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.