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.