumed to be both immoral and justifiably illegal.” What, exactly, is immoral about smoking pot as such? I can only understand that view within a framework according to which a wide variety of other worldly pleasures – drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, probably even wearing fancy clothes and eating fancy food – are grouped under the rubric of “vice.” Now, that’s a perfectly fine framework; it served our Puritan ancestors well, and it serves the LDS Church, the various Anabaptist sects, and other groups pretty well today. But it’s simply not true that we must choose between this kind of framework and “moral libertarianism” according to which “do what thou wilt” is the only law (provided you’re not hurting anybody else directly). There are a variety of moral frameworks that view the enjoyment of fleshy pleasures in moderation not merely not as vice, but as essential to health – while still caring about the health of the individual, and not just his or her freedom of action. Epicurus was not Anton LaVey.

Once that is granted, though, the question of legalizing pot becomes a practical, consequentialist one. All of Linker’s arguments against legalization are, as it happens, consequentialist ones - and the thing is, they have consequentialist answers. Does the state tutor virtue successfully when it prohibits a practice that is so widely indulged in? What impression does it make on the impressionable when nobody will defend a widely-flouted law on the merits, when the only defense is: change is risky? As for the poor, who do you think bears the brunt of the war on drugs? Those 1-in-20 arrests that are for marijuana possession – who do you think is being arrested? Burke, who did not oppose all change, is more readily enlisted on the side of decriminalization than on the side of prohibition, for the same reason that he is more readily enlisted on the side of same-sex marriage: in both cases, the law would not be driving social change but recognizing a social change that has already occurred. There’s nothing particularly Burkean about using tradition as an excuse for refusing to face that fact that a given custom is now honored largely in the breach.

None of the above arguments require some kind of inherent, principled objection to the state trying to encourage moral behavior. Nor does that fact that an existing prohibition on pot feels less and less sensible mean that there’s any less receptivity, socially, to new restrictions on personal freedom in the name of improving society. The same society can simultaneously legalize pot and put more restrictions on gun ownership, or on casual sex on campus, or on speech deemed hateful or subversive. From the perspective of a true Epicurean, repression and overindulgence look like two sides of the same coin.

At bottom, I’m just unconvinced that “moral libertarianism” is the right way to describe the guiding ideology of our day. I don’t think that our general attitude towards drug use is an indifferent tolerance edging toward encouragement of experimentation (which is what I would imagine “moral libertarianism” ought to mean). We do not say, “hey, if he wants to kill himself with liquor, that’s his business” so long as the drunk isn’t harming anybody else directly. We have no problem, as a society, in saying that addiction is an objectively bad state, or in saying that public policy should aim to reduce the number of people in that state. Drinking, gambling, sex – name any traditional vice you like, we have a public discourse that goes beyond the sacrosanct nature of personal choice in talking about those activities. Most distinctively, we identify an internal problem that directly affects only the afflicted – the psychological experience of a loss of freedom – and we see that as an objective evil we call “addiction.”

This shift in emphasis does have consequences for how we think about policy. The concept of “vice” imputes objective power to the indulgence itself. Gambling, alcohol, pornography: these are vices; they have an inherent allure, an inherent power, which some people will fall prey to more readily than others. And so we need to keep that power in check by hedging it in, even if we know it cannot be extirpated outright. The concept of “addiction,” though, emphasizes not the power of vice but the weakness of the individual. The first “step” of the original twelve-step program read:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

It’s not that alcohol was powerful – it’s that we were powerless. The problem is us, and we have to solve it – not alone, not without help from others, but by changing ourselves. That’s a highly individualist approach to these matters, but it’s not “moral libertarianism” as I understand Linker to be using the phrase.

Or perhaps I misunderstand it.

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A Clinton Coronation Benefits the GOP Establishment

Coronation

The consensus seems to be that 2016 will feature a broad and deep field on the GOP side. At a minimum, you’ll have Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Scott Walker and Chris Christie. Jeb Bush will likely run as well, and if he doesn’t Marco Rubio will, in either case running as “Bush III: This Time We Won’t Be Incompetent.” John Kasich may compete with Christie for the role of moderate, electable governor; Mike Pence may compete with Scott Walker for the role of hard-line conservative governor. Ted Cruz may run just to be annoying. Somebody more plausible than Ben Carson will run as the standard-bearer of the religious right.

Over on the Democratic side, the most-likely scenario is that Hillary Clinton will face only token opposition, not even the level of competition that Al Gore faced in Bill Bradley back in 2000.

There’s a real debate to be had over whether this is good for the Democratic Party, and I think the best of the argument is that it is not. A primary contest is how a party hashes out, in public, what it’s all about at this point in time. Clinton has been through enough that we know she can take the heat. But she hasn’t ever beaten back a serious challenge. Meanwhile, there’s little evidence that a hard-fought primary makes it hard for the party to unify behind the eventual nominee – if the party goes into the primary basically knowing what it wants – and little evidence that avoiding such a primary helps if the party basically doesn’t. The Democrats united just fine in 2004 and 2008 after tough contests. They had a tougher time uniting in 2000 after a near-coronation.

But I’m interested in a different question: how would a serious challenge to Clinton, even if it failed, affect the Republican contest?

It seems to me that a Clinton coronation makes life much easier for those who don’t want to think too hard about what the GOP stands for. The GOP would really like to run a largely negative campaign against the Clinton-Obama record without having to declare itself too clearly on any issue. A Clinton coronation would make that easier, because it would take away the need for Clinton to define herself in any specific way.

Take foreign policy. Clinton is at the extreme hawkish end of the Democratic Party. She pushed hard for the intervention in Libya, favored a more forceful and earlier intervention in Syria, a tougher line on Iran, and so forth. If she faced a serious primary challenge from, say, Jim Webb, she’d either have to defend that record forcefully, or moderate her stance. Now, if she did the first, then what happens on the Republican side at the same time? First, Rand Paul says he agrees more with Jim Webb. Second, the other GOP contenders have to decide whether they want to echo Clinton, echo Paul, or come up with an alternative way of explaining their views while remaining hawkish. Whatever they do, they have to provide more clarity.

What if she did the second, and tried to portray herself as more moderate? Well, that would give the strongest hawks in the GOP the opportunity to define themselves as more hawkish than the Clinton-Obama Democrats. But that, in turn, would open up space for a real foreign policy argument on the GOP side. By contrast, if Clinton never has to define her views in the primary, the temptation on the GOP side will be to avoid an argument that has the potential to divide GOP voters, and stick to arguments and slogans that will resonate more broadly because they mean less.

I think the same thing is true on any other issue – Clinton’s coziness with the banking sector, for example. A populist challenge on the Democratic side would open up space for Republicans to actually argue about whether they have a populist argument to make. If nothing else, it would be glaring if they didn’t. By contrast, a coronation would make it easy for GOP contenders to posture in a populist direction without actually arguing about what they would actually do.

What I guess I’m saying is: I assume Michael Brendan Dougherty isn’t going to vote for anybody the Democrats nominate. At best, they might nominate someone who convinces him not to pull the lever for the GOP – and that’s probably a pretty easy bar to clear. But that doesn’t mean he’s just a concern troll. A healthy debate on one side is good for the prospects of healthy debate on the other side. And that’s good for the country, no matter who winds up winning said debate.

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Double Feature Feature: Walking Shadow Edition

Michael Keaton and his winged shadow in Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman"
Michael Keaton and his winged shadow in Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman"

About half an hour before the end of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” our hero, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), walks out of a cheap liquor store to the sound of someone declaiming, with monotonous vehemence, Macbeth’s famous “tomorrow” soliloquy from Act V of Shakespeare’s play. As Riggan walks down the street taking pulls from his bottle, he passes the bum speaking the speech, and the bum notices him passing, and calls out to him – “Is it too much? It’s too much, isn’t it? I’m just trying to give you a range . . .”

The line is a call back to a moment near the beginning of the film. Riggan is the director and star of a play (which he wrote), adapted from the famous Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” But twenty years before, he was a huge movie star, most famous for playing a comic book hero, Birdman, in three installments of the eponymous franchise. This late-career theatrical outing is Riggan’s bid for artistic redemption – his way of proving that he can do work that matters, that is “important” and not just remunerative. That homeless soliloquizer’s line is a quote from the rehearsal of that play – it’s the last thing one of the other actors says to Riggan when he sees Riggan’s disappointment with his over-the-top line reading. Next thing that happens, a light falls on the actor’s head, and he’s out of the show – an accident that Riggan is convinced he caused, using Birdman’s powers of telekinesis.

It’s almost a throwaway moment, but in a way it’s a synecdoche for the entire film, its method and its message. Macbeth was kind of Shakespeare’s Birdman, when you think about it: a hero with quasi-magic powers capable of chopping foes in half with a single blow. And this speech, by a murderous tyrant learning of his wife’s death, is about the death of feeling: feeling like you’re just an actor, walking through a part. You may make a lot of noise, but it doesn’t mean anything; knowing that, you feel nothing at the passing of the only person you ever really loved. But, of course, that speech has to be delivered by an actor – and, as it happens, it’s a really hard speech to deliver convincingly, to deliver not as a “speech,” but as something genuinely felt. And it’s not just because the speech is famous; I suspect it has something to do with the double-consciousness the actor must have at that moment, that to be in that moment, he must be out of it, using the feeling he has when he thinks about what on earth the point is of what he is doing, right then.

And that double consciousness is what “Birdman” is most fundamentally about.

That’s not all, of course. On one level, the film is just an exquisitely snarky showbiz satire, something to be watched alongside “State and Main,” “Barton Fink” and “The Player” – and that might be readily deflated by “Sullivan’s Travels” – and on that level it’s a whole lot of fun. The key supporting performances, by Ed Norton as a “method”-mad stage actor, Naomi Watts as his vulnerable co-star and lover, Emma Stone as Riggan’s pouty daughter and assistant, Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s own lover, and Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s put-upon lawyer, are all poised perfectly on the knife-edge between outright satire and emotional realism – they are exaggerated for exactly the right amount of effect to make us laugh without ever letting us distance ourselves completely. Only Amy Ryan, as Riggan’s ex-wife, plays her part without a hint of show – a choice which I’m sure was deliberate, as it provides us with the necessary ground to read Riggan himself as a real person, and not merely the cartoon he so often sees himself in.

On another level, “Birdman” is just a self-conscious tour-de-force, Emmanuel Lubezki‘s bid to retire the cinematography Oscar once and for all – and, not incidentally, a clever argument-by-illustration for film as a medium in explicit contrast with theater. The illusion that 90% of the film is a single take is breathtaking simply as a stunt, but it’s also making a point – that film can make us feel like we are there, feel the same tingle at a flawless performance played out in real time that the stage can. But film can also keep us in a character’s world, in his mind, can give us a point of view in a way that the stage is not optimally suited to do (though there are certainly plays and productions that try - The Glass Menagerie comes to mind as an obvious example). We’re not “with” Riggan is comprehensively as, say, we are with Travis Bickle in “Taxi Triver,” but the world the film explores is overwhelmingly his, even when he isn’t engaged in literal flights of fancy.

But to take this comedy seriously for a moment, it’s about whether art, particularly the art of performance, matters at all. And, by extension, whether life matters at all, since all we are doing in our lives is playing one or another part, and the measure of artistic success in performance is whether it doesn’t read as a performance, but feels as real as life.

In this, as well as in its method, it reminded me of another film about making theater: “Synecdoche, New York,” Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant directorial debut, and the film that for a while looked like it might have ended his career. I’ve been meaning to write something about “Synecdoche” for a long time, and have managed only to allude to it – which I will no doubt do again, as it’s a very important movie to me. But “Birdman” helped me contextualize it differently – and see better the ways in which it’s telling a story that’s easy to mock, and how it might have benefitted (as “Birdman” has) from greater self-awareness of that mockability.

“Synecdoche” tells the story of mopey theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman). At the beginning of the film, he’s just staged a radical re-imagining of Death of a Salesman. (As with Carver in “Birdman,” the choice of material speaks volumes about the hero; but that’s a subject I’ve written about before.) His wife doesn’t like the play, which lets us know something is wrong there, and sure enough she leaves him almost immediately thereafter, taking their young daughter with her. Immediately after that, Caden gets a “genius” grant, and decides to use it to create the most comprehensive theater piece ever conceived: a theater piece that will contain the entire world, or at least the world of the creator and all he touches. For the rest of the film, Caden, in an abandoned warehouse, creates this work, hiring actors to play himself and the various people in his life – and then, as he descends further and further into his own work, actors to play the actors who, because of long association, have become important people to him in their own right. The work grows and evolves, but is never staged before an audience. It ends as a ruin of its once-fantastical self, with Caden’s own death.

Obviously, the conceit isn’t intended to be taken literally. Caden’s theater piece isn’t a real theater piece; it’s his life – the life of an artist who, perforce, creates art out of the materials of his life, and whose life over time becomes more and more dominated by that activity, increasingly populated not with “real” people but with people engaged with him in that same act of artifice. But that missing audience, ironically, becomes more powerful and awful if we think of it in metaphorical terms than if we take it straight. Taken straight, it’s a joke – this guy has spent his life creating a work of art, but who is it for? Nobody is watching! But taken as a metaphor for the artist’s life, it’s more terrible: this guy has been living his life, as an artist, but who has he been living it for? Is anybody even there?

And that, in turn, is the question “Birdman’s” Riggan asks at the end of his play, in a flashback to the scene of violence that Carver’s story refers to but doesn’t show: Ed’s bungled suicide. “I’m not even here; I’m invisible,” the character says – and then shoots himself. One of the delights of “Birdman” is seeing how this ending, and his play generally, changes with each performance, shedding new light on what it means for Riggan – just as one of the (far more elaborately developed) delights of “Synecdoche” is the repetition of scenes, first in Caden’s life, then on his “stage,” then riffing and transforming as Caden’s life moves on, and his art gets more and more tangled and impacted by that life.

I don’t want to give away too much about the ending of “Birdman,” but I’ll say this. Birdman himself, the character Riggan played and who follows him around for much of the movie taunting him in voice-over, has his own notions of what it’s all about: it’s about giving the audience what they want, and thereby becoming bigger than human, big enough to give them all of what they want. They want blood, they want excitement. You might say they want to know you love them so much you’re willing to kill somebody for them. That’s what the characters in the Carver story are debating. And that’s what, ultimately, Riggan gives them on stage.

And what about Caden? He has no audience. So why is he doing it? Where’s the love, even the twisted love, even what ultimately amounts to self-love, in the kind of art Caden is creating? Caden’s art is made out of his life, but it isn’t made for anybody. The deaths that happen in his world – there are two of note, one a suicide and one a comically foreshadowed accident – feel like extravagant attempts to get his attention, not ours. The solipsism of Caden’s world is so complete that the ending of the film recalls the Housman poem:

“Good creatures, do you love your lives
And have you ears for sense?
Here is a knife like other knives,
That cost me eighteen pence.

I need but stick it in my heart
And down will come the sky,
And earth’s foundations will depart
And all you folk will die.”

I don’t mean to dump on “Synecdoche,” which means a huge amount to me, or to build up “Birdman” to something bigger than it is. Part of the difference between the two films amounts to the fact that “Synecdoche” is ultimately closer to the consciousness of a writer, while “Birdman” is about an actor. Part of it is that “Synecdoche” has a much bigger canvas – a whole life, a whole world – and a much looser method. Both films play with the boundary between reality and cinematic or theatrical representations thereof, and both films also play with our sense of time and space, but “Birdman” holds a much tighter rein on its conceits.

But I’ve put these two films together as a double feature not just because they are doing certain similar or comparable things, but because they are very different in spirit, and consequently have something to teach each other. And what “Birdman” could teach “Synecdoche” is the unexpected humility of arrogance. ”Birdman” knows that all it’s showing us is the life of a middle-aged movie star in all his pompous self-importance. It knows how we’re going to take him down a peg, and it gets there first. This makes Iñárritu’s film, on the one hand, seem more purely entertaining than Kaufman’s, which wears its pretensions to importance on its sleeve. But because the film has already taken Riggan down a peg, we’re free to actually identify, where Kaufman’s Caden actively pushes us away – one reason for its commercial failure, I suspect, is that only those already inclined to fear their own comprehensive solipsism were drawn in. “Birdman” is about absurd and willing victims of celebrity culture, and it doesn’t take their ambitions particularly seriously. But they take them seriously, and we’re free to let it ramify for us beyond the world of celebrity culture, to have it mean something to us.

“Birdman’s” range is, ultimately, as wide as you’re willing to let it fly.

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Voting My Pique

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I’ve declined to say much about the midterms until now because, honestly, I barely paid any attention, so I’m in no position to opine on the surprise or lack thereof of the result. But I can speak to my own mentality going into the election, how it affected my vote, and how the results have played with me since.

This is the first time I can recall going into the voting booth to vote my pique, and not much else.

Usually, I take a “lesser-of-two-evils” approach to elections. There’s almost always someone I prefer of two serious alternatives, and I vote for that person. Sometimes I vote in a partisan manner, paying little attention to the individual and more attention to party identification; sometimes I do the opposite. Occasionally, I’m actually excited to vote for a particular candidate.

This year, my motivations were quite different. I voted entirely out of civic obligation, and made my selections in an entirely negative manner.

I think Andrew Cuomo has been a decent governor. We’ve certainly had worse. I just can’t stand him. So I didn’t want to vote for him, or his party. I saw no reason to vote for the Republican alternative. In another year, I might have voted for the Democrat on the Working Families line, or for either the Republican or Democratic candidate on the Liberal line, as a way of lending support to their particular influences on the political process. This year, that wasn’t an option. I’m particularly annoyed at the Working Families Party for capitulating easily to the governor. So I voted Green, knowing nothing about that party’s candidate. It was a pure pique vote.

Then I voted Libertarian for a couple of other offices, just to make sure nobody thought I was some kind of pinko. And that’s how it went down the ballot. When I couldn’t find a hopeless third alternative, I wrote in my friend Sid, who I am confident would discharge the responsibilities of any office in a conscientious manner.

When it came to the ballot initiatives, I voted against the redistricting plan because I didn’t want to endorse any supposed reform supported by the powers that be. I voted against the bond issue for school technology because I have no confidence that this is a sensible use of funds. Basically, I voted “No” to everybody and on everything except distributing legislation by email. Functionally, I didn’t behave very differently from someone who didn’t vote.

This was not a strategic move. I wasn’t trying to “send a message.” It was an affiliational move. I didn’t want to be affiliated with anything or anyone on the ballot this year.

I’m not particularly proud of that. I do wonder whether I would have voted differently if there had been any meaningful contest at stake locally. I probably would have. But that affiliational element would have stuck in my craw, regardless.

From a systems perspective, I think of politics as a game in which elites compete to capture a portion of the electorate in order to secure office. The results of elections have no greater meaning than who now holds those offices. There is no “people’s will,” and no such thing as a “mandate” – it isn’t even possible to send a “message” because pragmatically the game is always about the next election. The premise of democracy, in this way of thinking, is that governance will be improved if those elites have to fear direct accountability to the voters – if they don’t do a job that voters approve of, they may get tossed out unceremoniously. If that’s basically what politics in a democracy is, then I shouldn’t feel bad at all about my mentality going into this election. Voting your pique is pretty much what you always should do.

But I am stubbornly attached to another vision of politics, according to which political life is paradigmatically where we decide on what terms we are going to live together. Voting my pique doesn’t feel so good if that’s what politics is. Who wants to live with someone that cranky, on any terms? And my distaste for political affiliation, which has been growing year by year, feels rather too much like a withdrawal from the polis as such.

I’m not saying, by the way, that a libertarian “leave me alone” politics constitutes withdrawal. “Give each other lots of space” is a perfectly reasonable answer to the question, “on what terms shall we live together?” But there’s a difference between agreeing that we’re each going to do our own dishes and throw out our own trash, and simply sitting on the couch, staring at the television, ignoring our infuriating roommate whenever he brings around the job wheel.

Anyway, hopefully I’m in a more familiar, less-alienated frame of mind by the next time two evils are competing for the title of which is lesser.

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Publishing Problems

Friends:

A piece appeared at some point over the past couple of days under my name that was not intended for publication. I’m not sure how exactly it got published; I’m investigating that question right now.

I frequently write draft posts to explore one or another thought that then decide against publishing because – well, possibly because I don’t think they are well-written, possibly because I’m not sure I agree with my own argument, possibly because I’m still working out what I’m trying to say.

In any event, if anyone is puzzled where the last post went – that’s where.

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Esoteric? Or Poetic?

plato-socrates-resized

I think I’m going to need to read Arthur M. Melzer’s new book, because I admit to being somewhat confused by just why Damon Linker thinks his argument is so important.

Here’s how high Linker rates the stakes:

Melzer has written the most compelling, surprising, and persuasive defense of [Leo] Strauss’s thought that I have ever read. It deserves a wide and appreciative audience. And if it gets one, the consequences could be enormous.

Because if Strauss was right in the way he interpreted the Western philosophical tradition, then much of modern scholarship — and, by extension, our civilization’s understanding of its intellectual and political inheritance — will need to be radically revised.

Why? Because, following Strauss, Melzer argues that the classics of Western philosophy were written “esoterically.” That is to say, they appear to be saying one thing on the surface, but the attentive and truly philosophically-inclined reader will discern a deeper meaning that, on close examination, is profoundly at odds with the surface meaning. And, presumably, we moderns have been reading these classics all wrong because we’ve forgotten how to read this way.

My first puzzlement is to say: really? We have? We no longer prize “indirect, implicit, ambiguous modes of speaking and writing” the way all other societies in history have, and do? William Empson would certainly be surprised to hear it, as would much of the rest of the literary-critical profession. Stanley Fish’s reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, sounds to me like a textbook example of what Linker, citing Melzer, calls “pedagogical esotericism.” Assuming I’ve understood Fish correctly, his argument is that while on the surface Paradise Lost appears to be a story about the Fall of Man – and in that story, appears to make Satan a surprisingly sympathetic figure (which is how Blake read it) – in fact that very experience, of being surprised by sympathy for the devil as a dramatic character, recapitulates the Fall within the heart of the reader. And, by putting the reader through that experience, the reader will truly come to understand the Fall and how it could have happened in the first place.

I deliberately didn’t point to Lacanian, New Historicist or other schools of reading that divorce the text from any notion of intentionality because it seems important to Melzer’s (and Strauss’s) claim that these works were intended to be read esoterically. But clearly these other schools, following Freud and Marx, have found (or imposed) all kinds of esoteric meanings on a wide variety of texts. And it’s not obvious to me why the point about intentionality is telling if the question is: what do these works mean now, as opposed to the historical question of what they meant then.

In any event: medieval Jewish, Christian and Muslim philosophers were well-acquainted with the idea of reading texts – particularly sacred texts – on multiple levels: reading for the plain meaning, the allegorical meaning, the mystical “esoteric” meaning, etc. Straussian readings of the classics – which, I will own, I have had only passing acquaintance with – have always struck me as comparable. Maimonides, Aquinas and Ibn Rushd aimed to reconcile Aristotle with scripture. This required some novel readings of scripture – and also some novel readings of Aristotle. Strauss, it seems to me, wanted to reconcile Plato with Nietzsche, which required similar stretches. What’s puzzling is the necessity of reconciliation. Plato, after all, isn’t scripture. Nietzsche may actually have learned something that Plato didn’t know. “What did Plato intend his readers to understand?” is ultimately a historical question, not a philosophical one. “Is mathematical Platonism correct?” on the other hand, is a philosophical question – and one that has relevance whether “mathematical Platonism” as philosophers of math use the term actually corresponds precisely to something Plato “intended” or not. Either way, the value of reading Plato as if it were a sacred text is, well, obscure.

My largest puzzlement, though, is that the defining characteristic of Western philosophical thought at its origin is the opposite of esotericism. Socrates, after all, was put to death precisely because he directly questioned whether anybody knew anything, and thereby (in the view of the Athenian citizenry) corrupted the youth and led the community into disaster. His method wasn’t esoteric teaching – it wasn’t teaching at all. It was relentlessly interrogatory. Is it plausible to read much of Plato as an esoteric response, an attempt to preserve something of Socrates’s philosophical achievement without ultimately suffering his fate? Perhaps – but the more salient fact, it seems to me, is that Socrates’s example is still there as the fundamental challenge to any philosopher to come after. That’s what’s distinctive. Read Plato however you like, you will never turn Socrates into Lao Tzu for sheer esoteric inscrutability.

Here’s the heart of Linker’s appreciation of Melzer, and of Strauss:

Take the account of the “noble lie” in Plato’s Republic. In this passage of the classic dialogue, Socrates tells his conversation partners that the perfectly just political community they are constructing in speech will require a four-part foundational lie or salutary myth: that all of its citizens are born from the ground on which the community makes its home; that all citizens are brothers; that each citizen is born as one of three races (gold, silver, or iron/bronze); and that each comes into the world along with certain tools that indicate the job he was meant to do in life.

On Melzer’s reading (which closely follows the interpretation of Strauss’ student Allan Bloom), each element in this myth is meant to expose a lie that can be found at work in every human society, even our own.

Every society denies the fact that the land it occupies was taken by force from some group of human beings who was there first. (Hence the need to teach the lie that citizens are literally children of the land the society occupies.) Every society arbitrarily grants the rights and benefits of citizenship to some people and denies them to others. (Hence the need to teach the lie that all citizens are members of a natural family.) Every society allows some people to rule over others — in a democracy, the majority rules over everyone else — and attempts to justify this arrangement as founded in the natural order of things. (Hence the need to teach the myth of the metals.) Finally, every society requires that certain undesirable jobs be done, even when they are harmful to the individuals who do them — coal mining, for example, or soldiering. (Hence the need to teach the myth of the tools.)

In sum, every society makes use of myths and lies to cover over injustices that are coeval with political life as such. This isn’t to deny that liberal democracies strive to lessen these injustices in some areas. In comparison to most societies in history, for example, the U.S. permits a relatively large number of immigrants to become citizens. The upward mobility fostered by capitalistic exchange likewise alleviates the worst economic injustices.

Yet we still exclude people from citizenship, and we still need some people to do dangerous or otherwise harmful jobs. There is no complete solution to the problem of political injustice. Even though every society uses a variation on the noble lie to convince itself that it has somehow achieved exactly that.

Strauss didn’t teach his students to tell lies. He taught them how to liberate themselves from the lies we tell ourselves.

If this is how Plato intended to be read, it can only be because his students were already Socratic in their orientation. Compare the above to my account of Fish’s “reader-response” reading of Milton. Unless you already are oriented in a Christian manner, and understand sympathy for the devil’s party to be an index of sinfulness, you won’t be “surprised” in the manner Milton intended. The poem won’t work its greatest magic. So: a philosophically-sophisticated reader of Plato, Melzer is saying, will read Plato’s account of the “noble lie” and, rather than take it at face value (“clearly we should continue to promote such lies, for the good of the community”), or engage in self-congratulation (“thankfully, we modern liberals have outgrown the telling of noble lies”), will turn the process inward, (“hmmm . . . the teacher says that the ideal community is founded on noble lies . . . our community seems pretty ideal – I wonder what lies we are founded on?”) But if this process is going to happen at all, though, it is because the student already sees Socrates as the philosophical exemplar. That is to say: she already thinks the right way to do philosophy is by questioning everything. Absent that fundamental orientation, how would it ever occur to the student to ask that question?

Milton, writing a Christian poem for a Christian audience, presumably wasn’t being “esoteric.” He was writing poetry – great, highly sophisticated poetry that (assuming Fish’s reading is correct) could not achieve its fullest effect except by the means he employed. If Strauss/Bloom/Melzer’s reading of Plato’s noble lie is correct, then the question is whether Plato was writing poetically or esoterically? Was he writing as he did, in other words, because a more sophisticated approach was more powerful? Or because he didn’t want to be understood by non-initiates?

The two possibilities have very different implications for how we think about Strauss’s implicit politics. The latter is properly what “esoteric” writing should mean, and is why Strauss gets the negative rap that he does. “Liberate yourself from believing lies” is perfectly compatible, as an injunction, with continuing to tell them, and the surface reading of Plato – according to which the path of relentless inquiry is only available to the elite, and is dangerous for society as a whole – would certainly seem to provide adequate justification for continuing to tell them. But my question is: what would Socrates do? The founder of Western philosophy didn’t head out to the suburbs to teach selected initiates. He asked annoying questions of whoever entered the Agora. And when that earned him a cup of hemlock, he drank it.

I’ll be more convinced that Strauss is actually following Socrates when I hear more from Straussians about the lies philosophers – including Straussians - tell themselves about what they are really doing.

 

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Chickens**t Nation?

As an inveterate Netanyahu-hater, I’ve been mildly gratified by chickens**t-gate. I am far from alone in always having seen Netanyahu as a short-term, un-strategic thinker and a deeply insecure person, someone whose politics are almost exclusively the politics of fear, and who is, himself, consumed by fears of possible negative consequences to himself of any risky decisions – but blithe to the consequences to his country’s political life of any of his self-protective maneuvers. Chickens**t is as good a word for him as any.

But, once upon a time, this was a reason why Netanyahu seemed like an unlikely figure to dominate Israeli politics. Israelis themselves could see how small he was, how inadequately he represented them. They might vote for him if they felt they had to, but they wouldn’t feel good about it – not even right-wing voters who might have voted enthusiastically for Begin or Sharon. Most other Likud politicians held him in poorly-concealed contempt.

That has changed, and I’m not sure Netanyahu’s foreign critics – or even some of his domestic ones – fully appreciate that change. Last week, Daniel Larison weighed in on why the Obama Administration leaked such contemptuous language, and the best he could come up with is spite: the Administration has given up on any progress and is just trying to make Netanyahu’s life difficult as payback for Bibi’s own meddling. But are the leaks having the desired effect? Netanyahu doesn’t seem to think so – he seems to think he gets a political benefit from being attacked by President Obama. And the evidence of recent history backs him up on this. Organs of American Jewish opinion are also starting to wonder whether the Netanyahu government has come unmoored from reality, as have a host of retired officials from Israel’s military and security services. None of this criticism shows any signs of moving the needle of Israeli public opinion in the direction the critics desire.

One may debate to what extent the Netanyahu government is to blame for the state of the Israeli public psyche, and to what extent he merely benefits from accurately reflecting the tenor of the Israeli times. But the fact remains: he does reflect it accurately. The Israeli public is not pushing the government to address its growing international isolation because it has fully internalized the notion that all-but-universal hatred is inevitable. Criticism from American Jews, even from traditionally more center-right quarters, falls on deaf ears because such criticism just proves that American Jews, safely an ocean away from the front lines, don’t understand the risks Israelis face. The circle is closed.

Obviously, not all Israelis feel this way; there’s a spectrum of opinion everywhere. But in my view, Netanyahu is correctly assessing the domestic political environment he faces. He helped create it, after all. This is not 1991, and Netanyahu is not Shamir. And those who think that Israel is pursuing a course with grave long-term risks have a much tougher task than simply leaning on a particularly recalcitrant leader.

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