Monday, August 22, 2011

The Oracle of New Haven

In an interesting recent interview (posted here) passed along the today by a good friend, the Yale English professor and celebrated intellectual Harold Bloom speaks on a variety topics, primarily the five books of literary criticism that have most shaped his own work in that field. Along the way he mentions two that would be at the top of any humanist's list--Ernst Robert Curtius' magisterial European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages and M. H. Abrams' essential study of Romantic literature and aesthetics, The Mirror and the Lamp. Not only does Bloom rightly praise these books, but he does so in a thoughtful, insightful way.

Then, unfortunately, Bloom turns to politics, where his vision seems far dimmer. In a completely gratuitous observation, Bloom arguing for the importance of an educated populace, says that Tea Party is an example of the dangers posed to democracy by an essentially uneducated rabble. Going still further, Bloom insists that the Tea Party resembles the early supporters of Hitler who brought him to power and then ... well, we all know what they ended up being responsible for. For several reasons, this comparison is laughable. Indeed, in the area of mob psychology, one would do better to read Ann Coulter's Demonic, which explores that topic in some (albeit polemical) depth, than the half-baked musings of Harold Bloom.

First, as many have pointed out--chief among them Mark Steyn--it is rather remarkable that America's mob, if we can take the Tea Party as such, is not a mob that clamors for power or its own benefit; instead of demanding that the government spend more to make their lives easier, Tea Partyers plead with the government not to spend money unnecessarily, not to provide the student loans, medical benefits, inexpensive pension plans, subsidized cars, and government sinecures that might well improve their lives and their families' over the near term. Agree with them or not, one has to admire a political movement that takes as its chief aim that the government not grow larger, not control more of its citizens' lives, when it might be taking to the streets demanding government largesse as so many other groups in our recent history have done. As Steyn points out, we have recently witnessed in England, France, and Greece large destructive mobs angrily denouncing the mildest of government austerity measures, burning buildings, beating spectators, looting shops, and spreading fear and panic among their fellow citizens. These things the Tea Partyers have not done: indeed, last summer, when the Democrats in Congress and the mainstream media tried desperately to prove that the Tea Partyers were unruly and dangerous demonstrators hurling racial epithets, they found not a shred of evidence on behalf of their claims. In a world awash with cell-phone photography instantly transmissible around the globe, no one anywhere was able to provide any evidence at all to show that the Tea Party was violent, racist, intemperate, or anything other than a peaceful, if vocal, group expressing to the world their deep conviction that America is on the brink of financial ruin. A thesis, by the way, for which one can easily find evidence far more abundant than one can for the theory that the Tea Party is destructive. (One staggering statistic, relayed early on in Mark Steyn's new book, After America: at current levels of spending, the United States will by 2020 require 20% of global GDP simply to finance American government debt. To object--even strenuously--to such ruinous policies is hardly destructive: on the contrary, it is the single most constructive thing the average American citizen can do to save the country from permanent financial collapse.)

One might point out further that if he had wanted an example of a truly destructive, thoroughly uneducated mob, Bloom might have looked toward the flash mobs wilding through the Wisconsin State Fair or the streets of Philadelphia. They are truly destructive, since their activity offers nothing beneficial and seems the definition of nihilism in action, and one suspects that the folk that comprise these gangs are far less educated even than the Tea Party.

And, finally, there is the matter of education itself that Bloom raises. It is in fact true that many of Hitler's violent early followers were indeed restless, uneducated thugs, frustrated with their inability to get ahead economically. It is equally true, however, as George Steiner frequently points out, that the society that not only allowed Hitler to come to power but which in large part abetted his ascent was the most well educated society in the world to its time: a society who humanistic education perhaps remains unmatched even in our own day. It was, after all, Martin Heidegger who spoke so lovingly of the "fair hand" of "Der Fuhrer." As Clive James charateristically put it in a review of Primo Levi's Drowned and the Saved, "It is undoubtedly true that some people who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But some people who can't remember the past aren't. More disturbingly, many of those who can remember the past are condemned to repeat it anyway. Plenty of people who remembered the past were sent to die in the extermination camps. Their knowledge availed them nothing, because events were out of their control. One of the unfortunate side effects of studying German culture up to 1933, and the even richer Austrian culture up to 1938, is the depression induced by the gradual discovery of just how cultivated the two main German-speaking countries were. It didn't help a bit. The idea that the widespread study of history among its intellectual elite will make a nation-state behave better is a pious wish. Whether in the household or in the school playground, ethics are transmitted at a far more basic level than that of learning, which must be pursued for its own sake: learning is not utilitarian, even when--especially when--we most fervently want it to be."

And there's the rub. When Burke spoke of an untutored populace as dangerous for a free society, he didn't mean untutored in academic subjects. (If that had been his point, then the more we gather knowledge over the centuries, the better our governments would be, which is not exactly the type of ameliorative view of history that a conservative like Burke would embrace. If it were true, then we would be far wiser than Lincoln, to say nothing of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay.) No, by "untutored," Burke meant untutored in the virtues. One doesn't need to be a polymath to know that it's better to have a hard-working, honest, caring neighbor than one who memorizes the encyclopedia; a knowledge of classical Greek is fine, but a knowledge of one's limitations and the willingness to mend them is far more profitable to the average citizen and his neighbors. Or, as John McCain would say, character--not sheer education--is destiny.

In his interview, Bloom makes some wonderful points about literature and its proper study. But in speaking about politics, the dauntingly learned Bloom shows that he lacks not nowledge but wisdom. He might have looked to Noam Chomsky as a cautionary tale. Chomsky is a linguistic theorist of unmatched brilliance, but when it comes to politics, he is simply about as wrong as it is possible for a person to be. In the classroom, we will learn from Chomsky and Bloom. Outside the classroom, on the streets of the Republic, where all, no matter what our intellectual achievements, are equal, we will be guided by the wisdom placed within us by God and, if we have character, treasured--a wisdom honed by humility and experience.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Silent Treatment?

According to Chris Wallace on today's Special Report, both he and Brett Baier have received a flood of emails over the past couple of days from supporters of Texas Congressman Ron Paul demanding more coverage of their man, who finished a very close second to Michelle Bachmann in the straw poll at Ames, Iowa, on Saturday. At first blush, they have a point: Rep. Bachmann has received a great deal of press for her showing; Texas Governor Rick Perry, who didn't even compete at Ames, has received as much; surely the man who almost won the poll ought also to receive his fair share of attention?

As is often the case with Ron Paul, however, the closer look tells the tale. The Congressman is very well known for standing against wasteful government spending, primarily because such spending exceeds Rep. Paul's strictly conservative interpretation of Constitutional limits on the role of government. But closer scrutiny shows that Ron Paul, like many others in Congress, has voted for Federal spending (on such projects as funding research on the reproductive lives of shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico) that happens to benefit his constituents but which also seems exactly the kind of spending that he criticizes others for receiving. While TMH agrees with much of what Rep. Paul preaches, we also find some of that preaching a bit unconvincing since his actions in part belie his ideas.

And a closer look at the coverage of Paul's campaign reveals a deeper story than a media conspiracy to ignore him to death. The serious media, interested in careful analysis about what is likely to happen over the long term in the campaign, does not wish to devote a great deal of time to a candidate who simply cannot win the nomination. And his inability to win the nomination is emphatically not due to a lack of coverage by the media. The fact of the matter is that Paul's views are idiosyncratic: because so many of his supporters believe that 9-11 was "an inside job" (a view that Paul has been somewhat reluctant to repudiate), because he believes in an essentially isolationist foreign policy, because he believes we should end the Federal Reserve and return to the gold standard, his views are out of the main stream of Republican opinion. That in turn means that his support in the Ames straw poll is extremely solid but that it could not grow significantly larger. To be sure, Bachmann defeated him by only a narrow margin, but, if the field had been smaller, she could well have beaten him by more.

Since Bachmann--and Pawlenty and Romney and Gingrich and Cain--are in the mainstream of Republican thought, any of them might have won. If fewer other candidates had participated in the poll, Bachmann would have received more votes because some who supported, say, Pawlenty might, if he had not been running, supported Bachmann. But because Paul is so different from the other candidates, it is unlikely that in a smaller field he would have attracted more support than he did. Now that Pawlenty has dropped out of the race, his support will drift to most of the other candidates; but because Paul is so unique, very little of Pawlenty's support will swing his way. Those who can be attracted to Paul support him already; since because of his views he is unlikely to gain support as the field inevitably narrows in the coming months, his slice of the pie cannot get any bigger: in fact, relative to the other candidates, his slice will only grow smaller. For this reason, he cannot ultimately win, and no amount of media attention will change that fact because it will not essentially change Paul's platform. On the other hand, Bachmann might win; so might Perry or Romney; so conceivably might Gingrich or Santorum--and for that reason, the media will pay more attention to them than to Paul.

As Paul's supporters point out, media bias certainly exists, but that is true of the mainstream media (think of the Newsweek cover of Michelle Bachmann), not of Fox News, for whom Baier and Wallace work. They do indeed cover other candidates more than they cover Congressman Paul, but not because they wish to silence him. Rather, they realize that the very passion of his supporters and uniqueness of his positions ensure that he is always at the peak of his fortunes, and that peak is simply not enough to make him a serious long-term contender. Congressman Paul is admirable in many ways, not least because his candidacy invites people to think seriously about important issues that we ignore at our peril. Ideas alone, however, do not ensure political viability, and since Paul is in the current political climate not viable as a first-tier candidate, he will not receive first-tier political coverage.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

It is Hard to Grow Up

In 1999 the French novelist and thinker Pascal Bruckner published a book-length essay entitled La tentation de l'innocence, in which he ponders the question of why in the West--the freest, most affluent society in the history of the world--so many people purport to be discontented, alienated, and oppressed. Ultimately, he arrives at the conclusion that many westerners, deprived of much in the way of spiritual education, satisfy themselves with a consumerist mentality, viewing themselves primarily as physical beings, whose endless desires are endlessly catered to by a capitalistic society that encourages consumerism so as to foster its own wealth. As a result, many in the West have lost touch with basic human values--particularly freedom, which allows individuals through rational choice and hard work to make meaningful and ultimately virtuous and happy lives.

Instead, says Bruckner, many in western society have adopted an attitude of passivity and often of infantilism, since doing so assures them that like the infants they aspire to be, their needs and desires will be met, not so much by their own parents but by the state, which in alarming ways acts ever more, as time goes on, in loco parentis. And acting like infants entails adopting the pose of the victim. Whoever is a victim, says Bruckner, is entitled to the sympathy of society, to the protection of the paternal state, to a life free from the possibility of catastrophe or failure. Indeed, Bruckner gives several examples of even radical Muslims who play the ultimate trump in the game of sympathy--identifying themselves with the Jews of the Holocaust. For whoever can claim to be currently in the position of European Jewry in the middle decades of the last century has it bad; no misfortune in history, as Timothy Snyder has shown again in his masterful Bloodlands, compares with that of the Jews subjected to the Holocaust.

Bruckner provides good evidence for his thesis--some shocking, some (as in the case of the woman who, after bathing her poodle and then attempting to dry it in her microwave, sued the manufacturer of the oven for not issuing a warning against using it to dry live animals) amusing (depending, of course, on how one feels about poodles)--and all of it adds up to a depressing assessment for those who subscribe to Edmund Burke's belief that free societies require a virtuous populace. More depressing still when one reflects that were he writing the book today Bruckner might find in the riots currently under weigh in England (to say nothing of the anti-austerity demonstrations in Greece, Spain, and Israel) more examples to hand than he could possibly use.

But it strikes me that Bruckner's analysis also goes far toward explaining our present discontents here in our fretful American summer of 2011. At a time that requires robust leadership we have in the highest office in the land a President who embodies the infantilization of culture lamented in Bruckner's book. Does Bruckner argue that we are plagued by people with no discernible values? One might ask what President Obama's core values are--besides his obvious thirst for reelection. As many have pointed out, "hope and change" is curiously devoid of any specific content, since the phrase can mean anything one wants it to. Indeed the mantra functions very like a mirror: the content it provides is only a view of whoever happens to look into it at the moment. If Bruckner writes about a populace in which everyone is convinced of his own uniqueness and therefore his own special right to privileges that do not extend to others, one is reminded of the sheer amount of money our President and his family have spent on junkets and self-serving indulgences afforded by the office he holds. And if in Bruckner's view many westerners behave like children because they wish not to hold responsibility and are therefore free from the need to act, one is reminded starkly of President Obama's incessant, ungracious habit of blaming others for our current problems. He is never responsible; Democrats--even when for two years they held the White House and large majorities in the Congress (including for a time a supermajority in the Senate)--are never to blame. His habit of never calling for and never proposing a budget (except for his feckless budget in the spring, which even every Democrat in the Senate voted against) demonstrates that he wishes to enjoy the office without ever taking the responsibility of holding a position, itself a perfect illustration of what Bruckner means when he writes of the citizen as child.

If Bruckner's book, however, helps us see that a little thoughtful cultural criticism can help us diagnose pressing difficulties, the book also yields melancholy reflections as well, such as the fear that if the problem was alarming enough in France and Europe to call for attention twenty years ago, might the malady have now crossed the Atlantic and come to our shores? Does the fact that we have in the Oval Office a leader who perfectly embodies the infantile behavior that Bruckner discusses mean that America is now very far down the yellow brick road to the puerile utopia of Oz, or is Barack Obama a cautionary tale, a warning that if we are not careful we could end up like Europe--i.e., at the mercy of the marauding yobs currently setting Britain aflame? It is difficult to know, but the next election should go far toward answering that question.

Whether or not Barack Obama represents American character, one thing is certain: his current lack of leadership should come as no surprise at all. He has spent the past three years complaining about the state of the Union, and with some justification, for we are in difficult circumstances. But a complaint is a dodge. It is an admission of powerlessness; it is an assertion that nothing is to be done but, as Shakespeare's very passive Richard II puts it when faced with the great crisis of his reign, "sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings." It is an admission by the passive man-boy that he is not up to the task, that the world is too much for him to handle. The habit of blame in itself tells us that our President has no real solutions. If he did, if he were confident in his principles, if, in short, he were a leader, blame would be irrelevant. He would welcome difficulty for the challenge that it is; he would remind this nation it is great because God has blessed our character with a spirit that rises to a challenge and delights in difficulty, and, as if to illustrate that very truth, he would square his shoulders and get to work. As it is, he blames. He points out tirelessly that he is not responsible. And in so doing he convinces more than any speech he could ever give that indeed he is not responsible--in any sense of the word.