Noah Millman

The American Conservative: For Open Eyes, and an Open Mind

illustration by Michael Hogue

When I joined TAC back in 2012, I explained in advance, first to the editor and publisher and then to my prospective readers, that I was “off-side” on a host of issues relative to where TAC‘s readership was. I wanted to be sure that everybody understood what they were getting before I agreed to give it to them.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that nobody cared.

Nobody cared whether I held the “house” opinion on any particular issue, or whether I would be appropriately deferential to “members of the family.” Nobody even cared that I used the phrase “off-side” in a manner that betrayed comprehensive ignorance of the rules of both association football and cricket. Because they cared about something much more important for the future of American intellectual life.

Journals of opinion are generally founded to advance a backer’s particular intellectual agenda. That agenda may be closely tied to the fortunes of a political party or faction, or it may not, but people generally don’t spend the kind of money it takes to put out a serious magazine, an enterprise that hemorrhages cash in the best of circumstances, unless they have something specific to say.

Well, TAC, when it was founded, did have something specific to say. It was founded in opposition to one of the most colossal blunders in the history of American foreign policy, and in defiance of the determination by the mainstream American Right to expel from its company anyone who voiced that opposition. It was founded by people who, at the time, I thought were wrong about just about everything. But on the most important issue of that time, they were right, when much of the rest of the intellectual class was solidly wrong.

Now, that experience could have led TAC to champion a conservative counter-movement, a faction determined to “win back” the America for a set of views that all “right-thinking” sorts already believed in their hearts. After all, they had been right when it counted, weren’t they? Surely the thing to do was to push the line that was “right from the beginning,” as hard and as fast as possible.


But that isn’t how TAC developed. Instead, TAC grew into something much more precious than another factional rag. TAC is that very rare journal of opinion that is more interested in exploring and developing ideas than in promoting them, more interested in getting people to think well than in getting them to think “correctly.” There is unquestionably a TAC sensibility – a gut-level skepticism about grand projects and schemes; and a conviction that the core political principle is love, and that we love best what we are closest to and know best. But there is no TAC ”line” on any issue. Even on matters closest to the heart of the magazine’s founding, TAC has been willing to publish articles – even cover stories by the editor - that, instead of flattering its readers’ views, challenge them on a deep level.

TAC is currently in the middle of a fundraising campaign, the catch phrase for which is “realism and reform.” And, as catch phrases goes, it’s not bad. Who, after all, is going to come out in favor of “delusion and sclerosis”? But realism, before it narrowed to mean a particular theory of politics and foreign affairs, meant seeing reality with open eyes, and analyzing it with an open mind. And reform, before it was corrupted to mean progress in a politically predetermined direction, meant the restoration of form to what had fallen into chaos, the restoration of peace after a period of conflict. These are not really liberal or conservative concepts, because they are not about what to think. They are about how to think.

TAC doesn’t measure its effectiveness simply by number of page views. Those matter, to advertisers and as some measure of the breadth of our readership. But fundamentally, we measure our effectiveness by looking at whether we are in the conversation, nationally, and whether we are shaping that conversation in a more considered, thoughtful direction.

By writing in this space, I’ve tried to do my small part to promote that kind of thoughtful conversation, about matters great and small. Partly because I still believe that the deliberative faculty is essential to a republic’s function. And partly because I just find a thoughtful conversation a lot more interesting than the bloodsport that passes for discourse in so many corners of the internet.

But like everything else on the internet, our conversation here isn’t really free.

As I said, most people who fund journals of opinion do so to advance their preexisting views. If you are reading this, you’re the sort of person who wants to have their views challenged, complicated, deepened. Somebody other than the typical backer needs to provide the funding to make that experience possible. Ultimately, that somebody is you.

So: if you like what you get to read, in this space and elsewhere on the site and in the magazine, please give what you are able, so that we are able to keep publishing the kind of work that brought you to TAC in the first place, and continues to bring you here today.

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The “Baffling” Call of Nationalism in a Multicultural Age

Daniel Larison is baffled by Niall Ferguson’s bafflement over the very real (though probably still less-likely than not) prospect of Scottish independence:

Niall Ferguson is predictably against Scottish independence, which isn’t particularly interesting. However, there was something he said about American views of the referendum that deserved a short comment:

Even to the millions of Americans whose surnames testify to their Scottish or Scotch-Irish ancestry, the idea that Scotland might be about to become an independent country is baffling [bold mine-DL].

I am part Scots-Irish on my mother’s side, and I don’t find it the least bit baffling. It isn’t up to me or any other Americans what happens later this week, but it would be extremely easy for me to understand if a majority voted for independence on Thursday. Nothing could be easier to understand than the desire of a people to try to get more control over how (and by whom) they are governed. [bold mine-NM] This impulse never seems to baffle anyone when we see it in other parts of the world.

I want to call attention to how much work is being done by the word “a” in Larison’s sentence. To whit: who is getting to decide how and by whom they are governed in the upcoming referendum? The “Scottish people,” as Larison’s “a people” would seem to imply? Or the “people of Scotland,” whose identification would not seem to require an article?

I think the answer is pretty clearly the second: that the people of Scotland, not the Scottish people, are the electorate. That is to say: British citizens, and some Commonwealth citizens, who are resident in Scotland and registered to vote there can vote on the question of independence. You don’t have to have Scottish ancestry, or otherwise demonstrate Scottishness, to have a proper say in the question. An independent Scotland is not going to Scotify the citizenry, or establish Scots Gaelic as the official language of government. The “Yes” campaign explicitly talks about how an independent Scotland would be more welcoming to higher levels of immigration than a united Britain is, and disclaims any ethno-nationalist basis for the desire for separation. The SNP has always been to the left of its voting base; now it’s just capturing a greater share of the Scottish left than it used to. The cosmopolitan values that Ferguson advocates as a way of weaning Scotland away from nationalism are also the values that the “Yes” campaign is running on: they just think that Scotland would be more liberal, open and cosmopolitan alone than as part of Britain.

None of this is intended as criticism of the SNP’s ambition. It just doesn’t look much like the nationalism that was at play when the Greeks sought independence from the Ottomans, or when the Czechs sought independence from Austria-Hungary – or, for that matter, when the Irish sought their own independence from the United Kingdom. It’s not even the way Flanders or Quebec talk – Flemish independence is a right-wing cause that is correlated with opposition to immigration, and advocates of sovereignty for Quebec voice a vigorous nationalism based on language (though not on ethnicity or race – it’s all about the francophonie).

That’s why, I think, it reads as “baffling” to some. In a multi-cultural age, nationalism makes sense as a response to collective oppression, which Scotland does not suffer from, and/or some sense of profound and unbridgeable difference, which Scotland does not really manifest. Nationalism as an ideal in itself, as a way for a people to establish itself as a force in the world, romantically actualizing their ethno-historical essence, frog-marching their people into modernity and/or purifying themselves of foreign influences – all elements of nationalism when it mattered for Germany, or Italy, or China, or Japan, or Egypt, or Israel – is more than slightly alarming to contemporary cosmopolitans. But on that score Scottish nationalism doesn’t look much like nationalism at all. And, okay, maybe it’s just more practical for New Zealand not to be governed from the other side of the world. But is Scotland really “necessary” or “inevitable” in that sense? Not really. So why vote yes? Isn’t it setting the requirements for divorce rather low?

Scotland has its own distinct history, customs, and so forth. But Scottish independence would still be more like independence for Alaska or Vermont than like independence for Kurdistan or Tibet. The “idea” of Scottish independence is the idea of smallness, along with the notion that any organized group can always plausibly pack up their marbles and leave a larger group that they don’t find congenial. It’s the idea, ultimately, that there’s nothing particularly sacred or special about the state; that the state is something any community – a more apropos word than “people” for a multi-cultural age – can choose to adopt or discard at will.

One can understand why people who are enamored of other, “bigger” ideas find that idea itself uncongenial.

As for me, I still think the key question is: if the goal is truly to maximize a community’s ability to govern itself, without inordinate sacrifice of goods like prosperity that matter to the ability of the individuals therein to live the lives they want, what’s the “optimal political unit” for such governance? Maybe it’s gotten smaller in the last 100 years on account of information technology, etc. Maybe it’s gotten bigger on account of the globalization of finance, etc. I’d like to see the evidence for both sides.

I don’t expect to see it before Thursday.

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Awake the Pert and Nimble Spirit of Mirth

Jonathan Goad (centre, left) as Titania and Stephen Ouimette as Bottom with members of the company in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Jonathan Goad (centre, left) as Titania and Stephen Ouimette as Bottom with members of the company in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Michael Cooper.

A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a rabbinical friend of mine about the prospects for the Conservative Movement of Judaism to approve some kind of marriage ceremony for gay couples. This friend was favorably inclined toward such a move, and so I asked him what he would imagine such a ceremony would actually look like – what the ceremony would actually consist of if it were to be taken seriously as a wedding.

A variety of trappings could, he thought, be unproblematically adapted from the traditional ceremony. The huppah, representing the creation of a sheltering home together, is pretty unproblematic; no reason a gay couple couldn’t make a home. The mingling of two cups of wine into one, to be drunk by the two celebrants, similarly; any children the couple might rear won’t have mingled genes, but two lives are certainly blending into one. The breaking of the glass – well, there are sexual overtones to breaking anything that wouldn’t be apropos, but the other meanings – superstitious (driving away evil forces), national/religious (remembering the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple), psychological (the broken glass cannot ever go back to being unbroken, so this couple can never go back to never having been wed) – all work reasonably well.

Very well – but what would you say? The traditional blessings, after all, are as highly gendered as you would expect them to be – they are all about brides and grooms, Adam and Eve, complementarity and fertility.

My friend thought for a bit, and concluded that a creative ceremony would find a way to link to that Edenic origin of marriage notwithstanding the absence of sexual complementarity – would focus on ahavah v’achavah, shalom v’rei’ut without saying that these can only be rooted in the union of a chatan and kallah. Which sounds laudable, but on a mythopoetic level it’s still a considerable challenge.

*     *     *

I thought about this challenge after attending a performance at the Stratford Festival Theater of their delightful current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Director Chris Abraham has decided to use Shakespeare’s Dream as a vehicle for undertaking precisely that challenge. Adding yet another layer of meta-theatricality to a play that already abounds with it, he’s set the play at a wedding. Not Theseus and Hippolyta’s, but two men – unnamed members of Stratford’s acting company – whose guests, fellow company members, decide to put on a play for the entertainment of groom and groom. Since an impending wedding at which a play will be performed is already the outer, meta-level of Shakespeare’s Dream, adding this additional layer sends kind of an explicit message: this production will explore what actually changes when the wedding we’re celebrating is for two men.

Before getting into how well this “works” on a message level, I want to start off by reiterating just how delightful the show is as a piece of theater. This is the most simply joyous Dream I’ve ever seen, and the joy suffuses every aspect of the production. These actors, playing some version of themselves in the frame story, seem like they are having an absolute ball, and you’d feel peevish not to join in. Little touches that perfectly suit the wedding theme – dressing the aisles of the theater with nuptial ribboning; having the underage wedding guests play the fairies (and having them sing a Bruno Mars number for the other “guests”) – all facilitate an atmosphere of celebration that’s infectious. You really do feel like you’re at an especially awesome wedding.

And there are clever connections made between the casting of the frame story and the play. The superlatively suave Scott Wentworth is supposedly hosting this wedding in his backyard, so of course he plays Theseus in the play. Mike Shara’s goofy bro persona is already familiar to audiences, and that’s the actor he plays in the frame – and of course he plays Demetrius. It even feels appropriate that the ever-game Barbara Fulton gets cast as the Moon’s dog.

As for the concept, Shakespeare’s play is a fecund text to put to this purpose. Dream is, on one level, all about the pagan fertility rites that express the primal mythical importance of complementarity. When Titania and Oberon are harmonious, vegetation grows properly; when they are at odds, the seasons themselves are thrown into disorder. Their love is cosmically generative. On the other hand, those self-same spirits have the power – and the inclination – capriciously to disorder a host of categories as they see fit. They can make a man an ass. They can make a fellow spirit love that ass. And, in a more serious vein, they can make a man love the woman he’s “supposed” to love – or, when they screw up, the woman he isn’t.

As well, the story of Theseus and Hippolyta suggests simultaneously that the determination to love without regard to social convention is a threat to the state (Theseus confirms: Hermia must die, or enter a convent, if she refuses to marry the man her father, Egeus, chooses), and that the inability or unwillingness to accommodate love where it happens to flourish is also a threat to the state (Hippolyta is routinely played as none too pleased by Theseus’s firmness with Hermia, so the happiness of Theseus’s own marriage depends on his ability to get Egeus to see reason, and accept his daughter’s choice). The arc of the play is from threatened order, through disorder, to a re-founded order based on properly reciprocated love rather than force and custom. It should be obvious how that arc would play well in this particular production’s context.

Abraham – or, perhaps I should say the company; this may be a decision we’re supposed to read as happening within the meta-theatrical frame – makes explicit the “progressive” reading of this arc by playing a bit with the gender of the casting. Lysander is played by a woman (Tara Rosling) – and also as a woman, one improbably mistaken by Puck for a man (Rosling isn’t nearly that butch), but more to the point: a woman in love with another woman (Hermia, played with exceptional sincerity by Bethany Jillard). Needless to say, this sharpens the conflict between Hermia and her father, a conflict that, in most productions, feels rather pro-forma rather than deeply felt. (It also makes nonsense of Theseus’s warning that, if she will not marry Demetrius, she must “abjure forever the society of men,” but them’s the breaks; that beat rarely connects with a contemporary audience anyway.)

Titania, meanwhile, is played by a man (Jonathan Goad or Evan Buliung, depending on which performance you see; they alternate playing Titania and Oberon), but as a – well I was going to say a woman, but of course Titania is not a human being at all, but a spirit (of no common rate). But she is unequivocally female. Finally, Puck is also played by a woman (Chick Reid), but that barely counts as cross-gender casting – certainly less so than having a woman play Peter Pan, as is done often enough.

These cross-gender casting choices struck some interesting sparks. Titania in particular was exceptional – both Titanias. Neither Goad’s nor Buliung’s performance is drag-y. They aren’t “signifying” woman in their performances in a campy way, nor are they trying to fool us; we we can see that these are men. The right way to put it, I think, is to say: they play Titania straight. What I saw in each case was a man showing us the woman inside him – not the woman he would play but the woman revealed. The result was two exceptionally affecting (and quite different) Titanias, with deeply felt (and conflicted) relationships with their respective Oberons. I saw the play twice, and will admit, I somewhat preferred Buliung as Titania opposite Goad as Oberon, partly because of Buliung’s fierce affection for the changeling boy she won’t surrender, and partly because his Titania was positively statuesque, and made Goad’s horned Oberon look like a cranky, frustrated little ram. But the other way worked marvelously, too; Buliung’s Oberon is fiercer than Goad’s, Goad’s Titania gentler and more queenly in her control than Buliung’s.

The lovers also work wonderfully well. There was little of the sense that one often gets in Dreams that these are a bunch of spoiled children, or that they are thin excuses for characters being put through conventional plot paces. Indeed, the meta-layering of the production actually served the lovers – when they appeared to be a bunch of actors engaged in romantic recombination, well, that works. Their bits of comic business actually play better because we know they are actors – because actors (most of them, anyway) fool around and do schtick on their own and for each other all the time. Lampooning the conventions of the play works better, sometimes, than playing them straight. Has anyone ever really believed that Demetrius would try to kill Lysander, or vice versa? Not really. So why not let them chase each other with cake knives?

The meta-ness of the production is a bigger problem for the rustics. Now, I will not hear a word said against Stephen Ouimette’s delightful Bottom – less self-aggrandizing than usual, more of the sort of guy who just wants everybody to feel good; one imagines him clowning about to distract Egeus from his rages. (Incidentally, in this production Egeus is played, by Michael Spencer-Davis, as a deaf man. It’s a choice I initially found random – until I saw how it made those rages play more poignantly because more apparently impotent. Here’s a man furious that no one will harken to him – but he does not speak, because he can’t.) Nor will I hear a word against Karl Ang’s dentally-challenged Snug, or Victor Ertmanis’s big-bearded Flute. Their “business” in the play-within-a-play is all delightful. But it’s stepped on, to some extent, by the frame. The whole play has been calling attention to the fact that it’s just a play; the actors have been clowning around the whole time, mocking the conventions and requirements of Shakespeare’s comedy in a warmly affectionate way. The rustics’ play, though still funny, is too close to more of the same to really slay ‘em. (I’ve seen this problem with the rustics before, but Abraham’s production doesn’t run into anything remotely like the problems that Tony Speciale’s did.)

And Flute presents a distinct challenge. Broadly speaking, I’ve seen his assay at Thisbe played either of two ways. Either Flute is absurd playing a woman, and that’s the joke – or he’s surprisingly good at playing the woman, and that’s an even better joke. You can even do both simultaneously if you cast someone who is physically ridiculous as Thisbe and then have him play her straight. Given that Titania is already being played that way, the only option left is to lampoon Thisbe, and that’s the direction the production goes. (I did mention that big beard, didn’t I?) But I wondered what that particular choice meant in light of the larger frame. In this play-within-a-play-within-a-play, Thisbe is played by Flute, who’s played by one of the Stratford actors at this wedding, in a production intended to celebrate this gay wedding. Well, who is Flute in this scenario? He’s playing Thisbe as if he were Robert Preston at the end of “Victor, Victoria.” But is Flute Carole Todd? Is “Victor Ertmanis” (as played by Victor Ertmanis) Robert Preston.

I don’t mean to belabor this, but I did feel like this was a funny joke that could have been much funnier, and deeper, if we had been given a couple of hints about the character in other layers of the meta-narrative. I wanted Flute to be as real as Titania – different, but still real. Titania’s reality said something – something important – about how printed our gender is on our most essential selves: not as deeply as we sometimes assume, because we contain more variety than we represent. Which would seem to be an important idea for this production in particular.

But you know, I started out by saying that this was a “message” production that was making a point by setting the play at a gay wedding. And in the end, I’m not sure that the “message” was anything more than: here you are, and how does it feel? By the time the play-within-a-play-within-a-play is done, and the cast is up and dancing, and inviting you to dance with them, all these quibbles are forgotten. It’s a party. Go dancing. It’s only natural.

One last note: I hope this production has a life beyond this staging. Among other things, I think it would benefit from being staged in a space where it could be even more immersive. I know that’s kind of my thing, but, as I said, I saw the play twice, the first time from a prime center orchestra seat, the second time from cheap, partial view seats that were on the stage, in the middle of the action. And while it was a lot of fun from the orchestra, it was another order of wonderful from the stage. Now, I don’t know if it would have been as good if I hadn’t already seen the whole play – you miss a lot of visuals from the stage. But I think it’s actually essential to the full experience of the production for the audience feel itself actually to be at the wedding. So I hope Abraham gets an opportunity to stage this production again in a venue where that would be possible for everyone in the audience to join the dance.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays at Stratford’s Festival Theatre through October 11th.

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Mowing the Grass in Iraq


Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir explain Israel’s “strategy” in Gaza earlier this year:

Israel’s current strategy against hostile non-state actors such as Hamas reflects the assumption that Israel finds itself in a protracted intractable conflict. The use of force in such a conflict is not intended to attain impossible political goals, but rather is a long-term strategy of attrition designed primarily to debilitate the enemy capabilities. Only after showing much restraint in its military responses does Israel act forcefully to destroy the capabilities of its foes as much as possible, hoping that occasional large-scale operations also have a temporary deterrent effect in order to create periods of quiet along Israel’s borders. . . .

Those who forlornly ask “when is this going to end?” and use the cliché term “cycle of violence” have psychological difficulties digesting the facts that there is no solution in sight and that the violent struggle against Hamas is not going to end anytime soon (not as long as the enemy’s basic ideological motivations remain intact). But still, important periods of quiet are attainable via military action, and this is what explains Israel’s current offensive.

The Israeli approach described here is substantively different from current Western strategic thinking on dealing with non-state military challenges.

Western thinking is solution-oriented.

This explains part of the lack of understanding in the West for what Israel is doing.

Against an implacable, well-entrenched, non-state enemy like the Hamas, Israel simply needs to “mow the grass” once in a while to degrade the enemy’s capabilities. A war of attrition against Hamas is probably Israel’s fate for the long term. Keeping the enemy off balance and reducing its capabilities requires Israeli military readiness and a willingness to use force intermittently, while maintaining a healthy and resilient Israeli home front despite the protracted conflict.

The President of the United States explains American “strategy” in Iraq and Syria last night:

Over the last several years, we have consistently taken the fight to terrorists who threaten our country. We took out Osama bin Laden and much of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We’ve targeted Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and recently eliminated the top commander of its affiliate in Somalia. We’ve done so while bringing more than 140,000 American troops home from Iraq and drawing down our forces in Afghanistan, where our combat mission will end later this year. Thanks to our military and counterterrorism professionals, America is safer.

Still, we continue to face a terrorist threat. We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today. And that’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge. At this moment the greatest threats come from the Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain. And one of those groups is ISIL — which calls itself the Islamic State. . . .

I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partners’ forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years, and it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.

The only question in my mind is whether the President is “solution-oriented” in the “Western” manner, or whether he merely feels the need to pretend (however unconvincingly) to be so because he assumes his audience requires it. Because it’s pretty clear to me that these respective “strategies” are well-nigh identical.

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Dancing on the Sand

Adam Jacobs and James Monroe Iglehart as Aladdin and Genie, Photo by Chris Bennion
Adam Jacobs and James Monroe Iglehart as Aladdin and Genie, Photo by Chris Bennion

It’s that time of year again, and I don’t really have anything new to say. What I had to say, I said best on the ten-year anniversary.

But we’ve got a blog to write. If I don’t write something, the terrorists will have won, right?

Well, I’ve got a big backlog of theater stuff to write up . . .

*     *     *

Aladdin is a funny show to see in 2014, after all the water under the bridge (and other, more viscous fluids spilt) since the film debuted in 1992, and you can tell, right from the opening, that everyone involved in creating this diversion is fully aware of the potential sensitivities on all sides. Extreme care has been taken to make sure that no one could possibly think that Agrabah (the setting) is remotely real. The costumes are Las Vegas parodies of orientalism; the music gives only the barest nod to the east; and the jokes come soaked in borscht.

Moreover, there’s not a moment that you ever worry that something might actually be happening. The chases and fights are staged to maximize the impotent incompetence of the bad guys, and minimize any possible fear that our hero will be caught. And he doesn’t seem too worried himself. Though nominally the fate of the kingdom lies in the balance, and, on a more personal level, Aladdin fears starvation and Princess Jasmine fears an arranged marriage, no actual emotions are on display that might hint that these are real possibilities. The story is just so much scaffolding on which to hang frame-breaking mugging and elaborate numbers.

And to be fair, some of those are pretty amazing. The magic carpet is pretty extraordinary, and executed with real elegance; it reminded me of an excellent production of Peter Pan that I saw at Stratford a few years ago. And the top-this-no-top-this extravagance of the dance numbers is pretty spectacular. But it’s clear from pretty early on that part of the point is to distract the audience from a story that nobody wanted to commit to, because committing to it would mean doing something real.

(“Real,” by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean authentic. The Africa of The Lion King is pretty comprehensively phony, for example. But the show believed in the story it was telling, and so the story itself was real.)

The only character who actually felt solid was the genie. And that, I think, is the real secret to his success. It’s not just the snappy camp energy that James Monroe Iglehart brings to the role (though he sure brings it, and then some), and its not just the fabulousness of the dance numbers he conjures up (though they are truly fabulous). It’s that here’s a character somebody involved in the production understood and committed to, on an emotional level: a fellow of infinite jest and, because of that, essentially unlimited power. He’s the spirit of the play in a literal sense: his purpose – to make us laugh and gasp and, magically, make us seem more powerful and important than we are – is the purpose of the production as a whole.

And, of course, he’s a slave to whoever happens to pick him up.

There’s a metaphor there somewhere, about the Disney entertainment machine at a minimum, but perhaps also about ourselves in the audience, thirteen (or twenty-three) years on. Does it take more and more effort to distract us as the years go by? Or does it actually get easier?

Get tickets if you feel like it, but I don’t think there’s any rush. I predict a nice long run.

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A Sign From Hashem? Don’t Know. Helping Others? … Couldn’t Hurt.


Conor Friedersdorf has a very good piece up this morning about how one might talk about sex out of a traditional Christian framework without being tuned out by a non-believing audience of young people.

He begins by raising real and important questions about the traditionalist case against sexual modernity – and that portion of the essay is very worth reading – but that’s not the heart of his argument. He gets to the heart when he imagines a minister or priest being given the opportunity to speak to an incoming freshman class as part of a larger orientation on sexuality, and imagines what he’d like that person to say:

I want to talk today about something that Jesus calls on his believers to do. He teaches us to love one another, to be good to one another, to treat others as we’d want to be treated. Christians aren’t alone in preaching that code. I raise it today in part because I expect you all already agree with it. And if you do agree that we have a responsibility to be good to one another, I’d ask one favor: As you proceed through this college, bear that obligation in mind! Do so even when you’re deciding how to live your sexual lives here. Doesn’t that sound like it’s the right thing to do? But of course, it isn’t always easy.

The dean of students talked to you about consent. By law and the rules of this campus, you need consent to be intimate with anyone. I want to remind you of something: If we’re truly trying to be good to one another, consent just isn’t enough. Maybe there’s a person who has a huge crush on you. You’re at a party. Maybe you’ve had a beer or two, and in the moment, kissing that person would be a lot of fun. But you know, deep down, that you don’t share the same feelings they have for you—that if you kiss, you’ll be leading them on, and they’ll be all the more hurt tomorrow or the next day when you’re not interested anymore. You have their consent. You want to kiss in the moment—but you don’t, because you decide it’s more important to be good to them.

Say you’re dating someone. And you want to have sex with this person. They consent without being pressured. Yet you can’t help but sense that they’re not ready for intercourse. You understand this is a big decision with many physical and emotional consequences. And so, to be good to them, you hold off, despite their consent. You err on the side of caution, even though you’d rather go ahead.

If you really try to be good to one another, if you earnestly question what that moral code demands and grapple your way toward answers, you may not always like what your reason and conscience tell you. It may tell you to stop slowly taking that person’s clothing off even though they haven’t said to stop. It may tell you that you need to stay in the room with a friend who’d clearly rather be alone with an intoxicated date. Students are at greater risk of sexual assault at parties where there’s drinking going on. Does that mean anything for your behavior if you’re obligated to be good to your fellow students? Do you stay sober, or drink less and keep an eye on those who drink more, or serve only beer, not hard alcohol, when you host, or throw a substance-free party?

You’ll need to decide. What’s truly best for my classmates, and what does it demand of me?

Some students will become depressed after hooking up with someone who doesn’t reciprocate the emotional intimacy they sought. Does that fact affect you? How? There’s always a chance that sexual intercourse will result in a sexually transmitted disease or the creation of a new life. What does that imply, if anything, about your own sexual behavior as you try to be good to one another?

There are so many situations you’ll face—so many more questions I could pose.

I don’t pretend that confronting these situations with the question, “How can I be good to others?” will lead all of you to the same answers, let alone to my answers, though I hope that you’ll keep your hearts open to the possibility. But if you really wrestle with that question in every situation that involves sex, romantic intimacy, dating, hooking up, whatever you kids call it these days—instead of thoughtlessly acting in whatever way most people seem to be acting—you’re much more likely to do right by others, much more likely to be proud of yourselves, and much less likely to remember your time here without the regrets that haunt some people, people who look back at their younger selves ashamed of how they hurt others. You’ll also bring about a community with fewer unintended pregnancies, fewer sexual assaults, less depression—just by trying your very hardest to be good to one another!

Friedersdorf explains why he finds this kind of talk appealing:

I won’t say I’ve never seen a traditionalist Christian talk about sex on campus, or in America, like that. . . . But the approach I’ve sketched is very different from the most prominent messages on sex I’ve heard from traditionalist Christians, and different from any message I ever heard at a Catholic high school or from orthodox friends I know. To me, that’s a shame. In theory, “do unto others” is a moral message that secularists could and sometimes do adopt, but it isn’t the focus of secular sexual norms or mores. We’re more likely to talk about consent or pleasure or self-actualization or gender equity—all important goods, but not the only ones to consider.

Christians would seem better prepared than many to raise and press thorny questions about what “do unto others” implies, and better prepared than most to speak in explicitly moral language about our obligations to one another in the sexual realm.

A few thoughts.

First, before anyone jumps up and calls this weak tea, let me just say that following the precept, “do unto others” is extraordinarily hard. Like, really insanely difficult – much more difficult, I would argue, than following a set of explicit prohibitions – which is hard enough. Because we all want to be treated well all the time. We never want to have our feelings ignored, to be taken for granted – to say nothing of being the subject of outright cruelty or abuse. Moreover, before we can even get to the point of treating everybody well, we have to be mindful enough, aware enough of them, to hear how they actually want to be treated – specifically. Taken absolutely, “do unto others” is positively Tolstoyan, a moral standard for saints.

For that very reason, I’m glad Friedersdorf wrote that this objective – being good to others – is only one of several legitimate concerns, that pleasure and self-actualization are also important. Unfortunately, I have a funny feeling that the very people who would be most receptive to a message about the importance of being good to others are the ones who need to pay a bit more attention to the actualization of their own selves, while the ones who most need to hear a message like this are the ones whose selves are, shall we say, a bit too actualized.

Second, since Friedersdorf has written before about how we shouldn’t belittle consent as an ethical touchstone, I’m glad that, in this piece, he seems to recognize that there’s something cold and contractual about stopping at that point in your ethical analysis. A society that took consent seriously would be a much, much better society than one where consent was regularly ignored – and we aren’t anywhere near there yet. But it also wouldn’t necessarily be a particularly caring society. And that’s before we get into all the ways that consent can be manufactured.

Third, I think Friedersdorf’s argument deserves a bit of a feminist gloss. Specifically: to practice “do unto others” in the sexual realm, you need to be able to imagine yourself in the position of the “others” in question. That’s not always easy for anybody – but gender is a particularly common fault line here. To follow some of Friedersdorf’s hypothetical minister’s advice, a man would need to be able to imagine what it would be like to be a woman. That’s a big challenge for a lot of men (particularly men in the heat of passion). I know it has been for me, at many times in my life. The typical traditionalist approach to this problem is to say, “imagine she was your sister.” Personally, I think that approach has real limitations, and the feminists have the better of this particular argument. What would Friedersdorf’s hypothetical traditionalist think, though? I wonder.

Finally: Friedersdorf’s hypothetical traditionalist says something towards the end of his speech that I need to pick at a bit. He talks about how following “do unto others” will help you avoid “the regrets that haunt some people, people who look back at their younger selves ashamed of how they hurt others.” I know that shame, from personal experience. But I can also say that I haven’t run into a lot of people who talk that way. By contrast, I’ve run into a lot more shame on the other side of the equation – people, particularly women, who feel crushing shame for allowing themselves to be hurt. And we’re, to some degree, aware of that; we have a whole therapeutic infrastructure (insufficient, but it’s there) for helping people who have been hurt talk about that kind of shame, and work to overcome it.

The predominant language we use for talking about having hurt other people, though, is the language of addiction, a language that, to my mind, complicates the question of personal agency in a way that makes the “do unto others” moral language that Friedersdorf’s traditionalist is advocating somewhat harder to hear. In other words, I think it may be problematic to have to admit to being powerless in order to admit that you have done wrong, and hurt other people. In any event, I’d be very interested to hear from Friedersdorf specifically whether he feels the same way, or disagrees.

The core argument Friedersdorf is making, though, I think is an important one. A lot of traditionalists I talk to think that the most important argument to be having with the larger culture relates to natural law. If we cannot agree on absolute standards for right and wrong, rooted in Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of human nature and the divine, then the only alternative is a swirling ethical void. This is a repeated theme in Rod Dreher’s writing, particularly when he asks what Christianity is for:

If Christianity teaches us to love, well, what do we mean by love? Caritas — charity — is a love in which we connect love of others to our love of God. Who is God, and what does He want from us? Does the Bible tell us so? How can we tell?

Well, perhaps we could start by listening to those others, trying to hear what they are saying, and not saying, about what would feel like love, and caring, to them. I suspect that’s actually harder than reading the Bible – or any other book, frankly – to find out a universally applicable answer. And maybe that difficulty is a sign that what looks on the surface like weak tea is actually a pretty stiff prescription.


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What Webb and Teachout Have in Common Is More Important Than What They Don’t

Yesterday, I said I hoped Jim Webb will challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Presidential nomination, in spite of his very poor prospects for victory. If he did so, he’d almost certainly be perceived in some quarters as a more “right-wing” alternative because, in a cultural sense, that’s where he belongs. But from my perspective, his most important attacks would be functionally from the left: particularly on foreign policy, but also on Executive power and on some economic questions, such as reining in the influence of Wall Street. Plus, his stubborn independence of mind would by definition be a challenge to the drearily calculating establishmentarianism of the Clinton machine. I also said that Webb is “not Elizabeth Warren or Zephyr Teachout.” Which might have led some people to believe that, if I like Webb, I must not like Warren or Teachout. But that’s not the case. Teachout in particular is the real deal, and has been running a highly principled race for Governor of New York that has already forced Governor Cuomo to move to his left on the issues that matter to her. I give Cuomo credit for running a tight fiscal ship – that record is a big reason he’s running as strongly as he is in the general election. But I also think there’s a difference between running a tight ship and steering the ship where monied interests want it steered. Teachout is pointing out that difference. She’s run an old-fashioned and completely sincere left-wing good-government campaign. We could use more of them. They can help keep the ship pointed in the right direction even if they aren’t electorally successful.

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Currency Unions and Political Disunions

One of the strongest practical arguments against Scottish independence, made by Paul Krugman this weekend, is that an independent Scotland would actually wind up with less control over its economy than it does now – because it would have no more say in British monetary policy, but, so long as it kept the pound, would be as affected by that policy as it is now. And the “yes” advocates have been very clear that they intend to keep the pound.

I think he’s right. I’ve argued for some time that if anyone is interested in saving “Europe,” then “Europe” needs some kind of fiscal union – not by any means a powerful centralized state like France, but some kind of confederal or federal arrangement, with limited but real powers and direct accountability to voters. If Europe’s states don’t want to cede national sovereignty in that way, then they really do need to rethink the whole currency union thing – or just settle in to a quasi-colonial relationship with Germany and be done with it.

But if all of the foregoing is true, then why would Scotland seek an independent government but remain tied to a foreign currency? Why would “ditch Westminster, keep the pound” be a reassuring platform, rather than an ominous one?

The answer doesn’t just relate to what constitutes an optimal currency area or how integrated Scotland is with England, economically. It relates to transition costs. And it relates to what degree of confidence Scotland’s electorate has in their own, new political culture. Keeping the pound, at least initially, is much cheaper than ditching it. And the prospect of ditching it in the future would mean higher borrowing costs today. Why, after all, would you want to ditch a solid, respectable currency unless you planned to devalue? And if you wanted to tie the hands of a new government that might otherwise open the spigot a bit too wide, what better way than to force them to borrow in a foreign currency?

Precious few seceding states in recent years have adopted a truly independent monetary policy. Many have ditched their own newly-minted currencies entirely. Slovakia adopted the Euro before the Czech Republic has. Montenegro and Kosovo adopted it unilaterally. The Baltic states have rushed to adopt it as swiftly as possible. Croatia is hammering at the door to get in, notwithstanding all the nastiness of the past five years. Countries also continue to adopt the dollar as either their official currency (e.g. Ecuador, El Salvador) or as legal tender alongside a pegged local currency.

Indeed, not that many years ago, the question was whether Britain would ultimately join the Euro, not whether the Euro would ultimately collapse. If it had, then what I am calling one of the strongest practical arguments against Scottish independence would be entirely nugatory. If the UK had adopted the Euro, then leaving the UK would have exactly zero implications for Scotland’s control over its monetary policy. Even as, on one level, monetary union has made deeper European political integration more necessary, it has also made political separatism, from Catalonia to Flanders to Lombardy, vastly more plausible. But these ever-smaller political entities will perforce have even less control over the forces that largely determine their destiny than they once did as part of a national community with direct accountability to voters.

Now, if Scotland leaves, will a rump England withdraw from the European Union? If you take a static look at polling on the question, it certainly looks like ditching Scotland makes that more likely, but England’s attitudes about a host of questions would certainly evolve after separation from Scotland, if separation comes about. Meanwhile, if Scotland remained in the EU while England left, wouldn’t that make it more likely that Scotland would wind up adopting the Euro eventually? An independent Scotland might not be analogous to Canada so much as it would be analogous to an independent Quebec.

Our ambivalence about sovereignty is widespread. Political communities around the world want more political control over their affairs, but without assuming all the costs that true control incurs. They want smooth integration with global supply chains and access to international capital markets, but without suffering the risks and costs that come with that loss of control. The Scots just may vote for sovereignty. If they do, Edinburgh might not be the only capital to see its stature enhanced. Brussels might as well.

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Will My Jim Webb Man-Crush Get Another Go-Round?

Or so buzzeth the Interwebs:

Mr. Webb, a Vietnam War veteran and Democrat who served one term in the Senate representing Virginia, is making noise about running for president. He was in Iowa last month; a New Hampshire trip may be in the offing, and he is giving a major speech at the National Press Club in Washington on Sept. 23.

He seems an improbable candidate. He has taken illiberal positions, was President Ronald Reagan’s Navy secretary, has few relationships within the Democratic Party, and has no serious fund-raising network.

What he does possess is a long-held and forceful opposition to American interventions in Iraq and Libya, and potentially Syria, as well as solid anti-Wall Street credentials. In Democratic primaries, these may be Mrs. Clinton’s greatest impediments to rallying a hard-core activist base.

Though I am an inveterate Webb-booster who thought Obama should pick him as his running mate in 2008, I actually think Webb would make a terrible primary challenger to Clinton, for several reasons. The activist base would be thrilled to rally to him if he were running against a right-wing Republican, as they did when he did in his 2006 Senate race. But Webb gives off all the wrong cultural vibes to excite that base against Clinton. He’s not Elizabeth Warren or Zephyr Teachout. He’s more like Brian Schweitzer. And last I checked, Schweitzer hadn’t exactly set the base on fire. And actually, it’s worse than that, because Webb’s deviations aren’t just cultural. He had a lot of criticisms of both Obamacare and the stimulus – and they aren’t the criticisms Schweitzer has been making (that they didn’t go far enough).

Then there’s the problem that Webb is a prickly, cerebral type who doesn’t like campaigning and didn’t make a lot of friends on Capitol Hill when he was in office. He hated politics (and the Senate specifically) so much that he declined to run for reelection after one term (a term with very limited accomplishments). Inasmuch as some Democrats’ big worry about Clinton is that she’s not a particularly good politician, Webb is hardly an attractive alternative. Plus, the current Democratic President is a standoffish writerly personality. Do the Democrats really want to nominate another one?

So why do I hope he runs?

Webb is a pretty rare bird. He’s an intellectual but not an ideologue. He’s a culturally right-wing personality who recognizes that on the most important issues facing the nation, we need to move to the left – and not just on economics and foreign policy; he’s been critical of Executive power, even with his own party’s man in office, and has taken a serious hard look at reforming our appalling prison-industrial complex. He’s a strong critic of the “Washington consensus” in foreign policy who cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called either naive or a neo-isolationist. (In a deep sense, he’ll always have the outlook of a Secretary of the Navy.) Most important, he’s a genuinely independent person, the exact opposite of the careerist climber. We desperately need more people like him in our politics.

And, I think it would be very helpful on foreign policy in particular for Democratic primary voters to recognize that Clinton is all the way on the bleeding right edge of her party. I’d love to see a debate where Hillary Clinton faces off against Jim Webb, and Bernie Sanders, and Brian Schweitzer, and Russ Feingold, and Joe Biden, a group of politicians with plenty of disagreements between them (including on foreign policy), all attacking her for advocating a foreign policy that is far too militarized, aggressive and expansively ambitious. I suspect that would make a more powerful point than Webb being a fiercely solitary dissenter in a field dominated by Hillary, and populated otherwise by candidates who aren’t eager to rock the boat.

But mostly, I’d just like to give that man-crush another whirl. If only because that might be the best way to get clear of it.

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HBD and Me

My review of Nicolas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, is up on the website as of yesterday. Check it out if you haven’t already.

Personally, although the actual science is beyond me, I find the whole subject of human evolution, and of the (partially) genetic bases of human behavior, personality, and cognitive capacities fascinating. I really do hope that more and more research gets funded in this area, so that we learn more about more about what makes us tick – and how we tick differently from one another. Knowing more will make us all better off – and it’ll just be interesting.

But I find the political agenda of many of the biggest enthusiasts for the “science of human differences” to be thoroughly unpalatable. So I’m committed to making arguments why that agenda doesn’t follow from their premises – and why the dominant ideology that denies the importance of such differences doesn’t actually lead to a happy liberal egalitarian outcome.

Specifically, I think it’s worth recognizing the degree to which the dominant ideology is well-tailored to the interests of the successful meritocrats. People who have already risen to the upper ranks of the meritocracy have the greatest incentive to believe, and to want others to believe, that anyone could have done the same if they had really worked for it (and not been discriminated against unfairly). The suggestion that it was all effort is an indispensable part of the syllogism that concludes: the winners deserve the spoils.

By contrast, a syllogism that concludes “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is implicitly premised on the reality not only of differences in need, but also of differences in ability.

I recognize that “you can be anything you want to be” is a valuable myth. It’s vastly more motivating to believe in effort than to believe in fate. Effort really can overcome a host of challenges; if you really want to learn to play the guitar, or to read Arabic, or whatever, you shouldn’t let dyslexia or a natural lack of rhythm stand in your way. And every now and then a true genius emerges who truly doesn’t have much native talent – and those people often have especially fruitful insights. The plodding, labored Cezanne was, to my mind, a far more interesting and fecund artist than the natural genius, Piscasso.

But it’s also valuable to remember that it is a myth. Luck, or fate, play a very large role in society, starting not only with what resources your parents happen to have, but what genetic legacy they passed on to you. And most people are ordinary, will want to expend an ordinary amount of effort, not go through extraordinary exertions, and will want to play to their strengths, not their weaknesses. Society shouldn’t be set up to punish and condemn such people.

Equality of moral concern does not rest on a foundational assertion of equality of ability. And if we take seriously the idea of an equality of moral concern, then any evidence that differences in ability are at least partly innate is an argument against the notion that we all “deserve” the complete rewards of our success – or that the only basis for redistributing these rewards is some kind of evidence of discrimination. It’s an argument for some degree of redistribution as a permanent fixture of the landscape, not a temporary way-station on the path to perfect meritocratic capitalism.

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