I agree with the bulk of Damon Linker’s latest column, which is about the absurdity of defenestrating everyone who opposes gay marriage when this was the default position of even progressive leaders a few scant years ago. But of course, agreeing is boring – so let me focus on two points of disagreement.
The first: on whether the oft-made analogy between opposing gay marriage and opposing miscegenation is tendentious. Linker says that, while he finds the arguments against gay marriage to be wrong,
[T]heir arguments are not frivolous — and certainly not as frivolous as rationales that were once used to justify racial inequality. Arguments in favor of traditional marriage — rooted in claims about the natural sexual complementarity of men and women — are also far more deeply rooted in human civilization the world over, and Western civilization specifically, than arguments against miscegenation.
He goes on to quote Ryan Anderson, the topic of his column, saying that basically no great thinker on the subject of marriage, from any religious or non-religious tradition, talks about race, whereas all talk about the complementarity of the sexes.
For the contrary view, I’ll cite Numbers 25:6-13:
And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting. And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand. And he went after the man of Israel into the chamber, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel. And those that died by the plague were twenty and four thousand. And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ’Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace; and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’
Now, I’m not going to pretend that this passage interprets itself. But when I read it in context, without bias, what I see is a straightforward condemnation of exogamy. The people of Israel want to intermarry with the Midianites, mingling their cultures and religions along with their blood. Members of a prominent Israelite and Midianite family boldly proclaim their union at the central institution of Israelite religion. A patriotic Israelite stabbed them to death (stabbing the woman through the belly, so as to symbolically cut off any possible issue as well). And God was pleased.
This is, of course, the foundational text of Western religion, and the importance of endogamy is not a trivial theme therein. And if we go outside of a Western context, endogamy is exceptionally important across Asia. All the major northeast Asian groups have a strong sense of consciousness of themselves as peoples, and strong taboos against marrying out, taboos which are only now being challenged in any serious way. Cousin marriage is a common norm across the Middle East. And Hindu India, with its caste system, raised endogamous preference to the level of art.
The Jim Crow South was indeed a very peculiar place with peculiar institutions – institutions we now anathematize for a reason. But we should not, as a consequence of our anathematization, delude ourselves that the peculiarity was the desire to preserve social separation from a less-favored group, including by prohibiting intermarriage. Because that desire is quite common, historically and still today.
Which brings me to my second point of disagreement with Linker. He says:
Versions of these traditionalist arguments were accepted by nearly every human being who’s ever lived until a couple of decades ago — and (supposedly) Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton until just a few years ago. Like them, I’ve come to reject those arguments. But saying they now seem wrong is one thing. Relegating them to the category of the foulest prejudice is something else entirely. It’s reckless to break so quickly with the past and jump so easily to moral condemnation.
Except . . . that’s precisely what we, as a society, did with respect to miscegenation. In a few years, objections to sexual relations between blacks and whites went from being an extremely commonly held opinion (and not just in the South), to one that was still extremely common but could not be admitted to in public without being deemed profoundly retrograde.
Think about the pace of change. Brown vs. Board was 1954. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg was in 1971. In 17 years, we went from a society that promulgated racial separation and white supremacy from childhood onward, to a society committed to using the force of the law to undo and reverse what the earlier social and legal system had forcibly imposed, and to indoctrinate children in the opposite ideology. Loving v. Virginia was in 1967, a time when the defense of segregation was still active and violent. After Loving, how long was it respectable for a public figure to say that sexual relations between blacks and whites was wrong, and a threat to American civilization? Five years? Ten?
Considering the depth and longevity of official white supremacy in American history, we broke with the past with what one might call “all deliberate speed,” and moved quickly to moral condemnation even though huge numbers of people stubbornly refused to change their no-longer-respectable views.
Now, I’m not arguing that the analogy is a good one in all respects. In particular, the social and legal disabilities that gay people and black people suffered under in American history are wildly disparate in their operation and effects. I’m just saying that the end of legal and social support for miscegenation in America was radical. It didn’t radically redefine what marriage was – but it radically redefined what the United States was. It made it impossible to argue that the United States was a country by and for white people, and arguing that the United States was precisely such a country had a long, long history in America.
And, let me note that I am suspicious of claims that gay marriage radically redefines marriage as such. It seems to me instead that it’s a capstone achievement of the “Romeo and Juliet revolution” that treats marriage as rooted in love, and that sees its legal purpose as an institution for mutual aid and responsibility between individuals (particularly for child-rearing), rather than as a means of securing legitimacy for heirs and the continuity of extended family lines – and, not at all incidentally, of the feminist revolution that questions any distinction between “natural” male and female roles as likely to be a way of enforcing an inegalitarian distribution of power.
But gay marriage may, in fact, make it extremely difficult for traditional Christians to continue to think of the United States as a Christian country. Which, notwithstanding that equality for non-Christian citizens goes all the way back to the founding, we have a long, long history of thinking of this country as being. That, I think, is where the radicalism of gay marriage really lies, for America’s many conservative Christians. And if I’m right, then the potency of the analogy with miscegenation may not be so weak after all.
None of which means that we have to anathematize those who hold to the old dispensation. But then, maybe anathematization isn’t a liberal tool of persuasion at all, even when you are dealing with “rank bigotry” and “the foulest prejudice.”
Last week, I examined what I considered to be one of the best realist cases against the deal with Iran, penned by former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. Today, I’m going to look at the realist case for the deal, ably made by Stephen M. Walt.
His case has four parts:
- The details of the nuclear deal don’t really matter. Iran could have gone nuclear already if it really wanted to; perhaps it doesn’t really want to for a variety of rational reasons. And if Iran did go nuclear, that wouldn’t be a disaster. The deal is important because it ends Iran’s isolation, which makes it possible for America to engage in a normal, businesslike manner, and not because it solves the problem of Iran’s nuclear program.
- An Iran re-integrated into the international community would be the strongest single state in the region – which is why it makes America’s allies nervous – but would not become a regional hegemon or a serious problem for the United States. Why? Because most of the surrounding states distrust Iran for ethno-religious and historical reasons, and so will not engage in bandwagoning; and because the United States is still so overwhelmingly powerful that Iran could be readily deterred if it tried to pursue a truly hegemonic role (and, particularly, control of the region’s oil).
- Moreover, better relations with Iran would be expected to change its foreign policy as maintaining good relations became more important. And cultural and economic interaction could change Iran internally as well.
- Finally, the “deal or no deal” choice is false because we do not actually have the option of keeping the pressure on; in the absence of a deal, Russia, China, India and much of Europe will abandon the cause of isolating Iran, and it is America that will wind up isolated on the issue.
What’s most interesting to me about Walt’s case for the deal is on how few points it disagrees with Kissinger and Shultz’s case against it.
Much of Kissinger and Shultz’s case consisted of arguments that the nuclear deal does not adequately restrain Iran’s nuclear program. Walt doesn’t dispute any of this; he says it doesn’t matter. Kissinger and Shultz argued that enforcement would be difficult because other powers won’t want to restore sanctions. I pointed out in my post that this completely undermined any argument for continuing sanctions in order to get a “better deal.” Walt makes the same point but also argues that Iran is the one that will not want to risk poisoning improved relations by violating a deal. But the point is: both sides apparently agree that the rest of the world is not so interested in pressuring Iran further.
The rest of Kissinger and Shultz’s argument revolved around the reaction within the region. Saudi Arabia, Israel and the smaller Gulf states are unhappy about the deal because it will make Iran stronger, and they fear a stronger Iran. Walt doesn’t dispute this. Kissinger and Shultz point out that if America is trying to engage in “offshore balancing” that we should be allying with Iran’s opponents rather than cozying up to Iran, since Iran is already the most powerful player. Walt simply argues that Iran is a long way from being able to dominate the region, and that we have plenty of time to engage in that kind of balancing if it tries to behave like a hegemon. But they agree that our regional allies are pretty much all opposed to the deal.
Kissinger and Shultz worry about Saudi Arabia going nuclear or seeking other partners. I pointed out that there aren’t really any other available partners that could remotely approximate America’s capabilities. Walt makes a similar point by noting that there are no other superpowers capable of projecting power into the region, which should make us less-worried about possible Iranian adventurism. But neither of us have a good answer to the risk of Saudi nuclear proliferation that an Iranian nuclear breakout could lead to (other than Walt’s point that that risk is a good reason for Iran not to cross the threshold).
So as I say: there’s a whole lot more agreement here than disagreement. Kissinger and Shultz don’t have any better idea of how to prevent Iran going nuclear than the deal they criticize, and Walt doesn’t offer any reassurance that the deal will work – it’ll work if Iran doesn’t really want a bomb, and it’ll fail if it really does. And there’s broad agreement as well on how our regional allies will react.
The real disagreements boil down to two basic points:
- Do you believe Iran is a radical, revisionist power or an opportunistic but basically conservative one? By the former, I do not mean a suicidal regime in thrall to a messianic religious apocalypse. I simply mean a regime whose legitimacy is tied to an agenda of overturning the regional order as it stands, rather than maximizing its national power within that order.
- Do you believe that America’s regional allies, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, have too much leverage over American policy, and that we should seek to make them recognize that they need to court our support rather than taking it for granted; or do we need to reassure them of our complete support in order to maintain the leverage we want over their behavior?
If you believe that Iran is a radical, revisionist power and that this will not change absent a change of regime, and that we need to cleave to Israel and Saudi Arabia for fear that, if we don’t, they will go off the reservation, then we should never have tried to get a deal with Iran in the first place. That implies that we would also never have assembled the current diplomatic coalition, and that Iran’s nuclear program would proceed largely unconstrained. The case for preventative war to stop Iran from acquiring a bomb simply has not been made (and I don’t think can be made honestly). This is the case for maintaining a hostile posture even at the risk that the result is the failure of the nonproliferation effort.
If, on the other hand, you believe either that Iran is not so radical, but largely opportunistic in its efforts to enhance its national power, and that America’s regional allies don’t have realistic alternatives to an American alignment, and so we don’t need to cater to them quite so thoroughly, then we should sign this deal even if the result is to bless Iran’s status as a nuclear threshold state.
Where do I stand on these two questions?
On the first question, I tend to split the difference. That is to say: I really don’t think the Iranian regime could survive a realignment to truly normal relations with America. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth pursuing – just that I think it’s much more likely Iran will seek opportunities for limited conflict because it needs America as an enemy. (This “conservative of enemies” dynamic may be in play within America as well, by the way.)
Moreover, I think virtually all the major players in the Middle East today are revisionist to some extent; there are precious few status quo powers. (Jordan is probably the best candidate for the title.) Iran has actively destabilized Lebanon and may be doing the same in Yemen in order to expand its influence. But Saudi Arabia is actively destabilizing Syria and Iraq in an effort to limit Iranian influence. Pakistan regularly meddles in Afghanistan to support the Taliban. And the United States, of course, took an aggressively revisionist course under the Bush Administration with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and has to some extent continued that policy under President Obama with the invasion of Libya. There isn’t really a stable status quo in the Middle East to preserve; that’s one reason why the region is in the news so much.
So I don’t think Iran is uniquely evil or destructive, but I also don’t think we should be pollyanna about the nature of the Iranian regime or its likely course of action after a nuclear deal. Indeed, I would expect Iran to challenge the status quo in some noticeable way almost immediately after a deal, if only to placate its own hard-liners. And I would expect our hard-liners to seize on such actions as evidence that Iran cannot be trusted.
But on the second question I side with Walt. There is something perverse about saying that we should not conclude a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program for fear that Saudi Arabia will initiate a nuclear program in response. America can’t let itself be held hostage in that manner. That doesn’t mean I have a ready answer to the question, “how would you prevent Saudi Arabia from going nuclear with Pakistan’s help” – but I’m pretty sure “remain hostile to Iran forever” is not the answer.
Finally, I don’t agree with Walt that the details of the nuclear deal itself don’t matter. I think they do matter – that we really should be trying to prevent Iranian proliferation, even if the question isn’t an existential one (which it isn’t). It’s clear to me that scuttling the deal at this point will leave Iran’s program unconstrained, so in that sense a deal is obviously preferable. But of course we want the best deal possible – and to get the best deal possible, you have to be willing to walk away at some point without a deal. That’s just negotiation 101.
There’s one more question worth mentioning that neither Walt nor Kissinger and Shultz pay much attention to, and it also, to my mind, militates in favor of a deal. And that is: what the consequences of failure in either case?
If the United States signs the deal with Iran, and Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons by some combination of overt (permitted) and covert (not permitted) means, and ultimately abrogates the deal and declares themselves a nuclear state, that will be a huge failure. Walt says that an Iranian bomb wouldn’t actually be a big problem – but it would be a huge failure of nonproliferation in the context described, with profound consequences for the confidence any other international actors might have in the nonproliferation regime.
But refusing to sign the deal on the table, and a subsequent successful Iranian march to the bomb, would be an even bigger failure, a declaration by the United States that it is incapable of taking yes for an answer and is devoted to the cause of hostility to Iran more than to achieving any concrete ends. And, as I’ve said several times, preventative war is completely unjustified and would be a disaster.
To my mind, it’s clear that the first risk – the risk of a deal that fails or is abandoned by Iran – is one worth taking if the United States has any interest in maintaining an international system characterized by cooperation on common security problems. But it is worth noting in passing that the risk of failure is one argument for never trying in the first place. And I think that’s one not-fully-articulated reason why Kissinger and Shultz argued for scuttling the deal even though they have no real backup plan.
American support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen may be appalled on a variety of grounds, most obviously humanitarian. At least tacit support for this kind of intervention is far from rare, though; America did not try to reverse Rwandan intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s civil war, and we actively encouraged Ethiopian intervention in Somalia. Over the decades, we have condemned interventions that we wanted to stop and given various degrees of support to interventions that we thought were good ideas. There’s no neutral standard being imposed and there never was.
The two real questions regarding Yemen therefore are whether the intervention is actually a good idea in terms of the future of Yemen, and whether we have good reasons to support it even if it isn’t.
The first question looks like a pretty clear “no” at this point. Just from a humanitarian perspective, it’s a disaster. The Saudis don’t really seem to have any kind of a game plan – the intervention is a reflex reaction to increased Iranian influence on the Arabian peninsula, which the Saudis fear deeply – in part because of the impact such influence might have on their own Shiite minority. From a Saudi perspective, a Yemen that becomes a failed state where al Qaeda and the Islamic State find footholds may be preferable to a Yemen that tilts toward Tehran, and that may be exactly the Yemen we are going to get as the result of this intervention.
From an American perspective, of course, such an outcome would be terrible (to say nothing of what it would mean to the poor Yemenis). It goes without saying that the precedent isn’t one to crow about either; Iranian intervention to assist the Assad regime, and Russian intervention to re-install the ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, would be entirely justified according to the same principles justifying the Saudi intervention in Yemen. So why would we be doing this?
Well, it’s obvious why, isn’t it? We’re demonstrating to the Saudis that our eagerness to close a nuclear deal with Iran doesn’t mean we’re switching teams. We’re pretty explicitly indicating that we consider the Arabian Peninsula to be a Saudi sphere of influence and that we will support them in keeping any other power from gaining so much as a toehold. It’s an entirely cynical move, but not actually hard to understand.
This is just one of the burdens of being a global hegemon. Our intervention in Libya was substantially driven by the desire not to disappoint allies in Europe and the Gulf who saw friendly dictators deposed in the Arab Spring and didn’t want to send the message that they should have done what Gaddafi did instead. It has taken concerted effort to avoid being dragged even further into the Syrian civil war than we have been already. Yemen is the latest sordid episode. It’s easy to say we should stay out, or that we should try to mediate between the two sides instead of siding with Saudi Arabia – that these would be neutral postures and who could fault us for that? But they would not be perceived as neutral – they would be perceived, at least in the Gulf, as more evidence that we were tilting toward Tehran.
And we don’t want to give that impression – precisely because we are tilting more toward Tehran, and we want to minimize the cost of that change to our position with other powers that fear Iran. I am pessimistic generally about the idea that Iran could become an American ally, or even that we could expect helpful cooperation anywhere but in areas where Iran’s interests are being served directly. The Iranian regime’s ideology is fundamentally anti-American, and Iran gets no obvious benefits from an alignment with America. But by the same token, I favor an active effort to achieve normal relations. Our policy of hostility to Iran prevents us from cooperating where our interests do align, and, more importantly, leaves us hostage to other allies whose interests do not align with ours.
The depressing paradox is that if we were willing to leave ourselves hostage to Saudi demands, and scuttled the Iranian talks, we might have had the leverage to try to moderate this intervention – but at the price of a greater likelihood of war between America and Iran. Trying to achieve peace with Iran without alarming the Saudis, we’re reduced to endorsing the bloodbath in Yemen. And deciding we don’t give a fig for Saudi Arabia would offer unnecessary and unearned encouragement to Iran (who would take such an action as evidence that we support Iran’s own ambitions), and might well lead to even more strenuous action by the Saudis to maintain their own position.
None of the foregoing means that I support the Administration’s course on Yemen. I’m just doing taxonomy. Yemen is another one of those savage little wars of peace that hegemonic powers so often find themselves facilitating, frequently without any clear idea or even belief that they will have any beneficial effect. And hegemony itself is more a consequence of power than of policy, which is why it is so difficult to put down the poisoned chalice.
Remember that old Groucho Marx line about not wanting to join a club that would have him as a member? Well, at the risk of ruining the line forever, what exactly is the joke there?
On the obvious, surface level, the joke is about the divided consciousness of the upwardly-mobile striver. Groucho wants to join the best club because he is trying to rise in the world – and membership in that club will prove that he has done so. But if the club is willing to let an upstart like him join, how good can it really be? The only way out is to be conscious of the dilemma, and to laugh at it.
On another level, though, the joke is about Groucho’s refusal to join. It’s not that any club that would accept him has proven itself to have too-low standards; it’s that Groucho has such absurdly high standards that he finds himself lowered by any association. This is Groucho not as the immigrant striver but Groucho as a kind of Alceste figure of negative romanticism.
I’m meditating on Groucho because today, my job is to ask you to join our club – and become a member of The American Ideas Institute, which publishes The American Conservative. And I have a funny feeling there are more than a few negative romantics out there among our readers who will bristle at the suggestion that they affiliate.
Well, allow me to make the argument that, in this case, we may be the club for you. After all, just about the only thing we have in common here at TAC is that we all chose this place as the place to hang our hats in spite of its extremely limited resources. Because this is the place where our hat can hang according to its own fancy, even if that fancy is to disdain the comportment of its fellow hats.
Which makes it not a bad club to hang out in.
So: If you enjoy hanging out with us here, and in print, consider membership. It’ll help the clubhouse stay open. And you might even discover that membership has its pleasures even – especially – when it offers precious little privilege.
The Kissinger/Shultz piece from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal makes the best case I’ve seen yet against making a deal with Iran – one that doesn’t rely on apocalyptic rhetoric or fantasies about the efficacy of alternative approaches, and that traffics exclusively in terms that realists accept. The piece doesn’t actually say it’s against the deal, but the tone is consistently one that suggests this is a bad deal that will have negative consequences. How strong is the case?
The argument has four parts:
- Verification of compliance will be complicated by the diversity and scope of the permitted facilities, to say nothing of the size and sophistication of the country as a whole.
- Enforcement will be made extremely difficult first by the fact that violations will rarely be clear-cut and then by the fact that assembling a coalition to reimpose sanctions, particularly in the case of disputable of ambiguous violations, will be much more difficult than assembling the initial coalition was.
- Even under the terms of the agreement, Iran could establish itself as a nuclear threshold state after a decade without material violation.
- Saudi Arabia and some other American allies in the region may well view the deal as a sign either of an American tilt toward Iran or, at least, of American acquiescence in Iranian hegemony; either could lead them to pursue alliances with rival powers or to seek to go nuclear themselves.
As a supporter of a deal with Iran, I have to say that I think advocates of the deal on the table too often fail to acknowledge the difficulties of verification and enforcement when making their case. Nonetheless, the we have to consider what the alternatives might be to the deal on the table, either diplomatic or not. In that regard, a diplomatic alternative would only be superior on the first and third points – the difficulty of verification and the question of whether the deal goes far enough in limiting Iran’s program even if scrupulously complied with – if it achieved more dramatic concessions from Iran to substantially reduce or even eliminate their nuclear program. To achieve those, America would have to have the leverage to extract those concessions.
But the second point – that enforcement will be difficult because the currently-assembled coalition will not be eager to restore sanctions even in the face of Iranian violations – implies pretty clearly that we do not have that leverage. After all, to turn the screws tighter on Iran now would require international support – and if that support would not be there in the future in the face of Iranian violations of the agreement, it certainly would not be there today if America were the one to refuse to take yes for an answer.
That doesn’t mean these points are invalid. But this could conceivably be a deal that effectively blesses Iran’s status as a nuclear threshold state while also being the best deal we could plausibly get from our strongest diplomatic position, with much of the world united behind sanctions that have real bite. That would be a reasonable conclusion if many of the other powers who would need to be supportive of any effort to put effective pressure on Iran – China, Russia, Germany, etc. – are less troubled by the prospect of Iran as a nuclear threshold state than we are.
This leads to the final point, that the deal with Iran would lead Saudi Arabia and possibly other regional allies to doubt America’s commitment to their defense and either seek other partners or to go nuclear themselves. In effect, Kissinger and Shultz are saying we should take these allies’ interests into greater account than those of other powers on whom we depend for leverage to pressure Iran effectively. While larger and more important powers outside the region are less-interested (or outright uninterested) in continuing a confrontational policy towards Tehran, many of our regional allies and clients would welcome a continuing of confrontation – possibly because they fear an Iranian threat, possibly because they fear losing the leverage they currently have over American policy were the confrontational policy towards Iran to be dropped, likely for both reasons.
But do they really have substantial other options? What other power is going to provide for Saudi Arabia’s defense? China simply doesn’t have the capability to do so. Russia is an oil-exporting state with no substantial common interests. And suppose, for the sake of argument, that there was an uprising in the Saudi oil region (which is majority-Shiite), comparable to the Shiite uprising in Yemen, and when the Saudis tried to crush said uprising (as Bahrain crushed a similar uprising in that country), Iran intervened, counting on a nuclear shield to keep outside powers from retaliating against them directly. Which other power would take that risk if the United States was unwilling to do so?
As for the prospect of Saudi nuclearization: that is indeed a distressing prospect. But if two wars against regional rival Iraq and active support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen are not enough to convince Saudi Arabia that we will not tolerate a foreign power seizing control of the oil region, then I’m really not sure there’s anything that would be sufficient. We can’t put ourselves in a position where our regional policy is held hostage to our allies’ threats to go nuclear if we don’t initiate preventative wars against rival powers, or at a minimum maintain a hostile posture against interest.
Kissinger and Shultz spend no time at all on the possible alternatives to diplomacy. Nobody I find credible has made a case for preventative military action that is remotely persuasive to me – it might well fail in the short term, to say nothing of the long term; it would certainly lead to extremely negative consequences for our relations with a host of states, and would essentially shred what is left of formal international restraints on the use of force; and it might well lead to a completely unnecessary large-scale war. If this is a case for military action – which I don’t think it is – it is thoroughly inadequate.
But that does leave the option of simply giving up on the idea of restraining Iran through diplomacy, but opting to remain hostile anyway.
This would seem to be ruled out by the article’s concluding peroration:
If the world is to be spared even worse turmoil, the U.S. must develop a strategic doctrine for the region. Stability requires an active American role. For Iran to be a valuable member of the international community, the prerequisite is that it accepts restraint on its ability to destabilize the Middle East and challenge the broader international order.
Until clarity on an American strategic political concept is reached, the projected nuclear agreement will reinforce, not resolve, the world’s challenges in the region. Rather than enabling American disengagement from the Middle East, the nuclear framework is more likely to necessitate deepening involvement there—on complex new terms. History will not do our work for us; it helps only those who seek to help themselves.
Continuing the hostile policy of the past generation would hardly seem to be a “new strategic political doctrine” but I wonder. It’s telling that Kissinger and Shultz don’t give a single clue what that doctrine might be. The more I look at the case Kissinger and Shultz make, the more I wonder whether in the background, the second-best-case scenario (best case being total Iranian capitulation at the bargaining table) isn’t simply staying the course with a policy of hostility, even if it ultimately failed to prevent Iranian nuclearization. [UPDATE: I mean the second-best-case scenario from Shultz and Kissinger's perspective, not mine. As noted at the top, I favor the deal with Iran. Just making that clear.]
It’s worth contemplating why that might be, but I’m going to save that for another post.
Between a family vacation, a new feature film I’ve been involved with, and the Passover holiday, I’m afraid life has kept me away from my computer. Not so much that I haven’t kept somewhat abreast of the news – but honestly, where do we get this notion that the news has anything to do with us?
Well, every now and again it does, and it can be a real punch in the gut. I got one of those recently when I learned that the coach of my old high school debate team was arrested for soliciting teenage boys to send him nude photos.
Regular readers of this blog know how much competitive high school debate meant to me. I didn’t know Jon Cruz particularly well personally, but I knew how well he was regarded by his predecessor coaches and by his students. While the Times substantially exaggerates his role in building up the program - my old coach, Richard Sodikow, founded the program and built it into a national powerhouse; Cruz came along much later, and only seemed so tall because he stood on that giant’s shoulders – it’s still true that Cruz was felt by everyone to be an exceptionally good advocate for the program, a dynamic and tireless leader of a program that needed such a leader to return it to its glory days. And he clearly loved the kids. Which makes it especially painful to learn that “love” turns out to not be quite the right word.
A lot of my fellow alumni, when they read or heard the story, were immediately angry – at the betrayal of trust, at the potential damage to the program, at the threat to “our” kids. I admit, my initial reaction was sadness. Cruz confessed immediately upon being arrested, and to me that read like a sign of a man who had been hoping to be caught, hoping to be stopped. It made me think of this article about a teenage pedophile who had never abused a child and wanted never to do so, and who set out to help himself and others by providing support for those with a similar orientation who wanted to avoid doing harm, and how unlikely it is that anyone with such inclinations will get help, until its too late and he’s in the hands of the criminal justice system. And what a sad shame that is.
The anger came eventually, as I thought more about why he might have sought out the job he did, becoming a teacher, becoming a debate coach, putting himself in proximity to potential victims (and, perhaps more to the point, potential “beards” to help him pose as a teenager online; Cruz did not solicit any students at the school he taught at, so far as we know). He might have done so consciously, which paints him in a much more sinister light than if I imagine he sought consciously to satisfy his affinity for teenagers in a healthy way, all the while carrying this darker secret. Regardless, the betrayal is profound. Cruz didn’t just betray those who hired him, praised him, gave him responsibility; nor those he had in his charge. He betrayed every future teacher who displays similar enthusiasm and tender concern for their students, and then faces suspicion because of it. He betrayed every future student who will miss out on a level of trust that they deserve to experience. He made the world a colder place for those who will never even know his name.
But even in that anger, I find myself thinking of Cruz primarily with compassion and sadness. This is a man who could have been – by all accounts, was – a great teacher, someone who really made a difference in young lives. We kid ourselves if we think the people who can do this generally have entirely unmixed motives. As I mentioned in my eulogy for my beloved high school debate coach, a lot of people who are exceptionally good at working with adolescents have something of an arrested adolescent about them. In my late coach’s case, he was too emotionally bound up in our lives; he lived too much through us. He lacked an adult’s emotional detachment. In Cruz’s case, well, it looks like that feeling was bound up with a sexual fetish that he either couldn’t or didn’t want to keep under control. That failure of his is now likely to send him to prison for many years, and to brand him with a stigma which he will never escape.
And – at the risk of being badly misunderstood – I want to point out that it will send him to prison for behaving like a teenager. Teenagers solicit nude photos of each other; teenagers manipulate each other; teenagers torture each other emotionally, sometimes to the point of serious anxiety and depression. I’m not saying this to exonerate Cruz – there’s very good reason what he is accused of is illegal, and I’m not really interested right now in whether justice should be tempered with mercy. I’m saying this so that we see the person past the pathology – or, perhaps, so that we see the pathology for what it is, a humanly comprehensible thing. I’m saying that justice should be administered with compassion.
The wheels of justice will now turn in their due course, and turn they should. I hope that wherever justice sends him, Jon Cruz finds someone who can help him to a better self-understanding, and a way to continue living without doing what I suspect he always knew was real harm. Unfortunately, I doubt he will.
This is school break week for my son, so we’re away on a family vacation. And because I don’t understand the concept of “beach read” I brought Michel Houellebecq’s acclaimed novel, The Elementary Particles along. (Soumission is not yet available in English; this is preparatory reading for when it is.) I will hopefully finish it today.
I have a bunch of thoughts about the book, which has struck me by turns as touchingly sharp in its portrait of one very sad character (Bruno, who feels like something of an author-surrogate) and quite dull in its sweeping indictments, which amount to the assertion that this character, in his boredom and misery, is the exemplary hero of our age. It strikes me that the need to assert this – to pontificate upon the nature of society – is an index of failure as a novelist, the inability to see the world through any lens but that of his deeply alienated protagonist. That’s not how Dostoevsky’s Underground Man or Gogol’s mad diarist – or Roth’s Portnoy – earn our empathy, and through that empathy our appreciation for their understanding of the world.
I keep feeling that what Houellebecq sees as a novel of ideas is really just a novel of punditry, a degenerate notion of an idea that really amounts to an attitude or orientation. When Tolstoy or George Eliot lecture me in the midst of a novel, I put up with it because I know I am in the presence of actual ideas worth grappling with. With Houellebecq, so far at least, all I get is the feeling that I know the type, I’ve heard this before, and if I haven’t already been convinced I’m not going to be.
Perhaps that just means he was still searching for his ideal form, and perhaps now he has found it: what Mark Lilla, in his thought-provoking review of Soumission, called a “dystopian conversion tale.” We’ll see what I think when that novel comes out in English. But color me skeptical: I don’t think that ideas, the currents of civilization, can actually be blamed for one’s own personal inability to connect with other human beings or find meaning. The Elementary Particles is best when it stares unflinchingly at that condition as embodied in a single person, and worst when it engages in the evasion of blaming the world for that condition.
There’s a lesson in that for novelists – but also for pundits.
Let’s take a quick look back at my before-they’re-hatched analysis of the latest Israeli election’s chickens, and see how I did.
1. This election is not about the rise of the left or the fall of the right, but about a reshuffling of the left and right into new configurations.
Likud is now projected to win about 30 seats. Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu are now projected to win 14 seats, for a national bloc total of 44 seats.
That same bloc has 43 seats in the current Knesset.
2. This election is about the fickle center.
In the prior Knesset, there were two “centrist” parties: Hatenuah and Yesh Atid. They had 25 seats between them, and sat in the government in the last Knesset. This time, Hatenuah ran on a joint list with Labor as the Zionist Union, and Yesh Atid was widely expected to be a partner of the Zionist Union rather than Likud.
Well, Yesh Atid is projected to have lost 8 seats, and we don’t know how many seats the center-left lost, but if you add Meretz, Hatenuah and Labor together, that coalition went from 27 seats to a projected 28 seats.
However, a new center-right party – Kulanu – was born in this election, led by another defector from Likud unhappy with Netanyahu. Kulanu won 10 seats.
So, in broad strokes, the centrist leaders from the last Knesset have decided to switch from center-right t0 center-left. As a consequence, they lost a bunch of seats to a new center-right party.
3. This election is about the rise of the Joint Arab List.
The Joint Arab List did indeed come in third, with a projected 13 seats. What this means for the future depends on what the Arab parties do with their newfound clout.
If I were to advise them, it would undoubtedly come off as trolling. But it seems to me that the only way ultimately to effect change is to make political demands: we will sit in coalition if you agree to such and such. The Arab parties are now a large enough bloc, as a joint force, that they should start saying what that if consists of. Then the left-wing Zionist parties can debate whether it’s worth acceding to those demands or not.
I can guarantee you that the gap will be too large right now. But that doesn’t mean it will be too large forever. It won’t start narrowing, though, until someone lays down a plausible marker for where the negotiation begins.
4. This election proves the Israeli electorate doesn’t really believe Netanyahu’s scare-mongering on Iran.
Correct: but it also proves that the Israeli electorate does believe his scare-mongering on the Israeli Arab vote and on negotiations with the Palestinians. His final pitch was: you have to stop the left from winning because the left is soft on the national question, and the only way to stop the left from winning is to vote Likud, not for any other right-wing party. The pitch worked: the other right-wing parties dropped, in some cases by more than projected, but Likud surged.
5. The election proves that parliamentary systems aren’t all that.
Consider the rise of the Arab bloc. Why isn’t the third-largest party in the Knesset a plausible coalition partner?
Well, perhaps the problem is a structural one. So long as Israel has a proportional-rep system, there’s a natural logic to having Arab parties. So long as there are Arab parties, they will gravitate toward the center of gravity of Arab politics – which is decisively opposed to Zionism as such. So any Zionist party that forms a coalition with them has to navigate, as part of the coalition agreement, the question of the nature of the state.
By contrast, if Israel had a quasi-Presidential system, the President could campaign for Arab votes along with Jewish votes. The Arab vote would naturally gravitate toward the left side of the aggregate Israeli spectrum, Jewish and Arab together. And the Arab vote would, by definition, matter in a way that it still does not today.
On the other hand, it’s possible that under a Presidential system the Jewish vote would simply move more to the right as the left became more associated with Arab votes, so that Arab voters were just as effectively shut out of the system. After all, Mississippi voters divide very neatly on racial lines, resulting in right-wing and white domination at the gubernatorial level (regardless of whether the party expressing that domination is Democratic or Republican).
But that result would just reinforce my point that the decisive questions relate to the underlying structure of a given society, and that good institutions can at best marginally ameliorate deep divisions in that society. Israel’s institutions aren’t doing an obviously better job of that than American institutions.
Tomorrow, Israelis go to the polls, in an election called by the sitting prime minister to strengthen his hand, and that looks increasingly likely to weaken it, and possibly to cost him his office. But the true import of the election may lie elsewhere. Herewith five matters to consider about the upcoming election.
1. This election is not about the rise of the left or the fall of the right, but about a reshuffling of the left and right into new configurations. Currently, Labor and Hatenuah (“The Movement”), a moderate party founded by a Likud defector, have 21 seats between them. These two parties are now running as an alliance, the Zionist Union, projected to win about 25 seats. Meretz, the most left-wing Zionist party, has 6 seats, and Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”), a centrist (on security and national questions), secularist and liberal party has 19 seats. These are the most-plausible coalition partners for the Zionist Union, and they are projected to win about 5 and 12 seats respectively. In other words, a coalition currently totaling 46 seats is expected to drop to 42 seats, plus or minus.
The right is a mirror image. Likud currently has 18 seats. Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is Our Home”) has 13 seats, and Habayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”) has 12. In the new Knesset, Likud is projected to have around 22 seats, Yisrael Beineinu to shrink to 5 seats, and Habayit Hayehudi to 11 seats – but a new center-right party, Kulanu (“All of Us”) founded by a breakaway Likud MK, is expected to garner about 9 seats, and is a likely partner for a Likud-led coalition. So a bloc currently numbering 43 seats is expected to grow to 47 seats.
Meanwhile, in the same polls that show the Zionist Union outpolling Likud, Isaac Herzog, head of the Labor party that forms the largest part of the Zionist Union, trails Benjamin Netanyahu by 14 points on the question of who was the “most appropriate” candidate to be prime minister.
And that’s supposed to be a big left-wing victory.
2. This election is about the fickle center. What’s wrong with the above analysis is that Yesh Atid and Hatenuah were both members of the 19th Knesset governing coalition that Netanyahu lead, but now they are expected to be part of a center-left government. As a result, both parties are projected to lose seats – but their rumps will be better coalition partners for the left. So this election does mean a shift to the left: a shift of centrist party-leaders who now prefer a center-left coalition to a center-right one.
More to the point, for the first time in a while these centrist parties are not running as alternatives to left and right, but as logical partners for the left. Yesh Atid expects to join a Labor-led government. Hatenuah is running on a joint list with Labor. The typical pattern recently is for such parties to collapse completely – as Kadima and Shinui did. If that doesn’t happen, it’s a kind of victory for the left.
So perhaps the better way to describe the election is: the left was so weak going into this election that even a significant set of defections from the center-right is not enough to get them close to being a governing coalition.
3. This election is about the rise of the Joint Arab List. Israel’s Arab citizen have full political rights, and there are several parties representing largely Arab voters in the Knesset, including an Arab nationalist party, two Islamist parties, and a formally non-sectarian party that has some Jewish members and leadership, a descendant of Israel’s old Communist party. This year, for the first time, all of these parties have united into a single joint list under the new leadership of Ayman Odeh of Hadash (the former Communists).
These diverse (indeed, ideologically contradictory) parties have united because of a new law raising the vote percentage threshold for inclusion in the Knesset. Every one of them was at some risk of not clearing the new bar; if they did not hang together, they might very well hang separately. As a result, the joint list, though projected to win not many more seats than the collection of constituent parties currently hold, may wind up being the third-latest party in the Knesset.
Does that matter? In terms of coalition politics, probably not. The list has said they would not serve in a Zionist government, and the major parties have all ruled out including the list in their governments anyway. That doesn’t preclude the Arab-dominated parties from supporting a congenial governing coalition from the outside – but if would do so together they would likely have done so separately.
The real significance will be if the parties are able to work together over a longer period of time, and thereby transform Israeli Arab politics into something with a bit more heft. There are really only two plausible happy futures for Israel’s Arab population: recognition as a national minority and concomitant greater autonomy for Arab-dominated areas within Israel; or greater integration into an Israel that has evolved in an explicitly post-Zionist direction.
Hadash, the leading partner in the joint list, explicitly advocates the latter, but either goal will require the existence of a party with substantial heft that can put itself in a position to make demands of the Israeli state. Whether the joint list evolves in that direction remains to be seen.
4. This election proves the Israeli electorate doesn’t really believe Netanyahu’s scare-mongering on Iran. If there were any validity to that scare-mongering, and Israel faced an unprecedented risk to its very existence, many things would be happening, none of which are. The major parties would be talking about the necessity of a unity government. There would be across-the-board support for the prime minister in his efforts to rally international support for Israel in its hour of crisis. There would be grim debate about what Israel will do if it cannot rally that support, and must act alone. You would see, in other words, all the signs Israel exhibited in the run-up to war in 1967.
Instead, Netanyahu has been undermined by economic discontent, but even more so by a sense of fatigue with his schtick, which hasn’t changed over his entire tenure in politics. Netanyahu’s pitch has always emphasized warning of the enormous threats Israel faces, and the unreliability of all other candidates in standing up to those threats. He has made no progress in actually addressing those threats because, from Netanyahu’s ideological perspective, progress is not actually possible; the threats are permanent and need to be faced with implacable resolve forever. Unless one exercises the kind of totalitarian control of a North Korean god-king, this is a viewpoint that wears thin after some time, even if the objective threats are significant and longstanding.
5. The election proves that parliamentary systems aren’t all that. Matt Yglesias made a bit of a stir a couple of weeks ago predicting the doom of American democracy because we have a presidential rather than a parliamentary system. Under a presidential system, you have two branches – executive and legislative – that each have substantial authority, and that each get a mandate directly from the people. As a result, when they clash, there’s no “principled” way to resolve the conflict, raising the specter of endless gridlock, extra-constitutional attempts to do an end-run around that gridlock, and finally civil strife between partisans of each opposing faction.
The fact that France’s presidential fifth republic has proven much more stable than the preceding two parliamentary republics should have been enough to raise real questions about this thesis, but Israel provides another useful counter-example. Because of proportional representation, Israel has always had a riot of parties representing distinct demographic segments or ideological interests, and has never had a majority government (every government has been a coalition). But in this next election, the most popular candidate for head of government (Netanyahu still is that) may lose the election, the winning party may prove unable to form a government (because of a lack of plausible coalition allies), and any coalition that does form may well have to reject the views of a substantial majority of voters on certain crucial issues (for example, the relationship between religion and state) in order to build a functional coalition.
Moreover, apart from the parties representing discrete segments of the population (ultra-Orthodox Jews, settlers, Israeli Arabs), no party will be able to identify a constituency to which it is accountable, as would be the case in a district-based system. This is one reason for the perennial instability of Israel’s political system: the voters do not have any clear way of assigning blame and punishing those who have failed to deliver on lunchbox issues, and so increasingly vote on identity-based questions.
Israel tried to resolve these longstanding problems two decades ago by switching to a quasi-presidential system involving direct popular election of the prime minister. This, of course, only made the problems worse.
All of which suggests that, relative to the underlying social structure, institutional design may not be quite as important as some political scientists think.
Rod Dreher is convinced the GOP establishment has finally decided to ditch social conservatism entirely:
A large group of Republicans have signed a “friend of the court” brief supporting same-sex marriage. The conservative friend who tipped me off to this says:
It’s quite the litany of GOP staffers, politicians, and consultants. It’s getting increasingly harder to contend that social conservatives have any home in the GOP. I think we’re in the process of transitioning from “useful idiots” to “political liability.” Social conservatives like to ask, “Why would you want a ‘bigot’ to bake you a cake anyway?” Well, why would you want to be part of liberal party anyway?
Let any social and religious conservatives who have eyes to see recognize that this list represents the GOP Establishment. You have likely heard of only a few of these folks, but the list represents the people who actually make the party work. The social liberals have won decisively. Let there be no more illusions.
And from this he concludes . . . that social conservatives would “still be compelled to vote Republican,” based on the “hope that there are some principled libertarians in the GOP.”
Principled liberals who care about actual religious liberty are simply presumed not to exist. Similarly, no thought whatsoever is given to the possible existence of unprincipled liberals who could be swayed by the prospect of a large number of votes.
But why not? Wouldn’t it be worth a bit of effort to find out if they exist? Wouldn’t it be worth a great deal of effort to try to cultivate such people? Wouldn’t it seem to be a better use of energy than continuing a strategy that, by Dreher’s own lights, has gone from failure to failure?
The analogy is often made between social conservative support of the GOP and African-American support of the Democrats. But the analogy is imperfect. Both groups fret periodically that overwhelming loyalty to one party makes it easy for that party to take them for granted. But most African-American voters have a set of bedrock economic interests dovetail better with the Democratic Party’s positions than with those of the GOP. If the GOP were the party of reversing mass-incarceration, greater scrutiny of the power of the police, etc., with the Democrats taking the opposite side on all these matters, and if the GOP overwhelmingly rejected appeals to white racial solidarity, then, over time, the African-American vote might split between those who voted more based on economic interest and those who voted more based on issues related to personal freedom – roughly the way the African-American vote split after FDR and before LBJ. Until that day, there’s no contest.
Now, I think it is very much in the African-American community’s interests to try to bring that day about. I think it’s more in their interest than it is in the GOP’s interest, which is why I think African-American leaders should be courting Rand Paul and other GOP libertarians rather than the other way around. But precisely because the interests of the African-American community are diverse, and because so many of them fit better within the Democratic issue matrix, I can understand why most African-American leaders don’t see the point in trying to cultivate options outside the Democratic Party.
But if Dreher is correct (and I’m not saying he is), then social conservative support for the GOP is single-issue driven. It’s “all about religious freedom,” he says. If that one issue were taken off the table, socially conservative voters would be free to vote their consciences – and their economic interests. If he really believes that, why is he so sure that there is no trade to be done there? That there is no point in even trying to negotiate with the other party?
Let’s imagine a handful of significant figures in the religious right stating publicly that their support was up for grabs based on a single issue: religious freedom. Come up with legislation providing adequate protection, and any candidate signing on would earn their support – or their firm neutrality if both candidates signed on. This would be true regardless of those candidates other views – including on social issues. Meanwhile, absolutely no further support would be provided to either party generally.
Does Dreher really think that the Democratic Party wouldn’t take a serious look at somebody credible who said that? Or that such a statement wouldn’t at least prompt a real debate in Democratic ranks about how to respond?
Dreher talks a lot about the Benedict Option, the building of independent communities organized around a common moral and spiritual commitment, which could keep the flame of Christian civilization alive during a new dark age. He always stresses that he doesn’t mean withdrawing from the world, but merely seceding from the larger culture. Well, there are such communities in America, and it’s worth noting how some of them play the political game.
Consider Kiryas Joel. This village in Orange County, New York, was designed as an enclave of the Satmar Hasidic sect. Satmar are the most insular of Hasidic sects, going to enormous lengths to keep themselves uncontaminated by the larger culture. But they participate in commerce – and they most certainly participate in politics. Specifically, they vote as a bloc for whichever candidate best-supports the narrow interests of the community.
And, funny thing, but politicians respond to incentives. This is a community that rigidly separates the sexes and imposes a draconian standard of personal modesty – and that strives mightily to impose that norm as a public matter in their community. Don’t even talk about homosexuality. But none of that prevented a Democratic candidate for Congress from earning their support by promising to help them with facilitating the community’s growth. And with their help, he narrowly won his election against a Republican who had previously earned the Satmar community’s favor.
I am not writing a brief for Kiryas Joel or Satmar. I think that kind of insulation is extremely destructive, not only for the individuals involved but for any kind of authentic spiritual life. But it seems to me that this is what the Benedict Option looks like in the real world – or, rather, this is a somewhat extreme end of what it might mean.
And my real point is that that approach – a focus on nurturing a spiritual community, maintaining however much integration with the rest of the world as is compatible with that priority, and orienting one’s politics on the specific needs of your community – is completely compatible with playing the two parties off against each other. Satmar stands opposed to basically everything the Democratic Party stands for. Heck, it stands opposed to basically everything America stands for. For that matter, it stands opposed to basically everything the rest of the American Jewish community stands for as well – it’s resolutely anti-Zionist, extremely socially conservative, refuses to cooperate with non-Hasidic groups – it even has a hard time getting along even with other Hasidic groups. And it still gets courted by Democrats.
And their freedom is pretty darned secure.
If that’s really the only issue, well, there you go. And if it isn’t the only issue, then let’s talk about the whole panoply of possible questions that might rightly affect somebody’s vote, and make an open-minded assessment of the relative merits of different candidates and parties. Anything is better than, in the wake of what you see as another round of betrayal and abuse, working to convince yourself you have no alternatives.
Hamilton, the wildly unlikely new hip-hop musical about the “ten-dollar founding father without a father” based on the Ron Chernow biography, has been hyped so much I almost didn’t want to see it. But believe the hype: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical is truly revolutionary – and also a deeply moving work of art, and a sincere love letter to a particular vision of America.
Start with the music. Yes, it’s been 20 years since Rent established the viability of the musical in a contemporary musical idiom, almost 30 years since a rap-influenced song from a Broadway musical first charted, and Mr. Miranda himself has done musicals before in a hip-hop/R&B mode. But Hamilton takes it to a whole new level, in part because the individual numbers don’t have sharp corners, but weave into each other. This is musical storytelling par excellence, and the music feels supremely at home in our world. And on top of that it’s really good.
That would be impressive enough an achievement in telling a contemporary story. But this is a historical play, about a period far removed from our mores as well as our music. Or is it? The most unexpected achievement of Hamilton is that it genuinely bridges that huge gap in time. It doesn’t make us feel like we are in a period piece, nor does it engage in cutesy anachronism. Instead, it makes us feel like what happened then, with these people, could be happening right next door; that the founding fathers were our close cousins in spirit; that we would know each other if we met.
We see the fetish for dueling not as some romantic archaism, but as very akin to the contests for honor and supremacy that bloody streets today; we see the tomcatting and consequent sex scandals and we know not just “it was ever thus with men in power” but that we could have a conversation with these 18th-century types, and we’d know what we were talking about. By the time Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and Alexander Hamilton are engaging in rap battles about policy in front of George Washington (Christopher Jackson), it not only feels completely appropriate, the substance of discussion is actually clearer than it would be from, well, treating it like a seminar.
The sheer amount of territory covered is breathtaking. We start with a panorama of colonial New York, and Hamilton’s arrival from the West Indies. We have the drama of the revolutionary war. The debate over the Constitution. Then the conflict between Hamilton and Jefferson in the Washington administration. Then the “revolution of 1800″ and Aaron Burr. It’s a huge canvas – and a vast amount of expository information is imparted at lightning speed. And we hear it. We take it in. Just as an educational achievement, it’s a wonder.
But this isn’t “Schoolhouse Rock!” There’s a beautiful, even heartbreaking three-sided love story with Hamilton’s wife, Eliza (Philippa Soo) and her sister, Angelica Schuyler (Reneé Elise Goldsberry). There’s a powerful story of fathers and sons, with Washington playing Hamilton’s surrogate father and Hamilton struggling to set his own son, Philip (Anthony Ramos) on an honorable path. And there’s Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), the chorus figure as well as the nemesis, who comes off as just as much an American exemplar as Hamilton, who poignantly represents the rage of the second-place finisher in a winner-take-all meritocracy, the would-be Gatsby who couldn’t quite pull off the trick of total self-creation.
And then there’s Hamilton himself. Played by Mr. Miranda (when was the last time that happened on Broadway – book by, music by, lyrics by, and starring), he is both perpetually young and prematurely old. (“I’m just 19 but my mind is older” he sings, and sounds like he’s about 12.) His story is a quintessentially American one, of a young guy on the make and determined to make it to the top on his own merits and in his own way, and because this is his story and America’s story that turns out to be what America was about all along. Yes, there’s lots of high-minded talk of revolution and freedom but what that comes down to when you strip away the pretense is a bunch of guys who didn’t want to wait, who were ready to take their shot and weren’t going to give it away.
That’s not the only way to understand America by any means, but it is a pretty good way in for a contemporary audience – and not just a New York audience. More to the point, Hamilton, a young hustler who couldn’t hide his own ambition if he wanted to, but who also had a profound sense of honor and integrity for which he was willing to sacrifice, well, ultimately everything, is the perfect figure to deliver the message that those are attributes that can coexist in a single person, and a single nation.
Oh, and a brief word about the casting. Nearly the entire cast is non-white (the big exception among named roles is George III, played by Jonathan Groff), but this isn’t exactly black Shakespeare either. This is emphatically not color-blind casting, nor (obviously) traditionally color-conscious casting. Every actor on stage plays his or her part(s) (there’s quite a bit of double-casting – some of it very clever) in his or her own skin, and voice, while also playing these characters from a very different era. But because the language moves so smoothly between the contemporary and the period, the actors can embody their characters without projecting double consciousness. It can almost make you believe in an America where, though we bear the monumental stain of slavery (which comes up repeatedly in the show), we’ve managed to wash out the twin stain of white supremacy, and see these founding fathers also as founding brothers. Almost.
The show isn’t perfect – nothing is – but I think it will only get better as it transitions to Broadway. They’ll have the opportunity to tighten up a second act that gets a bit episodic now (always a risk in a biopic). The show will benefit, I think, from the bigger sound you can create in a Broadway house, and some of the choreography will benefit from a bit more elbow room – though, honestly, what it would really benefit from is bringing it to the audience, Great Comet-style. (I get chills imagining how the duels would play if the audience were between the combatants.)
But they’ll really have achieved something if they bring it all the way to the audience – if schools from East New York to West Hollywood decide that instead of showing “1776,” this year they’ll have the kids perform the Hamilton-Jefferson rap duels. Then we’ll know Mr. Miranda didn’t just reach the bourgeois – he rocked the boulevard.
Hamilton runs at New York’s Public Theater through May 3rd, but good luck getting a ticket – it’s way sold out. Tickets for the Broadway run beginning July 13th at the Richard Rogers theater just went on sale.
Daniel Larison is not nearly outraged enough by the Senate’s intrusion into the negotiations with Iran. What Senator Cotton and his colleagues are doing is deliberately trying to cripple America’s ability to conduct foreign policy. And, at least in terms of domestic politics, it may well work.
First of all, let’s dispense with the notion that there is any principled Constitutional question at issue whatsoever. Senator Tom Cotton does not believe for one instant that the President is incapable of entering into binding agreements with foreign governments, nor does he believe that Congress or subsequent administrations can dispense with such agreements without cost. We know this because he believes that the Budapest Memorandum – which was not a treaty and was not submitted to the Senate for ratification – constitutes a binding promise to support Ukraine in its conflict with Russian-backed separatists, and that he believes failing to live up to this promise poses grave danger to the credibility of U.S. foreign policy generally. Here is video of Senator Cotton saying as much.
So imagine, if you will, a Senate faction opposed to the Budapest Memorandum (perhaps out of fear that it signing it would oblige America to do precisely what Senator Cotton thinks it does oblige us to do) sending a letter to the Ukrainian president in 1994 alerting them that such an agreement would properly have to be submitted to the Senate for ratification, and might well fail, and that a subsequent president could revoke its guarantees at will. A hypothetical Senator Cotton-equivalent would readily understand that the purpose of such an effort was to obstruct the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy, and would be alarmed at the implications for the credibility of America’s commitments around the world.
Right? Of course right.
This has nothing whatsoever to do with the Senate’s responsibility with respect to “advice and consent,” and nothing to do with asserting the legislature’s proper role in foreign affairs – a role that the legislature continues conspicuously to abdicate. (The Obama administration has been in regular violation of the War Powers Resolution for years, but while individual senators and representatives have pointed this out from time to time, Congress has taken no action, and I don’t expect it ever will.) I don’t expect much from most of the crowd of signatories, but Senator Paul in particular should be excoriated for participating in this stunt. If he thinks this is a “constitutionally conservative” move, he needs to have his head handed to him by people who actually know what they are talking about.
Substantively, the view of the Republican leadership appears to be that any of America’s threats to use force, however ambiguous or slight, must be backed up vigorously for fear of a loss of “credibility.” Diplomatic agreements, however, are not to be taken seriously, because they may be discarded whenever a new leadership disagrees with what a previous administration agreed to. They affirmatively wish such agreements not to be credible, so that they are never entered into. And, funnily enough, if you cripple America’s diplomacy you’ll have lots of opportunities to demonstrate the “credibility” of America’s threats to use force. Which is exactly the goal – because such situations play to the GOP’s strengths as a brand.
And unfortunately, the Republican leadership may well be able to achieve their goals. Not internationally – I doubt the Iranians did more than roll their eyes at this stunt – but domestically. It turns out to be relatively easy to manipulate the public into supporting a more aggressive foreign policy. If talks with Iran fail (which they might have done regardless), it is vanishingly unlikely that the American people will blame the GOP leadership in any way that matters. On the contrary: if the talks fail, the country will be more supportive of a more aggressive stance toward Iran, which will redound to the benefit of the GOP generally and its more hawkish members in particular. So long as that’s the electoral dynamic, there are literally no disincentives for this kind of outrageous behavior.
To paraphrase the immortal words of Senator McConnell, the negotiations with Iran may prove to have been a hostage worth shooting.
A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of [morally relativistic] thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
This comes from Common Core standards, McBrayer says. What’s wrong with this? McBrayer goes on:
First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.
But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both.
It’s pretty shocking to read the examples he found, and the evidence from his own child’s moral reasoning that this instruction is having a corrosive effect. McBrayer concludes:
In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.
This kind of nihilism cannot work in the real world, the world that they will encounter, the philosopher says. Read the whole thing. It’s important.
Well, I suppose it is important – but are we entirely sure that second-graders are prepared to handle Gettier counterexamples?
More seriously, let’s look at a very real-world second grade type example, and see where facts and opinions enter into the discussion.
Eddie takes Billy’s cookie without permission. Billy protests to the teacher. What are the facts of the case?
- Eddie took the cookie.
- The cookie belonged to Billy.
- Billy did not give Eddie permission.
These are all facts of the case. If they can be established, then we know what happened.
To know what consequence follows, you need to know some other facts – facts of law. In this case, these are:
- Taking other people’s things without permission is not allowed.
- The teacher is the one who determines what happened, and what the consequence is if a student does something that is not allowed.
Those are the facts of the law: matters of the rules and who has jurisdiction over a given question. The teacher duly establishes the facts, and sends Eddie to the principal’s office.
What would be an example of an opinion? Well, Eddie could say that his punishment of being sent to the principal’s office is unfair, because he gave Billy a cookie last week so Billy has to give him a cookie this week. That’s an opinion. It’s certainly not a fact.
It’s also moral reasoning, and it should properly be engaged, so as to develop Eddie’s moral reasoning further. The teacher should say that he understands it feels unfair that Billy didn’t reciprocate in cookie exchange, but that this still doesn’t justify taking Eddie’s cookie without permission because – and here the teacher would have to give a second-grade level explanation of why this is wrong. For example: if everybody took whatever they thought they deserved, people would be taking from each other all the time, and there would be lots of fights. Or: how would you feel if you were Billy and somebody took your cookie without permission because he felt you owed it to him? Wouldn’t you feel that was wrong? Regardless of what he said, he would need to present an argument – which could be debated. Because that’s how moral reasoning works.
But he would also have to say: even if it feels unfair, Eddie has to suck it up, because the fact is that he, the teacher, gets to decide this question.
The point is: a debate about whether or not it’s wrong for Eddie to take Billy’s cookie is different in kind from a debate about whether or not Eddie actually took Billy’s cookie, and we need some kind of nomenclature for distinguishing the two questions. “Fact” versus “opinion” will do fine.
If there’s a problem here at all, it’s not with what constitutes a fact but with what constitutes an opinion – that is to say, a failure to distinguish between an opinion and a preference. For example: the statement “vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream” is an opinion. It’s also a stupid opinion because “best flavor of ice cream” is not really a thing. What the speaker really means is “I like vanilla ice cream best” or possibly “most people like vanilla ice cream best.” Either of those statements are statements of fact, not opinion – facts about individual preferences.
Now, what about “George Washington was the greatest American President?” That’s clearly a question of opinion, not fact, right? Ok – but is it a stupid opinion like “vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream?” The answer depends on whether a word like “greatest” has any social meaning. If it doesn’t – if we can’t reason together about what makes for greatness – then it’s a stupid opinion, because the only statements we can actually make are factual statements about personal preferences, our own or others’. But if it does – if we can reason together about what greatness means, its relationship to goodness, or to sheer historical importance – then it’s not a stupid opinion, because we can share it, debate it, and have our minds changed about it.
Which brings me to a final test proposition.
“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet.” Fact? Or opinion?
Obviously, it’s a problem if you teach the above proposition as an example of fact. And if it isn’t a fact, then it’s an opinion. But if you were a pious Muslim parent, and learned that your child was taught that a central tenet of your religion was “just a matter of opinion,” you’d be unhappy, right? That statement is certainly more than a statement of fact about personal preference (“I like Islam best!”) – but it’s also not really something subject to public dispute, by which I don’t mean that such dispute is blasphemous or forbidden but that it’s a category error, at least within modernity, to argue with a proposition like the above in the way that you might argue about whether it was right or wrong for Eddie to take Billy’s cookie, or whether George Washington was the greatest President.
The statement, “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet,” is a creedal statement, an affirmation. It’s something more forceful and substantial than a preference, not really subject to public reason like an opinion, and not subject to verification like a fact. It belongs in its own category of statements.
My question is whether McBrayer thinks moral truths belong in that same category. If so, then I would say that he is the one arguing against moral reasoning – arguing, in fact, that moral reasoning is impossible and that therefore what we need to teach children is obedience to moral commands. That view has a venerable history in Western and non-Western philosophy, but I dissent from it.
If he doesn’t think moral truths belong in that category, then I think he is just objecting to the specific words chosen by the Common Core, and not to the distinction itself. Because the distinction hanging over the bulletin board is entirely valid and even essential to moral reasoning. If it’s not being used that way, to promote the development of moral reasoning, but instead to wall us all off from each other with our indisputable personal preferences, the problem isn’t with the distinction itself, but with the fact (if it is the case) that we’re taking our view of opinion from Jeffrey Lebowski.
Once upon a time, Berlin was where the world was most likely to end, the point where the armies of freedom and of tyranny — or, if you prefer, the armies of progress and of reaction — stood eyeball to eyeball, wondering who would blink first.
At the height of superpower tension, right as the Berlin Wall was being constructed, Billy Wilder directed the film One, Two, Three, about the divided city and continent — and one Coca Cola executive’s schemes to conquer both sides of the Iron Curtain. The film’s satire was wide-ranging, encompassing conniving American executives, spoiled Southern belles, inadequately de-Nazified German workers. And our great superpower rival — against which America stood ready to incinerate half the world, and against which we were enjoined by our new president to “bear any burden, pay any price” — was portrayed as poor and incompetent, its officials petty, lustful, backstabbing, and clownish. In other words: not much different from the folks at Coca Cola.
It is unfortunately difficult to imagine a similar film being made today. And that’s a shame. It would be helpful if we could remember that our rivals and enemies share with us a full respective measure of human stupidity and vice. It would be even more helpful if we could remember just how extraordinarily weak our current enemies are, relative to ourselves and relative to those we’ve faced in the past.
I say this not because I believe knowledge of our common humanity will enable us to see past our differences, nor because if we realized how weak our opponents are we would be bolder in confronting them. On the contrary: every single war fought by humanity was fought between groups of human beings, and most of the time both sides recognized that fact. And substantially weaker opponents are frequently able to deny their would-be conquerors victory — just ask George III. Or, for that matter, George W. Bush.
But if we had a more realistic view of our opponents, then we would realize that our conflicts with them are far less existential than we are often led to believe. Which would be comforting, because many of them are also far less likely to be resolvable than we would like to believe, either by diplomacy or by force.
Andrew Bacevich begins his book, Washington Rules with a meditation on Berlin similarly intended to call attention to how much we got wrong about the Cold War. Specifically, right after the wall came down, he crossed over into East Berlin – and he saw, suddenly, just how weak an opponent the Communist East was. That insight led him to question the verities of much of his prior Cold War thinking. In much of the rest of the American establishment, it led instead to triumphalism. And triumphalism has now turned to an existential crisis as we realize that we cannot actually dictate terms to the entire world.
My own view is that the situation with Russia is hopeless. We have very few levers to change Russian behavior in the short term. Risking war over Crimea or eastern Ukraine would be absurd, sanctions are unlikely to have any material effect, and arming the Ukrainian government will just escalate the scale and cost of civil war. Meanwhile, Russia under Putin or under a successor is unlikely to be ready to admit that it has come to a stable accommodation with the West even if one were offered. Neither carrots nor sticks are likely to be efficacious.
But the situation is also not very serious. Russian revanchism is bad news for Ukrainians, Moldovans, Georgians, etc. Their independence just got much more expensive than they can afford. But the international system will not fall apart if we are unable to reverse Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, nor is Russia crazy enough to attack Germany, or even Finland. We should keep the situation in perspective and set policy accordingly.
The situation in Iran is not similarly hopeless, but we shouldn’t get our hopes up too much either. Iran is not going to be “turned” into a U.S. ally – because that wouldn’t actually serve either American or Iranian interests. But Iran does have a lot to gain from normal relations with the United States, and very little to gain from actually building a nuclear weapon. It’s possible that there is a window currently open to ending a period of fruitless hostility, and it behooves us to make every effort to go through it if it is.
But it’s also possible that there is no such window, that Iran’s regime depends too much for its legitimacy on active hostility to the West and to the United States specifically, and that therefore we really are in a zero-sum situation. That may be the most likely scenario, in fact. But even in that case, we can’t lose sight of the overwhelming disparity in power and resources between the United States and Iran, and the relative insignificance of the latter in the larger scheme of world affairs. A failure to improve relations with Iran would be a disappointment. It would not be a catastrophe.
There is really only one country on earth of whom one could say that whether we manage our relationship with them well or poorly has potentially existential implications, and that is China, whose importance to the world economy and to the future environmental health of the planet rivals ours, and whose potential military strength does as well. Fortunately, we don’t seem to be doing as catastrophic a job on that front as we sometimes seem to be elsewhere.
So on China, I’m nervously optimistic. On the rest of the world, a cheerful pessimism strikes me as a useful tonic.
Teachout is reviewing a new Hope biography, by Richard Zoglin that calls Hope the “entertainer of the century.” Why is it that Hope was phenomenally popular for much of the 20th century, but is now virtually unknown by people under the age of 60? Teachout says:
But Zoglin, for all his admirable thoroughness, inexplicably fails to emphasize the central fact about Hope and his career—one that not only goes a long way toward explaining why he was so successful, but also why we no longer find him funny.
Simply: He wasn’t Jewish.
What was missing from his style? Even though Hope was a first-generation European immigrant, there was nothing remotely ethnic about his stage manner. He was among the few successful WASP comics of his generation, and despite the fact that he hired such Jewish writers as Larry Gelbart and Mel Shavelson, the jokes they penned for him lacked the sharp ironic tang of Jewish humor that is to this day one of the essential ingredients in American comedy.
So, clearly we need a list of currently living non-Jewish comedians of note.
I’m tempted to start with Eddie Murphy and Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock and so forth, but I understand that this would be met with “That’s not what I meant.” Ditto if I decided to mention Tina Fey or Amy Pohler or heck, Carol Burnett, who is still out there doing great work and whose classic show has aged marvelously well. Anybody who’s plausibly an outsider is, by a kind of magic switcheroo, an insider. Which is completely unfair. You don’t get much more all-American than Bill Cosby (and the cloud he’s now under has no bearing on this particular question).
I guess I could mention Patton Oswalt or Louis CK or Zach Galifianakis or Stephen Colbert but I’m sure they’d all get axed for being too interesting. So what are we really saying here? That anything non-bland is implicitly Jewish, like the way anybody from New York is implicitly Jewish? That’s ridiculous, right? What – are we going to posthumously circumcise Charlie Chaplin because he’s aged better than Hope has?
Fine: are there any genuinely non-threatening but perfectly successful comics who are white, male, not Jewish, all-American, still living, and who, let’s put it this way, just don’t seem like Lenny’s children.
Here’s my very quickly assembled, too-short list of extremely well-known names:
- Johnny Carson. Check out his classic bits. Are they the funniest bits in history? No. Have they aged well? Surprisingly.
- Throw in Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien – heck, throw in David Letterman. Contrary to popular belief, Jews did not invent irony – just ask the British. We invented anger.
- Dana Carvey. You don’t make a career playing George H. W. Bush by seeming even vaguely Jewish.
- Will Ferrell. Leader of the Frat Pack. Not Jewish. Not even Italian.
- Steve Martin. An oddball? Sure. Threatening? Not really. Jewish? Not at all.
- Hey, what about Drew Carey? By any reasonable measure, Carey is extremely successful and well-known. If you don’t think he’s funny, you’re moving the goal posts.
Give me a bit of time with the Google and I’m sure I could put together a much longer list. American comedy, like America, is much more diverse now than it was in Hope’s day. That doesn’t mean there are no non-ethnic comedians, or that white bread comedians can only be funny by aping a “Jewish” style. It just means that there’s no one style, and no one comic, who can be as overwhelmingly dominant as Hope was in his day.
Bob Hope’s work may have aged poorly because that just sometimes happens. Somebody who is just made for a particular era doesn’t age well into another. Somebody else ages better. But that applies to Jewish comedians as well. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner will be funny forever. You know who also hasn’t aged so great? Lenny Bruce, the original Jewish rebel comedian.
You know who else feels more and more dated as time goes by?
(h/t Steve Sailer for that delightful bit of Canadian humor. Hey – do Canucks count?)
UPDATE: For those who are interested, Adam Gopnik’s take on Hope can be found here.
Damon Linker has a new column about Jeb Bush and the Iraq War that really should be several columns – it goes in so many fruitful directions, but isn’t able fully to explore any of them. But that’s the nice thing about having an old-school blog – I can spend as much space as I like exploring whatever I wish.
The first potential column is about how Jeb Bush will have a hard time addressing the Iraq War:
[The Iraq War] remains very unpopular outside the fever swamps of the far right, so defending the decision to launch it could be a kiss of death in the general election. Calling it a mistake, on the other hand, would be viewed as a swipe at his brother, which would risk looking peevish and threaten to ignite a GOP civil war.
I have no idea how Jeb will finagle the issue. (Judging by his statements so far, he’ll try to have it both ways by asserting he’s his “own man” while hiring a bunch of retreads from his brother’s old neocon-ish foreign policy team.)
I actually think this is going to be much easier than Linker thinks. Bush doesn’t need to come out full-throatedly in favor of or against the Iraq War to win the GOP primary. He can just say that his brother was somewhat naive about how tenacious our enemies would be, and hence the first couple of years after the invasion went really badly. But by the end of his term he had won the war that Obama then lost. This appears to be exactly what Republican primary voters want to hear: they don’t want to re-litigate that war, but rather to frame any discussion about that war in the context of where they want to go from here, which is toward crushing ISIS mercilessly.
In the general election, then, he will face a candidate – Clinton – who supported the Iraq War wholeheartedly, and the Libyan war, and pushed for direct intervention in Syria. So Bush will not have to do any “defending” of the decision to invade Iraq. On the contrary – he’ll be able to go on the offensive with respect to more recent foreign policy failures. Clinton, after all, has a track record. Jeb Bush does not. It’s just a depressing fact that so long as there are two solid hawks up there on stage, we will not get a meaningful foreign policy debate in the general election.
That’s why we badly need a peace candidate in the race. But I only grow firmer in my conviction that there isn’t really a constituency for one.
Linker’s second potential column is about how, to-date, we’ve re-litigated the Iraq War the wrong way:
Ever since it became clear in the first months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction in the country, the Iraq War debate has focused on intelligence failures and how the administration of George W. Bush (aided and abetted by mainstream media outlets) supposedly misled the public into supporting the war.
This has always been a distraction and a misconstrual of the state of the argument prior to the invasion.
The fact is that just about every intelligence agency in the world (and not just the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans) believed that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs. The debate hinged on whether these weapons constituted a threat sufficiently large enough to justify toppling Hussein. I came down firmly on the side of No, along with Barack Obama, Pat Buchanan, Dominque de Villepin, and a few staffers at The Nation. (That’s an exaggeration, but not by much. Or so it felt at the time.)
This is a hugely important point, but one that substantially undercuts his first potential column. We’ve re-litigated Iraq this way precisely because it is very comfortable ground for hawks. And that’s exactly why the question “well, if Iraq really did have WMD, would the invasion have been justified then?” will not be asked in 2016.
We know that because we’re actively debating the Iranian nuclear program, and how we should deal with it, right now. That program is a known fact. We don’t know whether the Iranians intend to build a bomb, but it is reasonable to assume that the goal of the program is to make the country nuclear-capable. From the perspective of the hawks, the goal of diplomacy is to prevent that outcome – and if we can’t prevent that outcome through some combination of diplomacy and sanctions, we have to be prepared to use force in the “last resort.” Of course, that threat itself shapes the contours of diplomacy in ways that may prevent diplomacy’s success.
To make the contrary case, the case for ruling out the use of force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, you have to make the case that war would be worse than allowing Iran to succeed. That doesn’t mean giving up – there are other carrots and sticks that can be deployed to, hopefully, find a middle ground that allows Iran to say it is developing a nuclear capability while allowing the rest of the international community to say that it has proper safeguards in place to prevent Iran from easily “breaking out” and building nuclear weapons – and that provides proper incentives (positive as well as negative) for Iran to want to remain a non-nuclear state. But it means recognizing that the hawks might be right about Iran’s intentions with respect to its nuclear program – that it intends to get a bomb eventually one way or another – and concluding that preemptive war is still not worth it.
That’s not a case that anybody running in the general election in 2016 is likely to make – including Rand Paul in the unlikely event he gets the GOP nod.
Linker’s third potential column is about what really motivated going into Iraq:
Immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, there seemed to be a realization on the part of some in the foreign policy establishment both inside and outside the Bush administration that the events of that morning signaled something new: sub-state actors could declare war and inflict levels of harm we formerly assumed only a state could accomplish.
That’s what was going to make the War on Terror different. After Afghanistan, it wouldn’t be waged against states. It would target sub-state actors within states — usually states too weak to combat terrorists operating within their borders. This meant the war would be largely covert, with victories unheralded and defeats unannounced. Its signature would be special-ops raids, surgical missile strikes, and drone warfare.
But as we had already learned by the summer of 2002, when planning for the invasion of Iraq really got rolling, this new kind of war could be frustrating. It didn’t produce enormous casualties, like traditional land wars often do, but it also produced little glory. Victory was muddy, indeterminate. The war’s governing mood was ambivalence. The enemy could easily melt away into obscurity only to crop up in another country thousands of miles away. It could be maddening, like a global game of Whack-a-Mole.
And that, more than anything else, is why we found it so tempting to declare war on a country. Finally something familiar! Something satisfying!
Except that the Iraq War wasn’t just a distraction. It actively set back the War on Terror by creating a new failed state, right under our noses, where Islamist terrorism could breed. (As everyone now knows, the Islamic State was incubated in the chaos of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.)
There are several problems with this chronology – starting with the fact that the planning for the Iraq War began in the 1990s, with support from both parties, and that a big part of the motivation for the Iraq War was that the Persian Gulf War – a classic war between states – had such an “unsatisfying” outcome.
Linker suggests that we invaded Iraq because that fit our “Cold War” mindset, a mindset we were more comfortable with than we were with the ambiguous War on Terror. But this is highly problematic. The Soviet Union itself was only intermittently seen as simply a state in a world of states; at least as often – and almost exclusively if we’re talking about the American right – it was viewed as the head, or, better, the lead instrument, of a transnational, ideological force known as Communism. And many of the conflicts of the Cold War were fought not between but within states. The Soviet Union supported revolutionary movements around the world; the United States sponsored counter-revolutionary forces, including coups (Iran, Chile, Guatemala, etc.) and, by the 1980s, insurgencies (Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, etc.).
More importantly, of the three largest inter-state conflicts of the period – Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan – two resulted in total defeat for the more directly-engaged superpower, and one resulted in a bloody and painful stalemate. There’s a reason why many Americans, particularly but not exclusively on the right, were never comfortable with the Cold War – precisely because it was “unsatisfying” in all the ways that Linker describes the War on Terror as being.
These problems reading the past lead Linker to a questionable conclusion:
Barack Obama seemed to understand all of this. He strongly opposed the Iraq War and as president quickly returned the War on Terror to its original strategy of employing mainly covert ops and drone strikes.
And yet, as if to prove that he could be just as foolish as George W. Bush, Obama repeated his predecessor’s mistake when he approved air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya. This time it wasn’t fear that tempted a president to act. Obama’s a Democrat, after all, so he was motivated by a bleeding heart — by the humanitarian imperative to protect the rebellious civilians of Benghazi against the Libyan air force.
And it worked. Until it didn’t.
Just like in Baghdad.
The problem here is not the analysis of Libya (I can quibble over how “humanitarian” the motives really were, but that would truly be a quibble), but the implicit argument that President Obama got the War on Terror “right” prior to or apart from Libya. The evidence from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, west Africa and elsewhere is at best equivocal on that point. Covert ops and drone strikes have indeed killed lots of bad guys. It’s not obvious that we are making “progress” though.
This, of course, is Linker’s point about the War on Terror being ambiguous, without clear metrics for victory, etc. But, as with the Iranian nuclear program, if we really want to have a debate about this question, we have to ask not only what means are more successful and what are more counterproductive, but how we respond if all options present a real likelihood of further destabilization.
Linker’s ultimate conclusion – that someone needs to stand up for the devils we know (Assad, Qaddafi, Hussein, Mubarak, etc.) against the devils we don’t (al Qaeda, ISIS, etc.) – sounds world-wearily serious, but it’s actually comforting, because it suggests that there is actually a clear choice to be made, just one that leaves us feeling morally ambiguous and unsatisfied. But I don’t think the choices are nearly that clear.
That doesn’t mean we should opt for insane-but-clear over less-insane-but-muddled.
It just means that we shouldn’t hold out much hope for a robust debate that includes the deeply pessimistic perspective on our current conflict that, I have come to suspect, Linker and I share.
My latest column for The Week is up. It’s about the Marquette brouhaha that Rod Dreher, among others, has been blogging about. In it, I bravely blame the mob of on-line harassers for everything that’s wrong in the world.
Absent the mob, the initial recording by the student would likely have been of interest only to the philosophy department’s faculty. “My teacher wouldn’t let me make a valid argument” is hardly a page-one news story. Absent the mob, the professor’s blog post would similarly have raised few hackles; it would have been no worse a breach of etiquette than saying the same things out loud in the faculty lounge.
That mob is what transformed this situation from a routine and largely uninteresting ivory tower spat into a dark precedent for academic freedom. Which is what this is. It has become all too difficult to draw clear contours around the new implicit restrictions on academic speech, which would appear to put professors in the distinctly odd position of being less free to criticize one another in print than civilians not crowned with the blessing of tenure.
And, ironically, the original complaint of the student — that he wasn’t allowed to discuss a particular topic because the teacher feared he would offend other students — is likely in part a consequence of the toxic debate environment the online mob has helped create. It is probably not an accident that demands for “safe spaces” and ever-expanding definitions of harassment are features of the same landscape as 4chan and Reddit.
Check it out there.
Assuming Prime Minister Netanyahu actually winds up speaking to Congress at all, he’s made it clear that he will be speaking “as a representative of the entire Jewish people.” This has already prompted a campaign by Jewish opponents (including liberal Zionists) to declare in response: no, Mr. Prime Minister, you don’t. But does Bibi have a point?
From my perspective, yes, and no.
Yes, in the sense that Israel, by its own lights and for its entire history, represents the satisfaction of the legitimate national aspirations of the Jewish people. Even if you, as a Jew, deny the existence of such national aspirations; even if you, as a person of Jewish descent, deny affiliation with anything called “the Jewish people,” inasmuch as such a people exists (whether or not you affiliate with it) and inasmuch as that people has any legitimate national aspirations (whether or not you ascribe to them), Israel has declared itself to be their satisfaction, and a wide array of national governments around the world have concurred.
So what Netanyahu is saying has some logic to it. He’s the head of the Israeli government. The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Hence, he is a representative of the entire Jewish people. Saying “you don’t represent me” sounds an awful lot like the “not in my name” crowd from the Bush years, but you don’t get to disown a government that you don’t like and take it back when you like it better. It’s either yours or it isn’t.
First, “representative” is a very specific word. Israel may undertake, on its own initiative and for its own reasons, the defense of the interests of Jews outside of Israel. Indeed, by its own ideological lights, it is obliged to do so. But that doesn’t mean Israel is in any meaningful sense representing those interests. Those interests are presumably already represented by the governments where those individuals reside – indeed, they must be, unless we are to understand Jews in the diaspora as merely temporarily resident aliens.
To make an analogy, Vladimir Putin may see himself as the secular champion of Orthodox Christians everywhere. The Russian electorate may decide to endorse this ambition, and endorse a foreign policy of intervening to defend Serbs and Bulgarians and Greeks and so forth against their enemies. Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks might even be pleased to have Vladimir Putin in their corner. But Vladimir Putin would not, thereby, become the representative of Serbs and Bulgarians and Greeks. And it would be very weird for, say, Angela Merkel to consult with Vladimir Putin as if he were – rather than talking to the leaders of Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia directly.
Second, Benjamin Netanyahu is not the head of the Israeli state. He’s the head of the Israeli government. If someone from Israel were to posture as the “representative” of the Jewish people around the world, logically that would be the head of state, which in Israel is the President.
Israel’s Presidency is a fairly weak office, but that’s not actually the problem with this formulation. The problem is that the Presidency, elected by the Knesset and generally parceled out to a well-regarded over-the-hill politician, is not an office with a lot of symbolic heft. If you really want someone to be a the living symbol of an organic nation, someone members of that nation can look to and love even if they are not citizens, then what you are looking for is a monarch.
Third, Bibi is not coming to Congress to say: I, as the representative and defender of Jews worldwide say: you must protect your Jewish citizens better, or you’ll have to deal with me. That’s an argument that, perhaps, he could make in France. On the contrary: he is coming to Congress to say: I, Prime Minister of Israel, say that the negotiations with Iran must be scuttled, lest their nuclear program develop into an existential threat to Israel. And because I am the representative of Jews worldwide, you can be assured that America’s Jewish citizens back me up.
That’s not “representation.” That’s a demand for fealty. To which the response, “no, Mr. Prime Minster, you don’t represent me” is singularly appropriate in a way that it would absolutely not be coming from Bibi’s fellow citizens.
I understand where Damon Linker is coming from in his latest column on President Obama’s predilection for playing professor-in-chief, but I think it behooves him to consider the possibility that the President is not confused about his role, but is consciously trying to do something different with it – possibly something foolish, but possibly not. It’s hard to know without examining what that “something” is.
But let me start with a cranky quibble. Linker says:
What Obama’s comments demonstrate is that he lacks a sufficient appreciation of the crucial difference between politics and morality.
Broadly speaking, morality is universalistic in scope and implication, whereas politics is about how a particular group of people governs itself. Morality is cosmopolitan; politics is tribal. Morality applies to all people equally. Politics operates according to a narrower logic — a logic of laws, customs, habits, and mores that bind together one community at a specific time and place. Morality dissolves boundaries. Politics is about how thisgroup of people lives here, as distinct from those groups over there.
That’s certainly one way of understanding morality – but far from the only one. Etymologically, “morality” comes from a Latin root that relates to manners – and manners are indisputably a historically- and culturally-rooted matter, and not at all universalistic. Aristotle, and modern-day Aristoteleans, would surely agree that it’s specious to talk about ethics and morality as something independent of a community’s self-understanding. Historically, in the United States, “morals” legislation has been overwhelmingly particularistic in orientation, either referring explicitly to (Protestant) Christian conceptions of morality or more generally to “community standards” that turn out to be rooted in same.
What Linker appears to have in mind is Kantian conceptions of morality. I know he’s read his Hegel, so I know he knows how this conception can be attacked – but more to the point, he knows that even within the liberal tradition there are other ways of coming at the problem.
The same criticism can be leveled at Linker’s account of politics: this is one way of understanding the realm of politics, but hardly the only one. For Aristotle, politics was distinguished from ethics inasmuch as the former treated questions of collective organization, the latter questions of individual good (said good being only truly discoverable within the context of a collective). The two realms, though, were inextricably related; politics wasn’t just a matter of tribalism, but of discovering truths about the best way to organize groups of human beings in harmony with their natures. And the Greeks eagerly exported this conception across the empire Alexander conquered. In modern terms, virtually all politics have appealed to and advanced some conception of the good. The American Revolution was a political movement, but it was dedicated to a bunch of propositions that went beyond “we don’t like paying taxes so we’re going to stop now.”
I’m aware that Linker is, himself, dedicated to certain propositions about the distinction between these spheres. I merely ask that he recognize that his is a distinctive program with both political and moral implications, as opposed to something everyone agrees on and for which the President of the United States merely “lacks appreciation.”
So: Linker thinks politics should be tribal, while morality should be Kantian. And he’s upset that the President, in his remarks . . . did what exactly?
If the president truly believes that ISIS poses a dire threat to the United States — one requiring a military response that puts the lives of American soldiers at risk, costs billions of dollars, and leads to the death of hundreds or thousands of people on the other side of the conflict — then it makes no sense at all for him simultaneously to encourage Americans to adopt a stance of moral ambiguity toward that threat.
Does Obama want us to kill the bloodthirsty psychopaths of ISIS? Or does he want us to reflect dispassionately on the myriad ways that they’re really not that different from the grandfather of my friend from Mississippi?
I’ll say it again: as an intellectual exercise, Obama’s remarks weren’t wrong. Christianity has been invoked to justify a wide range of moral atrocities down through the millennia, and the Crusades, Inquisition, and Jim Crow are all excellent examples. I would welcome and praise an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates making that exact point.
But Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t the president of the United States, and Barack Obama isn’t a writer for The Atlantic.
A wise president understands that his role is categorically different from that of a journalist, a scholar, a moralist, or a theologian. It’s not a president’s job to gaze down dispassionately on the nation, rendering moral judgments from the Beyond. His job is to defend our side. Yes, with intelligence and humility. But the time for intelligence and humility is in crafting our policies, not in talking about them after the fact.
As I say, I get completely where Linker is coming from. He wants the President to make a practical, not a moral, case for engagement in a war against ISIS, and to leave it at that. Here’s a threat, here’s how we’re going to address the threat, and our boys have the threat well in hand. All in a day’s work.
But let’s consider a variety of possible reasons why the President might have taken the rhetorical tack he took beyond what I acknowledge is a personal preference for the lectern.
First of all, he may genuinely be concerned not only about ISIS but about the possibility of inflaming American moralistic nationalism by engaging with ISIS. The President may feel that, properly aroused, our country might very quickly get behind a far more robust effort to “kill the bloodthirsty psychopaths” and might not, in fact, be so particular about who else gets killed in the process. The reaction to his prayer breakfast speech, and the disposition of the opposition party on these matters, suggest that such fears are not entirely specious. And so, he wants to let us know, this is not a great crusade against evil. It’s more like a police action against a particularly monstrous group of criminals. He may want us to understand ISIS as more the heirs to the Manson family than to Saladin.
Second, he may be concerned about diplomacy. The best – likely the only – effective response to ISIS must be one rooted in the Sunni world. Perhaps America can help, but we can’t lead except from behind. And so, he repeatedly returns to formulations of the conflict calculated not to offend the sensibilities of allies in the region who we need to occupy the front lines. Part of that ritual formulation is to say: this is not a conflict between tribes; it’s a conflict between good and evil within another tribe; and we’re taking the side of good not because we are the good tribe but because taking the side of good is good.
Third, he may be thinking not as President of the United States but as Leader of the Free World. Linker may decry the fact – plenty of writers here at TAC decry it daily – but the United States occupies a quasi-imperial position in the world system. We’re the global hegemon, the hyper power, the indispensable nation. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, a crown we should covet to keep or a poisoned chalice we should try to put down, it’s still a fact. And it’s obvious that the President views his role as managing that position as effectively as possible. From the perspective of that position, the Muslim world is not a foreign tribe but a difficult and restive province far from the imperial center.
Or, you know, maybe he was thinking that this was a prayer breakfast, a singularly appropriate place, one would think, to speak from a position “beyond” tribal politics. Of course, if politics and morality are to be treated as strictly separate realms, then a prayer breakfast is a singularly inappropriate place for a President to speak at all. Maybe Linker’s problem isn’t the President’s failure to conform to the “bully pulpit” expectations Americans have, but to those expectations in the first place. But those expectations have a long lineage.
President Obama’s warnings about the danger of self-righteousness owe an obvious debt to Niebuhr, but they also trace back to President Lincoln’s warnings about Northern self-righteousness in the cause of anti-slavery. Lincoln was acutely aware that the South’s cause was self-interested, but that awareness led him not to condemnation but to compassion, because he understood that it implied that the anti-slavery North, if it had the climate and history of the South, would likely have adopted the same stance. Right was still right, and wrong was still wrong, but judgment belonged to someone more exalted than the President. Nobody should pat themselves on the back for choosing right; very likely, the choice was less-costly for them than for somebody who chose wrong. Our proper stance is charity for all, malice toward none.
Perhaps that puts a finger on the real problem. Lincoln used complex moral language to address a nation wracked by civil war, but ISIS is not us, and perhaps wars are fought more effectively when the people are encouraged to see the enemy as uniquely evil, ourselves as uniquely good. But if so, that’s an argument against American hegemonism, against limited war – and against engaging with ISIS. It’s an argument that a properly “tribal” politics is inconsistent with our quasi-imperial position, and that if we want to avoid carrying the flag of the crusades we had better carry no flag at all so far from our territorial waters. It strikes me as strange to choose to marry a policy argument of that sort to a critique of the President for being insufficiently solicitous of the sentiments of Johnny Jingo.
Or maybe Lincoln was just confused about the distinction between morality and politics.
Readers of this space are familiar with my attachment to The Book of Job. My personal favorite “double feature feature” film pairing was anchored by a discussion of how each film – “The Tree of Life” and “A Serious Man” – related to that masterwork of religious philosophy.
Well, if I wanted to, I could now revise that piece to a triple feature feature – because one of the more powerful films of the past year is the Oscar-nominated Russian film, “Leviathan,” from director Andrey Zvyagintsev - and guess what? At its heart, this movie is also a meditation on Jobian themes.
The story of the film is simple. A fairly ordinary Russian man, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), denizen of a town on the Barents Sea coast, is facing the loss of his property. Using whatever the Russian equivalent of eminent domain, the corrupt local mayor (Roman Madyanov) plans to summarily kick Kolya off the land he and his family have lived on for decades. Kolya is convinced that the mayor plans to build himself a palace on the land, and is determined to do whatever is necessary to keep what is his. More specifically, he invites his old army buddy, Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a Moscow lawyer, to come up and not-so-subtly threaten the mayor with exposure of his many misdeeds if he doesn’t back off – or at least offer a fair market rate of compensation to Kolya for the loss of his valuable beachfront property.
At first, it looks like the plan is going relatively well. The mayor is intimidated by the august names Dmitriy casually drops, and even more intimidated by the dossier he has compiled. Though he rages at his flunkies, his rage feels impotent – he’s clearly seriously considering caving, at least on the point of compensation.
But the local bishop (sounding very like a proponent of the “Orthodox Jihad” that Rod Dreher talked about on his blog) tells him, in so many words, to gird up his loins like a man. God gave you any power or authority you may have. If you are using it for God’s ends, you should not flinch, doubt or hesitate – because it was for these ends that you were entrusted power in the first place. At the same time, Kolya’s camp unravels with startling rapidity. His young wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), sleeps with Dmitriy, and is caught in the act by Kolya’s son, her stepson. Kolya beats him up, and before Dmitriy has recovered from these injuries he finds himself threatened by the mayor’s goons. Dmitriy flees back to Moscow, leaving Lilya to her guilt and Kolya to face the mayor’s wrathful vengeance alone. And, if you can believe it, this is only the beginning of Kolya’s troubles.
Why does Lilya cheat on her husband? Her actions are never really explained, but my sense is that we are supposed to see Dmitriy through her eyes as Kolya’s natural superior. He’s younger, better-looking, smarter. He’s also the true savior of the family if the family is to find one – Kolya cannot save them himself. He is a man who, he says, believes in facts, in objective reality – he is not deluded that God is going to engineer an outcome that sentiment might favor. If we are to see the world in that way – which is how Kolya, defying the “righteous” authority of the mayor, implicitly does – is Dmitriy not a more appropriate man to cleave to than Kolya? That’s my sense of what her actions signify. And in the end they leave her utterly lost.
In the depths, facing the loss of everything he ever cared about, and facing yet further loss to come, Kolya turns to a priest, who tells him the story of Job as a parable of obvious relevance to Kolya’s life. “To whom do you pray?” he asks him – this, to the priest is the decisive question. He offers Kolya no answers, but only a choice: whose authority do you accept, as total and absolute? Kolya doesn’t see the point of praying at all if there is no promise of reward – the reward that Job received, at the end of the biblical book. And so he goes to meet his end with no consolation.
The foregoing may make the film sound a bit pat. It isn’t. This is a film rich in life, from the stunning cinematography (by Mikhail Krichman), to the powerful ensemble acting, to the painful cross-currents of these characters lives (particularly the fault line that divides stepmother from stepson), to the humor provided by the ensemble of peripheral characters, particularly a corrupt police officer who leans on Kolya for free repairs of his truck, and Lilya’s mouthy best friend from the local fish packing plant. One can appreciate the film fully without paying any attention to the way in which it uses the philosophical and theological themes that I’m focusing on.
But I’m going to focus on them anyway, because they interest and move me – and because I love the Book of Job too much from them not to.
“Leviathan” presents a fairly bleak reading of the Book of Job, one that emphasizes the absolute and unfathomable scope of God’s power and authority. Faced with such awesome majesty, the only proper attitude is utter submission, with which the reservation of any personal pride or status is incompatible. It is, frankly, a reading that doesn’t sit well with me. But then, I am disinclined to identify divine authority with any temporal, human authority, whether the state, religious authorities, or my own conscience (and I, like any good scholar but also like the devil, can cite scripture to my purpose if I’m so inclined). That, indeed, is precisely part of the point I take from God’s voice from the whirlwind: God’s authority is different from, incommensurate with temporal, human authority. Human authorities you may critique for being unjust, and demand satisfaction of them. Human authority proceeds from and may be bound by and shaped by positive law, because it aims at the satisfaction of human ends, like fairness and justice. But to demand these things of God is to making a category error. You cannot critique a whirlwind.
I don’t see the whirlwind demanding submission – I see it urging Job to raise his eyes, not lower them. When the Book of Job talks of Behemoth and Leviathan, I imagine quasars and black holes, the monsters of physics; I imagine a universe of laws, but laws the depths of which will never be sounded to the bottom. I am, I suppose, more like Dmitriy than not.
But in the context of autocracy, which has deep roots in Russian soil, the priest’s interpretation has perhaps more resonance. What does the voice from the whirlwind sound like to a mind conditioned to understand law as proceeding from authority rather than the other way around? From such a mind’s perspective, the only way to know the law is to know whether authority is righteous, meaning whether it aims at ends that God approves. Which is precisely how the bishop tutors the mayor. And from such a mind’s perspective, the thuggish, abusive, cruel mayor is in fact more humble than poor, suffering, Job-like Kolya.
That, to my mind, is the point of the ending, which reveals that the mayor was indeed, from a certain perspective, aiming to serve God’s ends. Many Western viewers are reading the film as a satiric story of corruption in modern Russia. But perhaps this is not the only way to read it. Indeed, perhaps it is not the way that Russia’s Ministry of Culture originally read it – which would explain why they initially supported the film, facilitated its financing and production, and promoted it internationally, only to turn on it when they saw it described in the Western press as a critique of Putinism. Because, with just a little turn of the head, the film can be read not as an indictment, but instead as a tragedy, the very tragedy that Hobbes identified when he first contemplated the problem of authority: that, once you establish the necessity of authority as your bedrock political principle, you immediately establish the necessity of absolutism, and the impossibility of any formal reservation for the individual against that authority.