Monday, December 27, 2010


As the winter nights come upon us early, descending on all around with chill and a darkness deepened by the cold, one thinks back to warmer days--especially those of the almost perfect autumn just past. Not just because of the vivid yellows and reds of the leaves, autumn was well-night perfect this year also because of news from Oslo that the Nobel Prize in literature had been awarded to the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa.

It was commonplace to decry last year's bestowal of the Nobel Peace Prize upon Barack Obama, just as many had ridiculed the decision to give it to Al Gore in 2007, but it is well to remember that the Peace Prize occasionally goes to those who richly deserve it. One thinks, for instance, of Aung San Suu Kyii; and Liu Xiaobo, who won the award this year, certainly deserves the award if anyone does, since he, like Aung, has risked his life in his attempt to bring greater freedom to his countrymen (and thereby also to the world at large, which means, dear reader, to you and me). If the Peace Prize has has an ideologically spotty record, the Prize in Literature recently has been well bestowed. Despite what the fashionable critics say about the irrelevance of the writer's life to his work, it is good to see the occasional writer live out the principles he enjoins in his work--for this reason, it was gratifying that Orhan Pamuk, who has had to leave his native Turkey and beloved Istanbul because of remarks he has made about his countrymen's historic slaughter of Armenians, won the Prize in 2008. Not only does he write impressively, but he has had to pay a price for his views. And last year the prize went to Herta Mueller, a writer who suffered a great deal in her native Romania for speaking out, as much as was possible, against Nikolai Caucescu's brutal regime.

Although he has been to some extent ostracized for his lack of adherence to left-wing dogma, Vargas Llosa hasn't had to suffer as Mueller and perhaps Pamuk have. He does, however, certainly live his beliefs. Early on, he was a devoted Marxist, but as he has grown older his views have moved rightward, and while he is no George W. Bush or Sarah Palin (no one who thinks of himself as a citizen of the world can ever be that), he has felt the pressure because of his views from those among the international intelligentsia with whom he consorts. A number, particularly in Europe, have found his views so far beyond the pale that they have in very strong terms denounced his receiving the Nobel, but to show just how small their pale is, one need only remember that the supposedly reactionary Vargas Llosa espouses essentially unrestricted immigration from poor countries to wealthier ones. (See his essay "Los inmigrantes" in his volume of essays entitled El lenguaje de la pasion, an essay that begins, appropriately enough for so quixotic a thesis, by recounting an experience he had while visiting some friends in La Mancha.)

No, Vargas Llosa's conservativism, which he with reason calls neo-liberalism--in the old nineteenth-century British sense of open trade and general democracy--is a generous thing, born of a large spirit that seems to relish the physical delights of daily existence and move with a genuine concern for the good of his fellow human beings, particularly those in Latin America who because of corruption and kleptocracy have been cheated of a standard of life that might otherwise have been theirs. Over time he has seen again and again how the seductive promises of one Messianic leader after another have deceived the poorly-educated Latin American voter into thinking that there is a short and easy way to national prosperity, with the result that everyone suffers, everyone, that is, except for the Messianic leader. Anyone who thinks that the caricature is a thing of a dimly-remembered past inhabited by Speedy Gonzales and the Frito Bandito need look no further than Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez is hardly more sophisticated than the Caudillo in the 1970s film The In-Laws. But the cast of extras in Venezuela doesn't get to go home at the end of the day--they get to live the movie week after week, month after month, as their economy implodes, their institutions crack up, and foreign investment slips away with the tide. This conviction that real people suffer for the sins of egomaniacs paving their own success with the misery of their countrymen is what seems to have motivated Vargas Llosa's growing conviction, and it certifies his humanity along with his integrity, since it is based not on concern for himself but on concern for those whose potential is often squandered by others who take the easy way to their own material success.

I see, however, that this present essay does what Vargas Llosa's never do, and that is stry much beyond the concrete and particular, so herewith some specific observations. Perhaps his longest essay is his magical memoir El Pez en El Agua, in which he recounts his early life and education in the Peru of the 1950s and, in alternating chapters, his run for the presidency of that country in 1990. Although the campaign was unsuccessful, the early life and education was spectacularly fruitful. It contains a wonderfully rich experience of life in Bolivia and Peru, as a student, a denizen of the bars of Lima, an occasion patron of brothels, as a student of distinguished Peruvian historians, as a cub reporter, aspiring playwright, and, most colorfully of all, husband of a woman sufficiently older and closely enough related to him to be called his "Aunt Julia." He writes about all this with the what he elsewhere attributes to the great Mexican writer Octavio Paz--the language of passion, a writing that clearly delights in the remembrance of the rich fabric as he turns it over in the image-house of memory. This delight comes out very well in the ironic detachment and good humor with which he writes about his own naivete and false steps. And he manages it all in a Spanish whose clarity is such that the beginner in Spanish can relish the entire pageant.

But delightful as this romantic narrative is, the other narrative, the one in which he recounts the presidential campaign of 1990, contains the essential political vision. The narrative glistens with veins of ore like those in the fabled Peruvian silver mines. There are his observations on the dangers of Alain Garcia's nationalization of the private sector over the course of the 1980s: perhaps the greatest cautionary tale is about what happened when the government nationalized the banks. Over time it apparently became difficult for those who didn't support the government to take out the large loans necessary to start businesses. (This produced a particularly striking impression when I read it in the early days of the Obama presidency as the Federal government was bailing out the investment banks. If they government would eventually become a major partner in a major bank, would it--because of separation of Church and State--begin to deny funds for, say, the construction of a large downtown church building? Never mind that now: as we learn this week, the government of New York City is actively engaged in making the controversial case for the construction of the mosque close to Ground Zero.) Another rich insight comes in the chapter entitled "El intelectual barato" ("The cheap intellectual") about those who congratulate themselves on their liberal credentials while being bought off by precisely those corrupt politicos who destroy the very freedoms that these writers claim to cherish. It is the best meditation I know on the subject, one with obvious relevance in our own day when we hear--rather, do not hear--everywhere those who claim to be the boldest for women's rights say nothing, nothing at all, about the almost unimaginable suffering of women in some of the Islamic regimes around the world, nay, some of the Islamic enclaves in Western Europe.

But we are back to where we started. Although he is a first-rate novelist, essayist, and literary critic (his study of Les Miserables is one of the best pieces of criticism I know), he will live enduringly in part because all of this writing flows from the hand and mind of one who believes enough in what he says to have lived the ideals he presses, however self-effacingly, on others.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Don't Blame Us for the Culture Wars

The news is plain: the lame-duck Congress, far more ambitious after its historical chastisement by the voters than it ever seemed before, is on the verge of one of the greatest social innovations in living memory. It will shortly repeal the Clinton-era policy of Don't Ask Don't Tell, thereby allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the U.S. military. What social liberals hail as a great step forward for civil rights, however, may be seen as something else entirely.

One notes, first, that the gain was not entirely honest. Like that other huge innovation in social change--Roe v. Wade--this action is not nearly so forthright as one would wish such sweeping change to be. Long after the fact, we learned that the central fact of Roe v. Wade was a lie: Ms "Roe" had not been raped, as she claimed, but at the time that claim was absolutely necessary to impart to the case a sense of emotional urgency and illustrate the gross injustice of anti-abortion laws. But the fact that the major claim turns out to have been a fabrication has left opponents of abortion bitterly dissatisfied with the ruling of the court and all the more sure of the rightness of their opposition to it.

Something similar will be true in the case of this repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. For the central fact of this case is that it is being enacted by a Congress whose partisan liberalism was soundly repudiated in the last election: the only decent thing to do would be for this Congress to do as little as possible in deference to the overwhelming decision to strip it of its power to do anything. It is as it were a technicality that the Congress has the power at this moment to do anything at all. As they showed yesterday in the matter of the Continuing Resolution, the defeat in November should leave them with very little room to legislate, which is why they abandoned their grandiose plans and left it to the next Congress to produce a budget to fuel our government. With social engineering, however, the stakes are so high that the liberals will take their gains any way they can, even if the gains are tainted by illegitimacy. And so, rather than wait for the slow but more solid progress that would almost certainly have come their way in the wake of changing social attitudes, the social revolutionaries have once again grasped the chance of the moment in order to cause a change that society just at the moment seems not to want.

What is worse, as we have seen again and again in the legal sphere, such change will have very large consequences, which may well be one reason for passing this bill. With repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the pro-homosexual rights lobby has gained immense momentum for the cause of homosexual marriage. The cry will shortly go up that if homosexuals are able to serve--indeed, to die for--their country, the country cannot possibly deny them their right to marry. They will now have legal standing in the most visible, honorable, and effective branch of the Federal Government, and so there can be no logic to any other branch of government, Federal or local, denying them full legal right to marry. So, as with abortion, this enormous change in social policy will be effected by technical maneuvres, not by what would be far better for the nation--a hard won and organically developed social consensus.

The sense of alienation produced in conservatives will be strengthened by the sense that compomise with other side is impossible. We would do well to remember that Don't Ask Don't Tell was itself the grand compromise. Traditionalists did not want to change the long-standing ban on homosexuals in the military; homosexuals wanted to overturn it. Don't Ask Don't Tell was a compromise that allowed both sides to split the difference: homosexuals could serve, so long as they didn't flaunt their status. That was the compromise, but the compromise for the past few years has been denounced as immoral. The only alternative, then, is not to allow compromise--to let one camp have its way entirely while the other is left with nothing. Those liberals who decry the partisan spirit in Washington would do well to remember who it was that in this instance repudiated and destroyed the compromise. They now have the policy they wanted, but they have gained it at the cost of alienating very many people who in the past had shown themselves able to work toward shared solutions. On this issue at least, it is not the traditionalists who have shown inflexibility.

Years ago, when at the 1992 Republican National Convention Pat Buchanan called for sending the National Guard to help suppress the rioting in Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodny King verdict, I was stunned to hear the liberal news anchors say that Buchanan was calling for a culture war. In truth, Buchanan (with whom Meridian Heat disagrees on any number of issues) was firing one round in a war that had been declared by the social liberals back in the 1960s, when they began vigorously to pursue policies that they knew would provoke, upset, and incite bitter reaction in the majority of the American people. Once again we witness such a move. Months from now, however, the liberal elite in the media will point out that the fault lies with those who resent the ruse; and those who, in a thoroughly discredited Congress acting on a technicality decided to pass a highly controversial bill that will have very large social consequences will be spoken of as entirely blameless. Those who object to this manner of making sausages will be dismissed as the provocateurs, while the sausage makers will wonder how anyone could possibly object to the process. As always, irony abounds in democratic politics. Sometimes, however, it is well to point those ironies out.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Islam and Pluralism

"The best lack all conviction while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."--W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"

A recent email controversy with a friend about the possibility of whether moderate Muslims in Western countries will truly accept the pluralism of democratic societies has set me wondering about what exactly pluralism is and whence it comes.

Pluralism seems to be an Enlightenment ideal, most obviously informing such late-eighteenth-century documents as the Constitution or the Universal Declaration of the Rights of man. In part, pluralism surely arises from the conviction that--as the Declaration of Independence states--all men are created equal and therefore, as the Declaration goes on to imply, any given person does not have the right to impose his beliefs on others. Strictly speaking, however, the Declaration enumerates in what ways we are equal: in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Here the Declaration does not speak so much of religious or philosophical pluralism, and even where the Constitution does address this matter, it does so only by limiting the power of the Federal government in this area.

One wonders, however, if that is the entire story. We allow a variety of faiths to exist in our society because we do not believe that a believer in one has greater legal standing than a believer in another, but perhaps we allow this variety for another, less positive, reason. In fact, I wonder whether pluralism does not also (and paradoxically) stem from skepticism. Skepticism as a mainstream philosophy arises in the West during the Renaissance, and two well-known skeptics will illustrate the point very well. Both the French essayist Montaigne and the English essayist and statesman Francis Bacon were skeptics, in that they believed that human reason was a flawed thing that tended often to misprision and error. They believed that much of the what in the Middle Ages had been accepted as certain had to be subjected to careful scrutiny and that since it is difficult for man to know things, he may well know less than he traditionally thought he did.

Such skepticism, of course, is essential for scientific progress, and it is no coincidence that Bacon is seen as one of the great Renaissance prophets of science in Europe. Skepticism grew in influence over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; in England (at least) such writers as Hobbes, Locke, and Hume asserted that all knowledge comes to us through our senses, thereby practically denying Divine revelation as a means to knowledge. What skepticism gained for science, however, it began to lose for faith, and long before Matthew Arnold wrote "Dover Beach" in the early 1850s, the Sea of Faith had begun its "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar."

In just such a climate--in which enlightened opinion was losing the medieval certainty about religion--the modern nation-state was born. This nation-state was populated, to be sure, by passionate believers, but while most of these believers were Christians, they included also some Christians of a rather unorthodox variety, such as Quakers, and others, like Deists, who were not strictly speaking Christians at all. It seems entirely plausible that the system of pluralism that marks the American founding or the birth of the modern European nation state rests upon a skeptical foundation--i.e., since it was difficult to be certain of fundamental truth, we shouldn't privilege one conviction over another, and so all faiths were welcome that (whatever their internal claims to certainty) at least respected this climate of pluralism based on a certain intellectual humility.

Islam, however, has never doubted itself. While it has tolerated the existence of other faiths, it has relegated them to a clearly second-place position, the philosophical basis for which is that Islam is the one right path and that others are wrong, though Islam agrees that as a matter of historical fact some groups still cling to these erroneous faiths. The Islam that seems to be projecting itself around the world seems not to be infected with the skeptical self-doubt that has infected Western thought and has produced a climate in which since Western man is uncertain about matters of faith he will accept all as equally certain (or uncertain). Into this scheme Islam does not readily fit, since it seems not fundamentally to question itself.

From this, what follows? First, the skepticism of the West is both a good thing and a bad thing. It allows a plurality of philosophical belief, but it does in the end privilege skepticism itself. To the effect that skepticism is more closely allied to science, materialism, and agnosticism, the West tends to privilege these positions over Christian belief, as witness Supreme Court rulings on what may and may not be taught in the public schools. And the certainty of Islam is likewise good and bad. It is good in the sense that it animates Muslim faith and bad because so much of the energy inherent in Islam manifests itself by destroying those who oppose it. If, however, the narrative of West has for the past several centuries been in large part a narrative of skepticism, then Islam, by definition, will have great difficulty fitting in and may in fact pose an existential threat.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


If one begins, as Aristotle recommends, with a definition, then we might define corruption as the a person in a group or organization making decisions (i.e., using his power) for his own benefit rather than for the benefit of the whole. Corrupt behavior, therefore, which sacrifices the good others to one's own interests, is considered craven and contemptible. The opposite of corruption is heroism, since the hero is almost defined as one who sacrifices his own good--sometimes to the point of his life--for the good of others. One need only look at the roots of our culture to see how much Western society values the heroic and despises the opportunistic: from the self-serving behavior of Agamemnon at the beginning of the Iliad, which causes a complicated skein of bitterness and tragedy, to the heroic, sacrificial love of Christ which resolves the central problem of humanity, Western society has always valued the hero and despised the corrupt. One might observe a paradox in this matter: Western society is indeed individualistic, but the individualism that we seem most to value is that which distinguishes the individual who gives the most to the most.

American society, more than perhaps any other, seems to disdain corruption. If the definition of corruption offered above is accurate, then the Declaration of Independence is not only primarily a denunciation of corruption--a long list of the tyrannical decisions made by King George for his own benefit rather than the benefit of the colonists--but also an assertion of heroic self-sacrifice since at the end despite all odds the signers pledge to give up all they personally value to the point of their lives in order to end this corruption. And if the Constitution, as has often been observed, is a document that prevents the accumulation of power in the hands of a few individuals by encouraging decentralization and at times conflict, then what is that document but a great plan to make corruption as difficult as possible?

Earlier in modern history, the accumulation of power that made corruption possible (nay, even likely, though not inevitable) was aided by a virtually monolithic news media that was relatively left wing. (I have often been amused by how very quickly those who told me in the 1980s that there was no such thing as media bias have claimed with horror that Fox News is biased.) But with increasing rapidity, the new media (this is such a commonplace that I yawn writing it) have decentralized the production and distribution of news, and the American people now have multiple sources of information, which allows them to make more informed decisions about politics--and in particular allows them to see when an individual, group, or organization is corrupt, i.e., acting primarily in their own interest, rather than in the interest of others.

And this ability to interrogate those in power has made corruption less possible in recent years. As the sheer power of the government grows and therefore the temptation to corruption increases, simultaneously the risk of corrupt behavior becomes more pronounced. It is now difficult to remember, but the elections of 1994, which swept Republicans into power in the House of Representatives for the first time in half a century, was a response to the massive corruption, epitomized by the House Post Office scandal. And people heard about this corruption through the new medium of talk radio, which mercilessly flogged the issue of Democrat corruption. Republicans themselves grew so used to Congressional power that they in turn grew corrupt. The practice of earmarks, for example, is a precise example of corruption--the spending of money primarily to further the career of the person casting the vote to spend the money--and such spending, along with other examples of corruption, such as the sexual misbehavior of powerful Republicans on Capitol Hill, met condign reproof in the elections of 2006.

Now, in 2010, we have many pundits and prognosticators who explain to us the various psychological reasons why voters are moving in droves towards the Republican Party. But it is not possible to believe that we have a massive ideological shift in two short years. The reasons are complex, of course, but surely a major (if not the major) reason for the current polls is that Americans have grown impatient with the corruption they see in Democratic Washington. When legislators routinely refused to listen to the expressed will of the people and voted for health-care reform in a patently corrupt process in which special favors were given to some representatives to secure their votes and assure victory, people saw it as an abuse of power. When people hear Candidate Obama decrying holding enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay and then see him continue the practice, or speak of the immorality of rendition and then continue (if not increase) the practice, they begin to get the feeling that this man who seemed during the campaign to use words to heal, transcend, inspire (in short to use language for the benefit of others) was in fact using words simply to increase his own power.

The fitting end to such corruption is that power be taken away from the corrupt who use it for their own benefit. This is the real meaning of the Tea Party. It is a manifestly anticorrupt movement. It has no individual or group of individuals who benefit from its power: it elects unlikely people who are expected to govern not in their own interest but for the good of those who elected them. This is why the Tea Partiers prefer candidates who pledge to eschew earmarks. This is why the ancestors of the Tea Partiers liked term limits: because those too prevent the accumulation of too much power in the hands of the few. And, finally, this is why the watchword of the season is "the Constitution." That is short-hand for promoting a system that limits corruption and encourages genuine, heroic statesmanship that sacrifices personal advantage to the good of the governed.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I'm Back

After almost two months of lassitude--induced no doubt by this (blasted) Meridian heat--I have returned. Not because it's any cooler (it isn't: it might as well be mid-July around here) but because conscience has pricked me into action. That and the withering example of the early Rudyard Kipling, whose correspondence I have been reading in the excellent edition of Thomas Pinney, recently published. So when he worked in what is now Lahore, Pakistan in the 1880s, Kipling would regularly complain to his correspondents that on such and such a summer's day he would have plied his trade as a journalist for 10 or 12 hours that day, when temperatures were 115 degrees, with a low the previous evening of 90. So if he can do that without ice or airconditioning, a far lesser mortal with all the comfortable advantages of technology can, well, do far less but at the very least do something.

And so, rather than merely thinking about such matters as the success of Sara Palin in picking winners in Republican primaries across the country or President Obama telling us that Muslims have the Constitutional right to build a mosque at Ground Zero without telling us also that Molly Norris, the Seattle journalist now in hiding because of death threats stemming from her asking readers to draw cartoons of Mohammed, has the Constitutional right to live free from such molestation--rather, I say, than merely thinking about such things, I have resolved once again to think about these things with fingertips on keys, as it were, and inform the desperately waiting world just what I think about these matters.

But first things first. Since I have been a sluggard, and since too quick exercise after a lull is bad for the body, I will conclude today with a poem by the later Kipling. Although he wrote it when some say he was past his prime, it is a poem that bears very careful reading, not least because so many of the sentiments it contains can profitably be applied to our own elitists who decry the achievements of the United States in securing liberty for others around the globe. Enjoy.


"The eradication of memories of the Great War. -SOCIALIST GOVERNMENT ORGAN

The Socialist Government speaks:
THOUGH all the Dead were all forgot
And razed were every tomb,
The Worm-the Worm that dieth not
Compels Us to our doom.
Though all which once was England stands
Subservient to Our will,
The Dead of whom we washed Our hands,
They have observance still.

We laid no finger to Their load.
We multiplied Their woes.
We used Their dearly-opened road
To traffic with Their foes:
And yet to Them men turn their eyes,
To Them are vows renewed
Of Faith, Obedience, Sacrifice,
Honour and Fortitude!

Which things must perish. But Our hour
Comes not by staves or swords
So much as, subtly, through the power
Of small corroding words.
No need to make the plot more plain
By any open thrust;
But-see Their memory is slain
Long ere Their bones are dust!

Wisely, but yearly, filch some wreath-
Lay some proud rite aside-
And daily tarnish with Our breath
The ends for which They died.
Distract, deride, decry, confuse-
(Or-if it serves Us-pray!)
So presently We break the use
And meaning of Their day!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Narrative Freedom

After a summertime hiatus, I return to annoy, vex, or stultify.

Having recently seen the new movie Salt, I have been musing lately on stories and narrative, with which we are beset. Virtually all movies tell stories; so do the television shows that we watch every night. And then there are the novels--whether on the page or on the electronic device--which are apparently still thriving. What is thriving most strongly, however, are the popular novels, meant almost purely for entertainment. Literature exists to instruct and delight, Horace said just a few years B.C. in his Ars Poetica; as if to prove his point, Christ often taught in parables, which do just what Horace enjoined--teach by telling an entertaining story. And this is one major reason that popular novels aren't nearly so good as more artistically-designed works of literature, for while novels like Twilight entertain wonderfully, they fail to teach people much. If they teach anything, they simply recycle bromides that any sensitive reader will have known long since. This I take it is the basis for Harold Bloom's critique of the Harry Potter books: while many praise the books because they at least get children to read, Bloom argues that what they prompt children to read is Stephen King.

No, truly good fiction engages the mind and brings it to ideas that it had not previously considered. And herein lies a perennial gift of the truly good novel: that it is often uneasy with the status quo, which is a valuable gift in an authoritarian country. In The Curtain, Milan Kundera makes this point at some length, and it is as sound a point of criticism as one can find. The good and great novel is often at odds with the ruling orthodoxy, and that is usually a very good thing. Obvious examples come readily to mind: it was fiction that began to peel the lid back from the evil Soviet regime, among them Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, and Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The powerful effect of such work in freeing the mind caught in the totalitarian trap is wonderfully described in Zhengguo Kang's memoir Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China (Norton: 2007), in which one of Kang's great steps toward disillusionment with Mao's regime comes when he is penalized precisely for ordering a copy of Dr. Zhivago from a library in Moscow. And that freedom of mind is a great gift to all of us, for the world is better off with Kang's book than without it; the logical extension of this insight is that the world would be a much, much better place if Mao's 70 million victims had been allowed to live and all Chinese had been free over the past 60 years to pursue medicine, science, and the arts.

It is not entirely clear what lies behind the power of the novel to resist authoritarian regimes. Perhaps it is the way in which, as Aristotle points out, art imitates reality, and the frank discussion of reality is precisely what the authoritarian regime, with its reliance on lies and disinformation, cannot abide. I wonder if its power might also derive from what Ian McEwan's fictional novelist Briony Tallis asserts is the novelist's God-like power to arrange the fictional world as (s)he wishes (though her use of that power in McEwan's Atonementis--on my reading--far from beneficial). And, as God is Truth and authoritarian governments cannot stand Truth, so they have shown over the past century that they also cannot abide God. Inded, as Dostoevski, another revolutionary novelist ill at ease in the society of his day, puts it, "Where there is no God, anything is permitted." The totalitarian state must remove God's presence before it can act on its most inhumane desires.

But the authoritarianism challenged by the novel does not always have to be hard to be threatened by the good work of fiction. One reason (among many) that McEwan is so commanding a writer is that he does not acquiesce easily in the current attitudes of the Western intellectual elite. In his novel Saturday, set in the first third of this decade, the invasion of Iraq has recently occurred, and McEwan allows two of his main characters to make cogent arguments both against the invasion and for it. One can imagine how the evenhandedness of his treatment, so true to the complextity of opinion in a liberal democracy, must have offended the intellectuals most likely to read his book. So also in Atonement, the fact that the great sin of the novel is a false accusation of rape flies in the face of much of the sanctimonious attitudes of the present day, according to which the male is always the aggressor and the female always the victim. In a culture regularly fed such ideas, McEwan's plot serves to remind us that reality is more complex than those in power (whether politically or culturally) find it convenient to say.

This isn't to say that the hostility of the good novel to current assumptions doesn't at times grow tiresome. For one who holds dear much of that attacked so ponderously in Samuel Butler's Way of All Flesh, I find the book tiresome in the extreme, though it certainly played a role, as did Strachey's Eminent Victorians in helping modern culture sharply deride a society which, for all its flaws, produced much that was very good indeed. On the other hand, the novels of Dickens generally (and Hard Times and The Old Curiosity Shop particularly) must have been enormously educational for those who read them in the mid-Victorian era and must have helped to further some of the great reform movements of the period. The same is true of a book like Uncle Tom's Cabin here in America. And it certainly is true of such European masterpieces as Gogol's Dead Souls, which movingly ridicules the very corrupt system of serfdom as practiced in nineteenth-century Russia, or Hugo's Les Miserables, which, like all of Hugo's novels, is animated in part by his indignation against accepted social practices of his time.

The cheap, best-selling novels (of which there were plenty when Dickens, Gogol, Stowe, and Hugo were writing) don't engage the mind in this way. They spark the adrenalin, or they address the heart; they do not, however, teach us much about life, and when we put them down, we remain unchanged, except in the most superficial ways. And so I offer as my review of Salt that while it always engages the eyes, which are preoccupied with Angelina Jolie and with Angelina Jolie performing feats of derring do that pin the viewer's eyes to the screen, it doesn't teach us anything that we didn't learn from watching Jason Bourne or James Bond.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Technology of Terror

I began life as a conservative, a happy inheritance from my father, who was an instinctive conservative brought up in rural Oklahoma and a career officer and combat veteran in the U.S. Army. I cut my intellectual teeth on William F. Buckley, Jr., a stray reference from whom sent me off to read Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France," which has rightly been called the foundational text of modern conservatism. So enchanted was I with Burke--and the way in which he enlisted the arguments of Shakespeare's Duke of York against Richard II's seizure of private property and those of Dryden on the importance of the monarchy in "Absalom and Achitophel"--that I wrote about Burke in college and graduate school, thereby establishing an intellectual basis for my political convictions. All of which is to say that from early days I was in what is now called the paleo-conservative camp. But that camp, I now see, emphasizes the unchanging elements of human existence and says in effect that an understanding of human nature as it has always been furnishes us with a sufficient basis for political principles. In this way, the paleo-conservatives, invaluable as are their contributions to political thought, overlook the importance of technology, which, if it isn't slowly altering human nature is at least so powerfully and ineradicably changing our environment as to suggest important refinements in the way we think about politics.

This realization, I think, is one of the most important insights of the neo-conservatives, who helped formulate, for instance, the Bush doctrine of preemptive war, an innovation which is justifiable only because technology has so radically altered the conditions of life. When leaving office, George Washington could well enjoin the nation to a kind of isolationism; now, however, in a world of ICBMs and international suicide attacks, such isolationism and so strictly defensive a military posture is almost impossible. Hence it is no surprise that Robert Byrd, who passed away today, was so proud of his vote opposing the invasion of Iraq (an invasion, it is well to remember, supported at the time by virtually all the main Democratic players currently in Washington, DC). Byrd was a very old man, whose attitude toward life was well set before many of the technological advances which have led to what Raymond Aron called "universal history": the condition in which what happens in, say, the Soviet Union matters greatly in the far-flung corners of the globe because the Soviet Union is, through technology, able to project its power to those remote locations. Byrd's speech against the war resolution was an admirable appeal to essentially nineteenth-century conditions of life. He gave a beautifully nostalgic speech, but it was not a speech notable for its clear assessment of life in a world with cruise missiles.

The past century presents a wonderful test case for both the paleo- and neo-conservatives. Pose the question as to why the past century was the bloodiest in recorded human history--with 6 million murdered in Germany, 30 million in the Soviet Union, 70 million, by the estimate of Jung Chang, in Mao's China, to say nothing of the horrors of Cambodia and the smaller terrors of Uganda--and the neos and paleos will very likely give very different answers. For the paleos, the problem lies with the deadly turn toward atheism combined with totalitarianism, essentially a philosophical or spiritual problem, the results of which were so clearly predicted by Nietzsche and Dostoevski in such different idioms. The neos wouldn't disagree, but they would be more willing to emphasize the rise of technology, which allowed unparalleled surveillance, control, and destruction of such vast populations as occurred in the twentieth century.

For this reason, while the paleos are more likely to emphasize what the pundits call the social issues, the neos are more likely to emphasize the libertarian commitment to freedom for all and limitation of government. Not that paleos don't support these values as well, but the energy that they bring to the cause is often less intense than the energy that they devote to the social issues. For this reason, it seems to me, Orwell is perhaps more the patron saint of the neo-conservatives, because of his horror of the fear that can be induced by technology once the people have ceded their liberty to the state; for the paleos, Burke, with his emphasis on the organic nature of society and the proper relation between government and human nature, is the fons et origo of conservative philosophy.

I suppose that I am meandering to a conclusion along the lines of this: while I had for many years viewed myself as the very model of a modern paleo-conservative, I now find myself with an increasing sympathy for the neo-conservative tribe. I don't think that the two approaches are at all incompatible, but I think that we are very ill served by the suspicion (not to say vituperation) with which the paleos sometimes speak of the neos. I think that often the neos and paleos take the views they do less because of a careful reflection upon first principles than because of intuitions or lines of influence and inheritance (as I once did). We would all do well, however, to reflect clearly on the extent to which the neo-conservative weltanschauung is governed by a consciousness of the importance of technology and the very great dangers it poses for tyranny when evil people apply that technology to bad ends. In a more colloquial idiom--we can all be libertarians and then focus on the social conditions that we would like to see uppermost in a society that has been secured from external threats and soft tyrannies at home.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On the Rise

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, perhaps the greatest critic now alive, turned ninety this year in Germany, where he is known as the Pope of literary criticism. He is also a Jew, whose memoir (Mein Leben) of life as a schoolboy in Berlin in the 1930s and as a young man in the Warsaw Ghetto, from which he and his wife barely escaped with their lives, is one of the most meaningful memoirs of life in the past century. It is fitting that for his service to German letters he should have received the Ludwig-Borne Medal for his life's work, and on the occasion, Hynrik Broder offered what he termed a "Laudatio," a speech in praise of Reich-Ranicki.

The speech is most arresting, however, not for what it says about Reich-Ranicki's accomplishments but for what it urges the great critic still to do. Anti-Semitism, says Broder, is on the rise, and even the man of letters no longer can afford himself a purely contemplative life that remains unengaged with the world. At one point in Mein Leben, Reich-Ranicki claims that he is more a citizen of the Republic of Letters than of any currently-recognized nation-state. In his "Laudatio," Broder publicly urges Reich-Ranicki to put his head out into the street and look at what goes on these days in Europe--the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is reaching an alarming intensity, and all good people, not least those who have lived through the worst of anti-Semitism in the past and therefore know first-hand its potential for evil, need to stand firm against it.

Broder's image of putting one's head into the street is perhaps not accidental. Many of the chilling vignettes of life in the Warsaw Ghetto from Mein Leben itself take place in the street--vignettes of wanton cruelty and disrespect toward Jews by German soldiers on patrol. And Reich-Ranicki writes movingly of the Jews who tried to find some type of retreat from the streets within the walls of private apartments, whether to enjoy live music, until such concerts were banned, or to enjoy the comfort of a form of domestic life with one's wife and family. Indeed, Reich-Ranicki and his wife escape by courageously ducking into an empty apartment block as they are in the queue waiting to board the trains for Auschwitz, and, until the liberation of Poland, Reich-Ranicki managed to stay alive by keeping within the walls of a farmer's house in the countryside. So one can certainly understand his desire to live his life in the salon or the library or the offices of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung where he has plied his trade for many years; one can understand his reluctance to engage in the politics of the street.

The image has further resonances. Several years ago, in an interview that he gave to the Neue Zuricher Zeitung, George Steiner, another eminent Jewish European man of letters, speaks chillingly about the new anti-Semetism and how deeply disturbing it is, particularly one imagines for one who, like Steiner, has persistently asked how so cultured a society as Germany of the 1930s could succumb to such barbarity. While speaking about his life as a professor of literature, Steiner talks with passion about how meaningful literature is, and then he qualifies his vision. He speaks of what he calls the Cordelia Complex, the phenomenon of sympathizing so much with the suffering of characters in literature, like Cordelia in King Lear, that we take the literaay creation for the reality and find ourselves unwilling to help the person whose cries we hear coming from the street just outside our window.

By no means do I wish to fault Reich-Ranicki, a very great writer and brilliant interpreter of others' writing. I wish merely to point to a disturbing trend: the rise in a virulent and hateful prejudice, already responsible for a tidal wave of nihilistic destruction, which we had all perhaps once thought behind us forever. But the old heresies, as Chesterton points out, never quite die--indeed, they remain as the most persistent. Perhaps they even triumph if good people remain devoted less to action than to the quiet pleasures of contemplation. Reich-Ranicki has seen much and accomplished much. So has Steiner. It remains for such as Broder to draw the conclusion that it may not be possible to avoid the street; or, to put it another way, the only way to rest peacefully indoors is to know that, partly through our own good work, the street outside our windows is quiet and safe.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Law of the Border

It is a story much underreported in the American press, which perhaps adds another bit of evidence to the Meridian Law of Prominence in Journalism: the importance of a story is in inverse proportion to its appearance in the mainstream press. The Spanish daily El Pais reported two days ago on an attack by drug cartel assassins on a rehab center in the city of Chihuahua in northern Meixco. About this incident two facts immediately stand out. The first is the brutality of it: 19 patients were killed in the attack, carried out with the help of large-caliber weapons; police recovered over 150 shell casings at the scene. (In 2009, 17 people lost their lives in a similar attack in Ciudad Juarez, which abuts the U.S. border, and a total of 40 were killed in this fashion over the course of the past year.) The second salient point is the location. The rehabilitation center exists as a symbol of healing generally, of institutions which tap deep into the springs of what makes us human--compassion for others. More particularly, a rehabilitation center represents life independent of the control of the drug bosses, the decision to overcome one's past and exist as a rational human being exercising one's power to make one's own choices in life. Finally, the rehabilitation center symbolizes those institutions of normal, civic life that contribute to the improvement of society and stand apart from the desires of those who seek for themselves power and wealth by any means possible.

In attacking these places, then, the drug cartels serve notice that they are willing to employ maximum lawless force in order to destroy institutions that would exist apart from their control. The sheer wanton force they use serves not only to punish but also to intimidate anyone who might think in future of trying to live as a free human being.

I don't mean to suggest that such attacks are a daily occurrence in Mexico, but the fact that they happen with some frequency indicates severe pressure on anything that can be called Mexican civil society. The nation that produced Frida Kahlo, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, Octavio Paz, Miguel Jimenez, and Carlos Fuentes is perhaps in danger of losing to violent, lawless erosion those institutions that ensure stability and freedom in a democratic society. As the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa never tires of reminding us, those institutions--an independent judiciary, a military ultimately controlled by civilians, a banking system independent of government control--are absolutely essential for any nation whose citizens are to be free and live lives independent of government control. All dictatorships and failed states around the globe, from the Zimbabwean bush to the near-famine conditions in Somalia, to the sophisticated streets of Moscow, lack the independent institutions that can check the power of the few that would pillage their countries for their own ends.

As many others have pointed out many times, the power of these lawless elements south of the border is an important reason for sealing that international boundary, as we have called for in our second post. That same post shows that we are not anti-immigrant: indeed, we believe that those now here illegally ought to be allowed to stay as guests, without citizenship, but that beginning now we vigilantly try to keep out any others coming here illegally. If we do not, if we continue to refuse to dam the waters, the flood will carry along with the majority of decent, hard-working migrants the jetsam of those who would bring with them the type of violent disregard for the lives of others that can at best cause severe suffering to Americans and at worst destabilize our society.

We hope that the Mexican government--Federal and local--will be able to gain the upper hand and eventually break the power of the narcotrafficers. Until they do, we can only view conditions in Mexico with increasing alarm and insist on containing the situation lest it begin to cause serious problems within our borders. Again: let me clarify that I do not mean that most Mexicans living in the United States are dangerous. What I hope to make clear is that the currently powerful drug cartels are ruthless in a way rarely seen in the past and that if we do not control our borders they may very possibly bring their standard business model of intimidation and violence to our nation.


In a completely unrelated matter, a staffer here at Meridian Heat suggests that the woman Al Gore might have had as paramour was the female robot that famously married a Japanese couple last month.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


A few quick observations today, since time runs short.

1. When the President said two days ago that he was speaking with officials from BP so that he could know whose a** to kick, was he employing the same rhetoric of violence that a couple of months ago liberals said conservatives must never use? I don't fault the President for saying such a thing--he was throwing a bone to those who found him lacking energy in response to his Katrina. It was, in fact, an oddly dispassionate fit of passion, which therefore belied the sentiment, though if one read the statement in a newspaper, one could read it with all the lively inflection that the President's delivery lacked. The larger point, however, is that the President did precisely what the liberal punditry said must never be done. And when they speak so vociferously about such a matter, one gets the feeling that they don't exactly mean what they say. (One needs only to remember that at the time they were "outraged" that Sarah Palin should put on her website a chart designating with something akin to a bullseye liberal incumbents that she would like to see defeated this year, even as several months earlier the National Democratic Campaign Committee had followed the same practice on their website. From which we can deduce that those decrying "violent political speech" were not expressing a principle but lifting a club with which to hit conservatives. How violent.)

2. Speaking of Sarah Palin, she had a very good last night, as the candidates she endorsed in primaries across the country did very well, not least in South Carolina, where Nikki Haley, recently in fourth place according to the polls came within a fraction of one percentage point of avoiding a run-off in her gubenatorial quest. Her surge was due in large part to Palin's endorsement. It was also due to the favor of such grass-roots organs such as and to the preposterous smears against Haley that ended up making the very case against the dank and slimy political climate that Haley proposes to brighten and aerate. I suppose in the end that those three reasons (and there were others, of course) end up being more or less the same. Which is to say that Sarah Palin respresents a politics that rejects the worst of the old backroom dealsmaking as well as a politics that the grassroots find very appealing indeed.

Monday, June 7, 2010

She Knew She Was Right

With apologies to the mid-Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, whose He Knew He Was Right is one of the great political novels in English, I don't intend here to engage in literary criticism--well, perhaps I do, after a manner of speaking.

What I refer to is a person, a shibboleth, in fact, by which, if one reacts to her with disdain, one has secured a reputation as cool, hip, politically correct, and caring about all that is important on the two coasts. On the other hand, if one takes her seriously, by which I mean not reacting to her in fear but listening to what she says and then reacting to it analytically, then one has established himself as a rube, retrograde in his thinking about all that currently constitutes sweetness and light. I refer, of course, to Sarah Palin.

And regarding Sarah Palin I wish to make an observation: about the most important political question of 2008--the question of whether or not Barack Obama was ready to lead this nation--Sarah Palin was thunderously right in her acceptance speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, and all of her critics--the Saturday Nights Live, the Bill Mahers, the New York Timeses, and politically correct snarks of every stripe--were wrong.

To be sure, Presidents often grow in time to exhibit the leadership required of them. President George W. Bush was perhaps when he took office not prepared to lead in a moment of crisis, as shown by his response in the first three or four hours after the strike on the Twin Towers. But within a very few hours after that, he was leading, and in a decisive and inspirational way.

Of course, one could argue that subsequently, after Hurricane Katrina, President Bush did not lead effectively at all. Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether or not he could legally have intervened in a state that did not request his help, he did certainly step in to help the situation--and it did not take him seven weeks (!) to do so. In contrast, President Obama is in a much better situation that was President Bush: he has the example of Bush and Katrina as a guide, and Governor Jindal of Louisiana made it easy for him by quickly specifying what Lousiana needed in order to protect its coast. In taking weeks to respond to Louisiana while the oil was rushing out and moving toward land, and now in making the terrible decision to ban deep-water oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama has managed both not to act when he should have and make a bad decision when he should not have. In light of which, it is worth noting, as recently has, that Karma is not merciful. At the time of Katrina, many warned that it was unfair to judge President Bush by his response to such a disaster; the opportunity, however, was too precious not to seize, and so the media and the pop-culture mavins piled on. In doing so, they set a precedent that's caught a President, as it were, and now many of them don't like the results.

To judge him, then, by their own criteria, I repeat: On the salient question of 2008--whether Barack Obama was prepared to lead this nation--Sarah Palin was correct. Not in the sense that the slick and clever ironists mean who use the term, but in the only sense that matters when one is mugged by reality.

Monday, May 31, 2010


Somewhere beneath the oil oozing and floating in the Gulf of Mexico and the flotilla arrested in the eastern Mediterranean, there still lie combustible tensions over the new law in Arizona aimed at curtailing illegal immigration. It's a fascinating situation: politically, because it insists that the demagogues speak clearly on the issue, legally because it confers new life on the issue, once presumed dead, of the rights of states vis-a-vis the Federal government. Although some wish to keep the issue unresolved because they believe that they can capitalize on political tension, most, I think, wish to reach a fair solution. Herewith, my own.

We need, in the spirit of Burke, to recognize how we have arrived at the condition in which we now find ourselves. The sad truth is that for many years we have refused to police our border. Given that vast numbers of Mexicans and others desired to cross that border, our lack of enforcement was tantamount to an invitation to come into our country. And so the people here illegally are here essentially at our invitation, certainly with our connivance. When they crossed the border, we did not hinder them; when they sought jobs, we allowed it; when they established businesses, bought SUVs, mobile homes, and houses, we did not object. When they had children, those children became American citizens, and when they enrolled their children in the schools, their families became ever more firmly entrenched among our own. We did nothing to stop these newcomers from settling among us. For that reason, we should recognize that their permanent settlement here is with our leave, and it would be cruel--and hardly conservative--now to insist, as some do, that they broke the law and so must go. Yes, they broke the law but in a technical sense, in the sense that we break the law when we disregard the detailed rules of the road that festoon the driver's handbook of every state in America. Most of us violate many of those laws largely because the police refuse to enforce them.

However, letting someone live in the United States is a very different thing from promising that person citizenship: no one who has entered the United States illegally has done so thinking that he has earned the right to citizenship. Hence, while we owe it to our illegal residents to allow them to stay, we owe them nothing in the way of citizenship. Therefore, my specific proposal is this:

1. Seal the border NOW. Simply because we have allowed a massive flow across our southern border in the past does not mean that we are obliged to continue doing so. Despite what the Catholic bishops say, there is no moral obligation to keep the border open. Once the border is sealed, we have every right to deport anyone who manages to cross after that point, since our implicit invitation has been withdrawn.
2. Allow those to stay permanently who came when we did nothing to prevent their crossing. They have begun new lives here, largely on the unstated promise that they could live among us unmolested.
3. Under no circumstances grant these resident aliens citizenship. Citizenship was never part of our tacit bargain, only the prmise of peaceful settlement in a place more stable and more full of promise than the lands they came from. If they choose to recross the border and then apply for the lottery, they should be welcome to do so, like any resident of Japan, Mongloia, the Ukraine, Sweden, or Lesotho.
4. Immediately deport any resident alien found guilty of a felony and seriously prosecute those arrested on suspicion of committing a felony.

Following these guidelines would recognize the situation that we have created and would therefore prevent undue dislocation by revoking a tacit promise that we have made. It would also prevent the problem of a large group of resident non-citizens growing ever larger. Finally, it would have the very great benefit of depriving the demagogues of yet another issue that inflames passions and greatly troubles political discourse.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Another blog? Well may you ask, dear reader: why another amidst hundreds of thousands, if not millions? The answer, though not easy to find, still less perhaps to admit. One answer, though, given 400 years ago by old Robert Burton himself, in that gigantic book that would surely have been a blog if blogs then were: I write of melancholy, said he, to avoid melancholy. That is as much as to say, as they often say about the mountain, because it is there. Or, to be philosophical, since man is the rational animal and his reason is most perfectly expressed in speech, in writing, to speak, to write, to put into words our ideas is to be most rational, most human. And so whether some readers or none or few do hang upon this blog that shakes against the folly of this world, I am happy to think or try to think and then to try to put such thought into words.

And speaking of the folly of this world, our Supreme Executive in Chief, the esteemed President of the United States, said yesterday that he finds unacceptable the finger pointing among those other executives, the ones responsible in whole or in part for the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It boggles the mind that the President who at least in speech has done little more for the first year and a half of his administration than point the finger at George W. Bush should be upset at those who blame others for the circumstances they are in. Indeed, in pointing the finger at these executives, the President (who blames President Bush for not being immediately on the scene just after Katrina swept the Gulf Coast) is himself blaming them for the current disaster, for which, if we press his logic in regard to President Bush, he bears some of the blame. This is postmodernism at what would be its most entertaining if there were not so much at stake, both in the livelihoods of many on the Gulf Coast and in the political discourse of our nation.