28 February 2010
19 February 2010
" . . . the president had a stunning and revealing exchange with Sen Blanche Lincoln, the Arkansas Democrat likely to lose her 2010 re-election campaign. He was meeting with Senate Democrats to urge them to continue with his legislative agenda. Mrs Lincoln took the opportunity to beseech him to change it. She urged him to distance his administration from 'people who want extremes,' and to find 'common ground' with Republicans in producing legislation that would give those in business the 'certainty' they need to create jobs . . .
"While answering, Mr Obama raised his voice slightly and quickened his cadence. 'If the price of certainty is essentially for us to adopt the exact same proposals that were in place leading up to the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression . . . the result is going to be the same. I don't know why we would expect a different outcome pursuing the exact same policy that got us in this fix in the first place.' He continued: 'If our response ends up being, you know . . . we don't want to stir things up here,' then 'I don't know why people would say, "Boy, we really want to make sure those Democrats are in Washington fighting for us." '
" . . . The Washington Post's Charles Lane, one of the few journalists to note the exchange, said he found it revealing in two ways: First, the president equates becoming more centrist with becoming more like George W Bush, and second, he apparently sees movement to the center as a political loser.
". . . The president and his advisers understand one thing really well, and that is Democratic primaries and Democratic politics. This is the area in which they made their careers. It's how they defeated Hillary Clinton—by knowing how Democrats think. In the 2008 general election, appealing for the first time to all of America and not only to Democrats, they had one great gift on their side, the man who both made Mr Obama and did in John McCain, and that was George W Bush.
"But now it is 2010, and Mr Bush is gone. Mr Obama is left with America, and he does not, really, understand it. That is why he thinks moving to the center would be political death, when moving to the center and triangulating, as Bill Clinton did, might give him a new lease on life." [Emphasis mine]
By the time I got to the end of Ms Noonan's article, I figured I was broadly in agreement with at least one of her main points. That is, the deep throes of massive recession may not have been the best time for any president to start obsessing about the Nation's health care. And yet the two passages I've italicized keep coming back on me. Is "centering" oneself really all that simple these days? Ferociously far Left as he may be under all the fine grooming, suppose Mr Obama really were to lurch quickly, and decisively, to the Center. Suppose, indeed, he should radically re-Center his whole agenda - only to find that meanwhile that same Centerline had been moving all but unstoppably further to the Right? So far, in fact, that one morning that same Center was found to be all but indistinguishable from what today we consider - well, pretty far Right of Center?
And that's another thing. We all talk about "Right" as if it meant just one thing, and as if that meaning were fixed for all times - or even for our own lifetimes. But what if it isn't? Would Robert Taft have instantly recognized "Right" exactly as it is defined by our current Arbiters of Rightness? Would Barry Goldwater? Would even Ronald Reagan - or Bill Clinton?
But suppose it got to the point where the only folks fully at peace with our 21st-century definition of Right - the only ones who found it as snug and comfortable as a second skin - were the likes of a Dick Cheney? or a Mitt Romney? or a Steve Forbes? Just how easily would the rest of us fit into that increasingly tight skin? And for how long, I wonder, would we - and here I mean not just corporations of one kind or another, but individual human beings of every kind - how long would we continue to recognize, in that ever gradually more close-fitting skin, anything resembling what we today call Liberty?
That is the problem with anticipating political and economic oppression: one can never be sure from which direction it's going to come - up or down; North or South; East or West; even - at times, I'm told - Right or Left! Because, after all, there really are just two things required for oppression to work with unrelenting efficiency: A remorseless fixity of purpose, and an implacable sense of being right. Or, in a phrase, "Hold fast to your hard-and-fast ideas, and to hell with nuance!" (Which, in the final count, is the same thing as saying to hell with reality - including real people and other such creatures.)
My point is that all of us are capable, not only of mouthing that phrase, but of meaning it. Regardless of one's political complexion, we are all capable of being seduced, as it were - of becoming idolatrously attached to a mere idea, a precept, a principle. So attached, indeed, that we may be prepared to sacrifice not just our own common human decencies, but others' basic human freedoms. And even, sometimes, the purest, most primordial freedom of all - the freedom of every creature to be what God made it to be, to be the fullness of itself, and in that particular Way most satisfying both to its own soul and to its Maker. All this we humans may do - or try to do - in order to ensure that creature's uttermost conformity to our Idea. And as for those other things it may need or crave from the depths of its soul - as to whether, for instance, the human creature really needs seven or eight hours of sleep for optimal performance and well-being - really, who should care? Generations from now what difference will it make how well-rested or insomniac, how happy or miserable we prototypes were, when our descendants are all proudly exulting in Economic Utopia? (I can only hope Stalin is listening.) Meanwhile, if it's a moral you're looking for, here is my best attempt: Ask not for whom the Beast tolls - he tolls for thee.
Not that we Americans haven't got some good reasons for feeling ideologically dizzy. In some ways, I'll admit, the whole Nation has been on a head-spinning, mind-numbing carnival ride since 9-15-08. Down and down and farther down the rabbit-hole with Alice; the tea-parties getting curiouser and curiouser - to say nothing of (at least in some instances) madder and madder. But even amidst our most fiercely Bravehearted insurrections, are we any closer to the borders of Freedom than when we began?
And what a mad and curious journey even our post-Bush Quest for Liberty has been. A sort of whirling, frenzied flight, ostensibly farther and farther away from something we call the Abuse of Power. Only to find the most unexpectedly familiar faces - Mr Cheney's in particular seems to be growing more visible by the day - awaiting us at journey's end. Or, perhaps more accurately, cutting the journey short right at the point of real departure?
17 February 2010
But the hardest and most dangerous work of all may be the pretense that we humans are only what we make of ourselves, and nothing more: that there are in us no hidden reserves - or reservoirs? - which even we are unable to enter and pollute, because they are accessible only to the grace of God and the prayers of others. And those, even as we sleep.
Nor is it just human beings I'm thinking of here. More and more it seems to me there are hidden depths - hidden meanings and resonances - in everything that makes up our world: in all that we call natural, as well as in the things we think and make and do. Much of what we call "bland" may even be a kind of shallowness. We say, for example, that a food has no taste when perhaps what we mean is that its taste lacks depth. "Memory" might be a still better word. In what, after all, does the richness of food lie, if not in its power to remind us of other tastes, and even of the experiences and countless other associations that surrounded them? And what bland creatures even we humans become, when we are cut off from the depths of our own selves: - depths that lie beyond, and often threaten to overwhelm, the shores of the worlds we typically live in - the carefully projected futures, and reconstructed pasts, that make up our most customized images of ourselves and each other. As if there were not in each one of us another kind of Soil, that is best irrigated by the waters of an unknown past, and most expectant of the rains of an unimaginable future. Just think of the blandness - the "sterility", as we often call it - of the things we make and build, when we presume to create with only our conscious minds, and in particular with our planning, calculating, executing minds. It is as if we were separating ourselves from something. But what?
It may be that what lends savor, and sweetness, and fire to our lives is precisely this strange, deeply flowing current of memory and association: this haunting of a Past, and longing for a Future, that are expressly not of our own making. Or perhaps even of our own understanding. That hardly means that they haven't been made, and understood, long beforehand. Nor does it necessarily mean this Past and this Future are such things as lie permanently beyond our human knowing. Indeed, perfect as the natural bent of our brains may be for all the ambitious things we plan yet to do, isn't it written somewhere that our very minds shall need straightening, or (to use the Pauline phrase) renewal?
Yet I believe there is nothing more exasperating to our present "Cainite," let's-get-on-with-it minds than this imbeddedness in our lives - one might almost say in our blood - of something for which we can scarcely find words that make sense, much less rational uses and purposes. Embarrassed by we know not what, we chafe and rebel. Cain-like, we say "Once and for all let us have done with the 'sins' and false starts of the past, and go on to make ourselves a future we can be proud of." And who could blame us? Who doesn't love a second or third chance after a bad start? Search the Scriptures from now till Judgement: I doubt that you'll find a more heavyweight example of an American-style Comeback Kid - and all by his own bootstraps! - than Adam's firstborn son.
And yet how easily does one generation's lightning comeback become the next generation's lengthening shadow. And sometimes exceedingly violent shadow - at least if we are to believe the ensuing chapters of Genesis. We never mean it that way, but somehow it happens. Could it be simply that we're not free enough yet? or not yet powerful or commanding enough? But for some reason, the more we try to command and contain the future, the more we create oppressive pasts from which we - or at least our children, or theirs - are continually trying to escape. Indeed any human future "liberated" from its past is always an oppressive one, because it is cut off from the very means by which it can know itself. Just as you or I would be, cut off from our own depths. That is why no revolution ever really works in the ways we'd like, because it is rooted in that same dictatorial impulse against which our humanness itself is in perennial revolt: the impulse to "quarantine" the past so that it won't infect the present; and then to contain what's left of the future within conscious human boundaries and parameters. Our difficulty is that the future, like the past, is an ocean; and we try to make it a pond or lagoon which we can drain and refill whenever we choose. And then we wonder how the occasional leviathan or other monster still manages to slip into our pipes.
Funny, too, how these conformable futures we make have a way of making us conform, sometimes even at the price (as we're discovering nowadays) of our own humanity. But even if we humans could somehow become "perfectly" adapted to systems wholly of our own devising, the fact that we can "create" proves nothing about the durability of our works. Again I repeat: The biggest challenge of any humanly-contained future is not how to create it, but rather how to enclose and secure it against outside interference. Even if only in our dreams and hauntings, there remains the risk of one coming in from Somewhere outside all our wisest calculations, to reveal our self-made paradises for the perditions they are. Or to bring forth out of our self-made miseries an Eden beyond what the purest innocents among us could dream. The truth is, though we try our damnedest to be god-like, we have yet to invent any future that is effectively God-proof. And, again, one never can be sure who else might slip in in the meantime.
13 February 2010
Nowadays, of course, mainstream American society tends to be most vigilant against governmental abuses of power. And with what good reason God knows. Elected officials' accountability to voters has never been much of an insurance against contempt of those same voters, and collusion with others - even (but who could have imagined it?) with private corporations! - at the expense of voters' stated wishes and interests. In the same way, neither does accountability to customers always insure against contempt for one's clientele - else there would be very little of what we know in the world as fraud, poor service, shoddy workmanship, and grossly risky and irresponsible management of clients' funds and investments. Let's face it: Even good honest success in business is no guarantee of respect or consideration for those who, in one way or another, have come to depend on your success. Like those who work for you, for instance - or those who buy from you. In short, much like politicians, even merchants and manufacturers are not perfect - or even, sometimes, all that patient, kind, or humble a group of people, as proverbial wisdom and Adam Smith both attest. Even businesspeople can get swollen heads, and begin to lust not just for riches well within their own sphere, but for power well beyond it. Or just as likely, start believing their honest success and productivity entitle them to a proportionately greater share of political influence than other members of society, whose own work however useful may be less measurably productive. Hence, again, the need for competition - and even among those (hopefully various) interests who control our news and political media.
And so I pray at the very least it's highly plausible - both to the US Supreme Court and to all of us - that economic organizations no less than political institutions are susceptible to the temptations of Power. And possibly also much better at defending, and rationalizing, their own succumbing to those temptations. Again, nobody's perfect, right? And whose imperfections ought to be easier to excuse, and overlook, than those of the folks upon whose productivity we all depend? I mean, whatever vices they may have, didn't they work hard to get where they are? If they don't have a right to throw their weight around now and then (and that's just human nature, remember?), who does?
Even now I wonder if the real debate between today's global Right and Left concerns not the intrinsic right of organizations to control and circumscribe the lives of individual citizens, but whether certain organizations - namely, political ones - have properly earned that right. After all, it may be argued, what does any mere political entity do to enhance a society's wealth creation, or to improve its productivity? On the other hand,
"What institution has done more than wealth-creating corporations to earn the right to full participation, coequal with individual citizens, in the political process? And if so, why shouldn't be they be guaranteed the right to vote? And why shouldn't that vote be fully proportionate to the full weight of the contributions of these organizations, upon which everything else in society so obviously depends?"
Does that question seem totally unthinkable even now? And will it seem equally unthinkable twenty years from now?
"Oh yeah, right," jeers the fast-on-the-draw wiseacre, of a sort we might find frequenting some of Alice's madder tea parties out there. "And what of it? What's the worst even the most powerful global corporations could do to abridge or constrain the rights of individual citizens?"
For starters, let me say that even now that is an entirely open question. And, frankly, I think one day we'll all be amazed at what plucky, enterprising global corporations can do - yes, even with political power - with their hands firmly at the reins of the right governments.
09 February 2010
"Oh but you're something of a dinosaur," you assure me confidently. "Back when you were born, you may have been wanted - after a fashion. But how much of that wanting was a tired, bitter, grudging thing, done from a sense of duty? And sadly, I'm afraid, that may even affect how well you are treated in old age. But please understand, in the world to come, virtually everyone alive will be here because of their parents' freest, most unfettered possible choice. And as a result everyone's chance of being no less freely loved and appreciated will be that much stronger."
Fine. In that case I have another question. In this idyllic future world, as you unscroll it before me, every child may be that much more loved and appreciated on account of being "wanted" at birth. (Never mind how much the parents may end up regretting their decision three months later; apparently they're all but guaranteed to become virtual saints of parenting because of a decision they made while basking in the rosy glow of an ultrasound). Answer me this, then: As each of these children grows up, and slowly or quickly ceases to be as desirable as a darling newborn, will it be easier for the adults around them to give them what they need - to listen, to understand, to nurture, to restrain and correct and discipline them - or will it be harder? Remember, in most things human 'tis practice makes perfect. So regarding these enlightened adults of the future: how practised will they be in exercising patience with a "terrible" two-year-old, if they feel neither guilt nor shame in disposing of a child's life when it is by comparison far more helpless, and (normally) nowhere near as obnoxious?
In short, I just can't summon much enthusiasm for this near-utopia of prenatal choice. The fact that a given society is willing to entrust the very beginnings of human life - life at its least demanding and most elementary level of need - to the discretion of one or two confused and frightened individuals, whose presence and peace of mind may vary sharply from week to week, or even day to day, is very poor assurance of that society's humaneness in more trying circumstances. Above all, it does not reassure me concerning that same society's power to "put up with" human life as it becomes more complicated, more demanding, more inconvenient. And even less does it persuade me concerning our mutual capacities - yours and mine - to put up with each other, as one or both of us gets older.
Not all of us reach old age, of course; some of us don't make it to adulthood; others don't get to be a teenager; and a few of us don't get much of a childhood or even an infancy worth mentioning. But every living one of us has been born in some fashion or other. And for nearly all of us - until there can be devised a more nurturing receptacle - the human womb will continue to be the place where we first drew breath, and began the process of becoming recognizably sentient and human. It is where we all came from. If human life does not continue to be sacred there, it is unclear to me how it can go on being sacred anywhere. And observe already how that sacredness is become rather a sick joke. Indeed one may plausibly argue that, in today's abortion-on-demand culture, life has become so cheap a few of us are prepared to kill an abortionist or two in defense of it. And in this bold new age of Apocalypse-as-Entertainment, what quicker path to universal conflagration than to fight fire with fire?
And what a wholesale conflagration it has been - and continues to be - however slowly the fires may spread. Even now we are fools to think abortion poses no similar threat to life outside the womb. Once again, if "helpless" life be an irksome thing when merely kicking, will it be less of a nuisance when it starts talking? and talking back? and becoming not passively helpless but a positive hindrance to other fun things we'd like to do? Meanwhile back at the adult ranch, we wonder why it's getting so hard - and so impractical! - to value human life for anything more than the productivity we can extract from it. Recall, even before the onset of mega-recession, how we trembled at the thought of paying even our most productive workers a wage remotely commensurate with record profits. Good heavens, man, what would Wall Street think? Or worse yet, Beijing? And then we watched - for what else could we do? - we watched as consumer spending, on which our US economy always depends, became more and more fueled, and households more and more strangled, by runaway debt. I mean, the spending had to come from somewhere, right? And then we had the dunderheadedness to be shocked and angry at the severity of this downturn. But what were we expecting - utopian endless prosperity? Why, of course we were! Because as every rational economist knows, the less you value human beings as economic instruments, and the more you regard them as so much costly overhead, the more hopeful they will feel about their own life prospects. And thus - freed from the siren voices of fear and panic - the more rational and clear-headed decisions they will make to secure those prospects.
I believe it was St Therese of Lisieux - the aptly-named "Little Flower" of Jesus - who said we love flowers not for what they do but for what they are. On the strength of that analogy, I'd say nowadays we Western humans have all been assigned the proportionate value of chemically-treated hothouse tomato plants. Certainly there are few if any flowers left in our gardens. And let no one forget good fertilizer is expensive . . .
But maybe you think I'm being much too hard on our poor, hapless, misunderstood, "God knows I'm only trying to make a humble profit" Western nations. I wish I could find a reason for going easier. But even now I see little if any progress in Human Efficiency's most vital component: the way we humans treat each other - and in particular the way we treat those peons on whom we depend to keep our operations running, not from year to year, or even month to month, but from one God-given day to another. Perhaps we're being compensated by our superior moral rectitude in some other area. But how big of an area can it be? And what power of microscope does one need in order to see it? Let's face it: these days we Westerners are not exactly moral paragons in much of anything. Certainly not in the realm of anything one might call procreative morality. Nor are we necessarily, I fear, the first to notice it. A beam in one man's eye seldom keeps him from detecting the mote in his neighbor's. And if a being as visually obstructed as Satan can retain a sharp eye for the sins of his enemies, what on earth is there to stop the likes of al Qaeda from discerning ours?
And don't believe for a second our enemies don't see what's going on. They see the wastefulness and ease with which we Westerners use, abuse and dispose of healthy human life - mostly, again, in the name of something we call profit (though I suspect it bears about as close an affinity to real profit as the Pharisees' system of moral debits and credits resembled real holiness). From there the rest is a familiar story. Our manifold Western sins provoke in them a predictable kind of sanctimonious moral outrage: the kind that makes our modern jihadist work all the harder - please note - not to set for us infidels a better moral example, but to become for us a far worse one. And yes I know, we can debate that delicate point till all the cows come from test tubes. At all events I see no reason for our present and future Osamas, whatever religion they may hail from, to look down on the rest of us, much less to feel morally superior. Really, given the amount of indiscriminate blood already caking their own hands, one is moved to wonder if they intend to establish a class of combatant hitherto unknown in the history of warfare: The equal opportunity destroyer. Meanwhile, if nothing else, I would hope our modern jihadist might feel a tremor or two of gratitude towards us in the West. And even for our culture of on-demand abortion which he professes to loathe. Didn't we, after all, help create the moral climate in which he lives, and moves, and is prepared to sacrifice all being?
08 February 2010
Here, it seems to me, is a man who - if I may paraphrase Cromwell - has been sitting where he is far too long for any good he's been doing there. And yet I've found what I most dislike in Prime Minister Brown is not any one, two, or three things he may have done or left undone during his two successive offices. Rather, it is the entire way he thinks: - a certain ingrained disposition towards the world, and one that I've no doubt has shaped, in ways both massive and subtle, just about everything he's ever said or done since he first entered politics.
I understand he's a warm appreciator of my country, or at least of certain American ways of doing things. And in particular those American ways that make us seem not only a far more modern country than Britain, but far more impatient with and dismissive of not just Britain's, but every nation's Past, including our own. Mr Brown strikes me as one of those admirers of America from a comfortable distance who can be found in considerable numbers at every point of the British political spectrum, with the possible exception of the Lunatic Left. And yet - speaking as one American - it seems to me that both he and others like him are making a key and very unfortunate mistake. They're making the mistake of applauding precisely those aspects of America's political and economic success that are most - how shall I put it? Most cocky? Insolent? Hubristic? Heedless of past wisdom? Or perhaps, in a word, most "smartass." In effect, they're allying themselves with precisely those elements of our culture which are implicitly most destructive, in the long run, of both America's and our allies' positions, and leverage, and credibility in the world.
Then again, if you're really good, and know you're good, who needs credibility anyway? And just how do you measure leverage? Assuming we Yanks really did attain our unique pre-eminence in the world entirely by our own merits, with neither grace nor help nor prayer from any manner of soul dead or living, why should we care what anyone else - including our allies - wants or thinks? Why, to do so would be little short of immoral, or at least grossly irresponsible. I mean, to vacate our place at the head of the Headlong March of Mankind, when every thinking person knows it cannot be slowed down for any one or any thing? and that nobody but nobody can drive it faster than us Yanks? In brief (though I doubt he'd savor the comparison), it seems to me that what Mr Brown likes most about us - about our American drive, American efficiency, American success - can best be summed up in two words: Donald Rumsfeld.
There is one other thing, however, that bothers me even more about him. As far back as his university days, one of Mr Brown's chief political inspirations - if not his foremost political hero - was the radical socialist and MP James Maxton of Glasgow. Maxton lived from 1885 to 1946 - a highly critical period in British and world history, to say the least. He was a man of undisputed political courage, integrity, conviction and independence - besides being driven by a fierce, heartfelt compassion for pretty much anyone poor or marginal. Yet for some reason, the best way he could find of translating this compassion into the language of foreign policy was to become a passionate admirer of Lenin in the 1920s and '30s, and a resolute appeaser of Hitler in the '30s and '40s. In other words, Maxton spent the better part of his life crusading against tyranny and oppression wherever he could recognize them, only to end up misreading completely two of the very worst embodiments of those evils modern history had yet seen.
And this is the best our Mr Brown can do. At the very onset of his public life, this was the soundest point of departure he could find for his own intellectual journey into politics. Given, then, this severe ideological handicap from almost the start of his career, I wonder if the real future historians' debate will concern not how much or how little Gordon Brown did things wrong during his time in office, but whether, and how far, he ever had much chance of doing anything right.
All speculation, of course. But in all this I do find a remarkable thread of consistency, both in Maxton's political career (including his weakness - or strong stomach - for bold iconoclastic dictators) and in Brown's choice of Maxton as posthumous mentor and forerunner. Like Brown, Maxton was a conscientious disrespecter of tradition wherever he found it. Not to be outdone, his disciple, together with his "Cool Britannia" predecessor, appear to have taken their country as far down paths of multiculturalism and political correctness as any nation on earth. Or at least any nation that doesn't plan to commit suicide. And all with famously stellar results for Britain's violent crime rates, incidence of unwed pregnancy, levels of social cohesion, and other sane measures of national sanity. The net result of both master's and disciple's careers, then, may yet prove to be a Britain far more disdainful of its modern history - far more guilt-ridden, ashamed and revisionist concerning even its 20th-century moral record - than anything even we post-moderns can foresee. And with what dividends, especially to those ultra-revisionists who are convinced Churchill's Britain was fighting the wrong enemy all along, I can only shudder to imagine.
An easier question to answer may be whether, even now, both the master's legacy and the disciple's work have succeeded in producing a more just, more humane, and generally less drunken and debauched British society - or even one able to provide a credible moral alternative for its own disaffected elements. And these include (lest we forget) Britain's apparently growing numbers of potential recruits to jihadism. Granted many of these types are probably unassuageable already. So why not - if I'm reading the Blair/Brown line correctly - why not give them yet more cause to be sickened and disgusted with mainstream British society?
At all events, I do hope these two men's examples will invite us both, Brits and Yanks, to take a second - and kinder - look at certain things whose value we may all too easily deride or minimize in this globally enlightened world of ours. Things like history and tradition, or continuity and precedent. A kinder look, in sum, at all those ways of approaching and exploring the Past that require the use of tools more subtle than bulldozers and jackhammers (or even Orwell's jackboots and truncheons, for that matter). And who knows? Having endured a decidedly ugly and bullying face of Headlong Progress over the past two decades, we may find some form of Conservation starting to look more comely with each passing day.