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Nothing New Under the Sun

April 29th, 2009 - 10:36 am

The Same Old Equality of Result

Rather than nitpick about Obama’s envisioned brave new world, I think it wiser to see it in the larger context of age-old divides over the nature of Western democratic and liberal society. Nothing that we have seen proposed since January 20 is novel; everything is merely the promise of the past outfitted with a new snazzier veneer of hope and change.

Take his domestic policies. What overarching philosophy seems reflected in raising taxes, borrowing trillions to spend trillions more on new entitlements, creating a new health care bureaucracy, cap-and-trade, allotting trillions more for education, and the expectation of the appointment of more liberal judges?

It’s old…

In a word, it is adherence to the idea of equality of result rather than an equality of opportunity, the age-old debate that goes back to the Greeks. From Aristotle’s Politics and Plato Laws, we learn of the original dilemma: a stable city-state of roughly similar property owners, who vote as equals, and fight as comrades in the phalanx, tragically, but inevitably, soon becomes tragically  unequal.

Divide the land up equally to found the polis; give everyone an similarly-size plot (klêros); and then health, luck, brains, accident, strength, ambition, character, and a myriad of other factors, some understandable, some capricious, conspire to create inequality. I agree with Aristotle; I have seen it with families and communities in which equal inheritances soon led to radically different outcomes, as one sibling on rocky ground thrives, while another in deep loam starves; one town with abundant resources goes broke, while another without natural advantages thrives.

As Aristotle saw, some lose, some expand their original homesteads, and suddenly we have Hoi beltistoi and Hoi polloi-and the rallying cry that someone’s liberty to do as he pleases means that egalitarianism of the lowest common denominator becomes impossible.

American vs. French

The notion of freedom then butts up against equality, as if they are as often antithetical as symbiotic. (NB: note the French Revolutionary sloganeering of “fraternity” and “egalitarianism” versus the American Revolutionary emphasis on “Give me liberty, or give me death”, “Don’t Tread on Me!”, “All men are created equal” [by opportunity rather than by result]. And note Obama’s references to the French ideal.)

In response, the state has two choices to preserve its original ideal of equality (and we see elements of this further debate voiced in the Old Oligarch, Aristolte Plato, Hobbes, Hume, etc, as well as in histories of the middle and late Roman Republic).

One, the state and culture at large can be coercive to ensure a equality of result-in the modern liberal world by high redistributive taxes, generous means-tested entitlements, inflationary monetary policies to diminish the power of capital (in the ancient world by forbidding the alienability of land, mandating the maximum size of estates, coining cheap bronze/silver coated money in vast amounts, redistribution of property, cancellation of debt, etc.).

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Confessions of a Contrarian

April 22nd, 2009 - 5:34 pm

I. I am not on the Obama bus

I followed the Obama senatorial campaign and even his early career in Chicago, and confess I was not impressed. I think on any occasion he announces a moral standard it is reactive—not proactive—and we can be sure it serves as cover for something of questionable morality. So when he says he won’t do something, it usually means he already has. Let us count the ways:


a)    “Highest ethical standards” are proof we will get Richardson, Geithner, Daschle, Solis, etc. nominated who cannot or do not pay all their taxes—among other things. There will be only praise for, not silence about, tax-cheats and unethical players in Congress like Chris Dodd, John Murtha, or Charles Rangel. To suggest otherwise is to be cynical, sharp, partisan; most on the Left who preach about the Wall-Street/DC nexus and the “big guys” at the trough are silent on this disturbing new big money/Democrat connection.

b)   Christian, Sermon-on-the-Mount declarations about forgiveness and ‘moving forward, not backward’ indicate that “Bush did it” is the now the standard throat-clearing before every speech abroad. Suggesting that we do not wish to dredge up the past is assurance that we will try to humiliate lawyers in the Justice Department who years ago gave opinions at a time of national crisis. Do we try federal judges whose opinions we don’t like?

c)    Talking about “financial sobriety” and “halving the deficit” guarantee that we will triple the annual deficit, and add more to the national debt in eight years than we did in aggregate since the founding of the republic.

d)   Soaring rhetoric about the reset button, a new softness, more listening, a new page, etc. assure us that we will have no moral compass, and treat Venezuela like Columbia, Georgia like Russia, Iran like Iraq—the more we hear of a new morality, the more we know there will be no moral distinctions.

e)    The demonized percentile who makes over $250,000 who alone will be taxed—won’t be alone to see new taxes. Confiscate all their cash and you still cannot pay off debts piling up at $1.7 trillion per year. So gas, cigarette, alcohol, taxes will climb and soon even that will not be enough. The more we do not hear that, the more it is coming

f) The more Bush gave us “false choices” and shredded the constitution, the more Obama will adopt FISA, email intercepts, wiretaps, renditions, Bush’s Iraq plan, the same old in Afghanistan, etc. Let us see whether Guantanamo closes within a year: watch especially the reaction to the poor teen-aged Somali pirate and ask yourself whether this administration wishes to repeat that again and again—or whether other countries wish to have their framed, railroaded, tortured, and misunderstood pseudo-terrorists back on the streets of Berlin, Paris, or Cairo. Again, when one on Team Obama trashes Bush the law shredder,  then assume that we have already adopted his security protocols.

g) We are postracial, transracial, multicultural, etc. and rightfully so don’t talk about ‘Hussein,’ or one’s ethnic background, etc. But abroad? All that qualification simply means YOU don’t dare do it, but HE does, all the time, everywhere, both to sway world opinion and ever so gently to distance himself from America’s past when convenient : so the first thing on the Latin American summit table is “race.” Arabs are told to be comfortable because of Barack’s names, first and second and third, his Muslim father, his non-traditional background. In other words, anytime anyone in the US is told that racism is lurking its ugly head around every corner, be assured that Obama will broadcast his race and heritage to Europeans, Turks, Arabs, and Latin Americans. The two behaviors are joined at the hip. The warning always follows its antithesis.

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April 18th, 2009 - 12:04 am

One wonders whether President Obama, for all the soaring rhetoric, grasps why certain nations really do hate us. Does he think a Grozny, Darfur, Rwanda, Serbia, or Tibet happen in reaction to US global sinful conduct? Does he appreciate why hot spots like Cyprus, Taiwan, or Georgia, do not boil over—or under what conditions they might? Does he really believe that in the pre-Bush era we all got long (cf. his al-Arabiya interview); then Bush’s strutting, unilateralism, and preemption, presto, caused anti-Americanism?

Take Iran. It wants to be the preeminent regional power in the Middle East, and win for the Persian Shiites the mantle of Islamic frontline leadership in the long war to destroy Israel. That requires oil revenue, sponsorship of terror, and nuclear weaponry.

Despite Bill Clinton’s past ramblings, it is not democratic; instead, prescreened, preapproved candidates are confirmed by plebiscites, and civil liberties are nonexistent as we know them. The history of Khomeinism is one of executing thousands of Shah-supporters, sending tens of thousands to their deaths in mass wave attacks in Iraq, and using surrogate Hezbollah and Shiite operatives to blow up Americans from Lebanon to Iraq. In other words, a democratic internationalist America stands in the way of their megalomaniac aspirations.

After the Carter humiliations, the Reagan disaster with Iran-Contra, the Clinton feeble attempts at appeasement, Americans gave up on the Khomeinists, and more or less hoped to distinguish the Iranian people from their theocracy, talk up democratic change, and contain the mullahs’ terrorist aspirations. We can do this adroitly or clumsily, but existential differences will remain nonetheless—until a change in ideology on their or our part. Either they reenter the family of nations, or we redefine the family of nations to include thugocracies.

And now? What is there to negotiate over? How soon they can have the bomb? Triangulation with them over Israel? Promises to quit sending shaped charges into Iraq to kill more Americans?

Why does Hugo Chavez hate us? Is it because Bush’s ‘dead or alive’ed him or ‘with us or against us”ed him? Hardly. Chavez wants to end democracy in Venezuela for good, turn it into a Cuba-like communist dictatorship, use his oil revenues to whip up liberationist, anti-Yanqui feelings throughout South America, and end up with himself as some sort of messianic caudillo of the entire socialist continent. Sound crazy?

No more crazy than the daily Chavez communiqués. Again, by good or bad diplomacy we can soothe or excite him–but otherwise his aims are antithetical to the notion of democratic, capitalist states, with close ties to the North American democracies.

We can ditto all this with North Korea, Cuba, Russia, Syria, etc. So far all the Obama apologies for the sins of his own country (note always before he came on the scene), the serial “Bush did it” invective, the promises of a brave new Obama transnational world, the evocation of his middle name, and non-traditional lineage, and shared demagoguery against “them” (Wall Street, the greedy, the unpatriotic who make over the mythical trip wire $250,000), have not, and will not, change much abroad. Has Cuba promised to release prisoners, or apologized for all those killed? Has Chavez vowed to restore constitutional governance and quit subversion of his neighbors?

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Piratical Thoughts

April 12th, 2009 - 11:05 pm

Pirates (the word peiraô is Greek for ‘to try’ or ‘make the attempt’) were common in the ancient world. They appear everywhere from Hellenistic novels to stories about Pompey’s clean-up of the Cilician robbers. Some random thoughts.

1) Hit ‘em where they are. If we review  how the Romans, Venetians, British, and Americans dealt with piracy, then we arrive at the same conclusion: forces go ashore and destroy docks, ships, and houses of the pirate community—and soon leave. There is no  reason to nation-build in Somalia, only to blast apart pirates on the water; and when they strike, tit-for-tat simply to bomb or send a missile at their point of return on land.

2) A larger malady. Pirates are always a symptom of international instability and global inability or unwillingness to stamp them out. At present we are at a dangerous juncture. The US, in the “post-American” world that Obama is trying to articulate abroad through apologetics and promises of mulitpolarity, cannot or won’t exercise unilateral leadership. And under postmodern notions of morality, and in the present climate of “We’re not George Bush’s Guantanamo-renditions-wiretapping-preemptive America,” it makes it hard, if we are to remain saintly, to do much of anything at all, except the occasional heroic efforts that we just witnessed to free hostages.

Moreover, there is a whiff in the air that the pirates have some connection, remote or not, with Islamic terrorism, or maybe it is that they are seen as 1990s-style Somali victims in need of understanding, or bad memories from the Blackhawk Down days.  In any case, bombing the crap out of them if they don’t quit is apparently provocatively Neanderthal—while letting the clueless ship or yacht that falls into their clutches is, well, a higher code of moral restaint. The pirates (“We are not afraid of America”), of course, all know this.

 3) Pirates are nice guys. In the last thirty years in the academic world, several theses have been published romanticizing pirates, in the manner they are celebrated in popular Disneyland-like culture—misunderstood jolly fellas, prone to a little excess from time to time.

For the deskbound academic who does not work on a ocean-going container ship, history’s pirate can be a Robin-Hood redistributionist who takes from the mercantile class and spreads booty to the poor; or he is anarchist who defies the bourgeoisie norms of an oppressive society; or he is a sexual libertine—a cross-dresser, a sexually ambiguous Steppenwolf, a polymorphously perverse rebel, who has said no to the straightjacket of heterosexual norms; or he is an egalitarian who constructs an alternate “pirate community” that is without racial, gender, and class bias. There are all sorts of noble Jewish, black, and female pirates in academic discourse, far better folk that the British navy that tried to stamp them out.

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 1.  Do They all Do This? A good argument could be made that Jacques Chirac was deeply unpopular (along with his foreign minister Dominque de Villepin) in the US and the UK. Even more so was Gerhard Schröder, and to a lesser extent his postmodern foreign minister Joschka Fischer, veteran of the 1960s Days of Rage.

No need to comment on the controversial career of Vladimir Putin. But one rarely sees Mr. Sarkozy trash Chirac, or Merkel dump on Schröder, or Medvedev reject Putin. Is the trashing of your predecessor an Obama phenomenon? Why do transnationalist, internationalist European leaders not attack their own countrymen, much less their own cultures, but supposedly chauvinistic Americans now do? (We were told that Europeans were engaged, but not lately due to the awful Iraq and worse Bush; but with Iraq quiet and a messianic American President, do we dare suggest that its failure to involve itself in Afghanistan or to galvanize against Korea or Iran (much less in Darfur) suggests that “we hate Bush” was just pretense?

2. On Being Liked. Gaddafi likes us now thanks to Obama. So do Putin & Co. The Black Caucus just returned singing Fidel Castro’s praises, who apparently likes us now thanks to Obama. No need to mention the Europeans.

But let us distinguish popularity from respect or even credibility. Take Europe: they are going to send combat troops to Afghanistan (not); stimulate the world economy (ask Ms. Merkel); have their transnational financial czar (so says Mr. Sarkozy), help stop Iran or North Korea (will we?)? Try Russia: they now like us too, since we did what? Stood firm on missile defense? Suggested moderation on energy blackmail? Asked to show deference to the former Soviet republics? Suggested Putin stop murdering dissidents abroad?

Given the world’s cheap moralizing, could not Obama have just voiced one thought? Try: “It is easy to fault President Bush for much of the ill-feeling toward the United States. That is too facile an explanation. As a global leader with often conflicting world responsibilities, America is presented with bad and worse alternatives and our choices simply will never please everyone.” That would be true and honest, given that Obama trashed Bush, but kept his Iraq and Afghanistan policies, and so far has not found any new solutions to old problems with Iran, North Korea and Russia. 

3. The sorta, kinda, maybe war. The world was told Guantanamo will close (when exactly?), that we no longer “torture”, that we don’t rendition, that Iraq was a mistake, that Obama agrees with the world that Bush was (fill in the blank). So there are no longer “enemy combatants” or “a war on terror”—but then again there are.

Ponder: Daily those from Waziristan to Kuwait promise another 9/11 like hit. Iran tries everything under the sun to get its bomb. We send thousands more soldiers to Afghanistan; we kill dozens each month with Predator strikes in Afghanistan (rather a bit meaner than putting terrorists into Guantanamo cells with Korans and Mediterranean food).

This seems to me quite dangerous. Go through the logic: radical Islam is still trying to kill large numbers of Americans (such as they can after losing thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq the last eight years). We are killing lots of terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and upping the ante. But all the while we are reassuring the world we reject Bush’s prior war (that kept us safe) and have a new approach to foreign policy based on assurances that we are now caring, listening, multipolar, etc. It seems to me that at a time of defense cuts, and repeals of the Bush anti-terrorism agenda, and increased vows of our enemies to kill us, reassuring everyone we are no longer quite at war sends a surreal message to our enemies: just enough reassurance that we are no longer unpredictable, angry, and punitive, and just enough war to really anger fascistic terrorists. There must be some sober advisors like Gen. Jones and others who see the paradox.

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President 50/50

April 5th, 2009 - 8:15 am

Our Philosopher Organizer

The most successful practitioner of community organizing looks around for what he thinks is a problem, chastises both sides and allots absolutely equal blame, gives exalted moral lectures about compromise and understanding, and then waltzes away well paid, praised for his moderation, but having accomplished nothing.

So I wasn’t too surprised to learn that President Obama decided to tackle European-American relations—something that has a pedigree going back to our Revolution, and has been analyzed by the likes of Tocqueville and Henry James to contemporary essayists such as Bruce Bawer, Joseph Joffe, Robert Kagan, and Bruce Thornton. But then who needs to read them, when you have the power of ‘hope and change’?

Had Mr. Obama done his homework, he would have learned that our transatlantic “differences” transcend communication problems, and, yes, even Barack Obama’s charisma. 

An Old Sore

Europe—given its Western heritage, its own intellectual roots (reflected in the French Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the canonization of 1848, Marx’s natural landscape, postcolonial guilt, the lingering shame of appeasement and collaboration, postmodern anti-Western philosophy), the legacy of the bloody twentieth century, the conditions of the Cold War, and the American defensive shield—has devolved into a largely secular, if not atheistic society.

That it is now shrinking, facing endemic childlessness, can neither assimilate nor deport Islamic immigrants, becoming increasingly protectionist, and is unarmed and pacifist is all logical rather than aberrant. How we still maintain such friendly relations with our now distant European cousins, given our (prior) capitalism, Christianity, fertility, assimilation practices, classlessness, enormous military power, and international profile is the real mystery. One thing that Europe most definitely does not want is for President Obama to turn the United States into a socialist, protectionist, disarmed, pacifist—Europe II—a clone of itself that won’t protect it, provide an open market for its goods,  or stimulate the world economy.

Sorta Capitalist

While capitalism survives there, it does so by the more successful buying insider influence, relying on hereditary wealth and inherited privilege, avoiding as many laws as possible, and praising publicly socialism as you privately get it around it in the real world—sorta like the New York Times  lauding Obama’s bailout of GM while it threatens to shut down the Boston Globe unless the print unions shave off millions in wage concessions, or the city officials of Detroit serially alleging racism while they loot what little is left of the city solely for friends and family.

To visit Italy or Greece is to be impressed by the sheer human ingenuity of small entrepreneurs who deal mostly in cash, avoid taxes, arrange barter, skirt regulations (half their restaurants would be shut down for safety violations in the states), hire either family or workers off the books without proper papers, and generally try to have some sort of government job that requires no work but income in down times.

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G-20 Outtakes

April 1st, 2009 - 6:27 pm

Poodle Redux. Blair was denigrated as Bush’s poodle, although his eloquence and influence over Bush were clear to all. In contrast,  Gordon Brown is embarrassingly obsequious to Obama, in a way Blair never was around Bush. And in further contrast, Obama shows an airy, polite disdain at being courted in such grubby fashion—while Bush was downright magnanimous in taking advice from Blair. Didn’t Brown get the message with the unviewable DVDs, the return of the Churchill bust, the ‘UK size of Oregon’ analogies? And will the press do a Brit “poodle” story?

Rich Rioters. Odd to see anarchists trying to burn and loot while some are text messaging and cell-phoning in the news clips—as if such ignoramuses can’t grasp that nihilism and anti-capitalist angst lose their authenticity when they depend on the trademarks of the global corporate world. Spoiled Westerners tried to riot on TV before texting each other to meet for latte (no doubt at Starbucks); those in Peru or Chad are happy enough to have access to Amoxicillin via globalization.

Europe Out-europed. There is a certain sort of irony in London. Bush was so easily caricatured as the right-wing Texas-slanging cowboy that Euros found it easy to pose as progressive utopian antitheses. (Never mind that Bush in his second term was good to Europe, or that his positions on immigration, spending, new federal programs, etc. were hardly conservative.) Now Obama is trumping them all as a far more genuine leftist than any in Berlin or Paris. The President wants far bigger deficits than they do, wants more trade protectionism to protect domestic unions, wants to embrace cap and trade whole hog, is more eager to engage radical regimes abroad, and will pay for his socialism with big cuts in defense that will make it harder to protect socialist unarmed Europe.

All sorts of ironies arise: is all this sort of a ‘be careful what you wish for’ nemesis that Europe deserves? (I wrote about this for this week’s TMS column). A sort of Obama doing a Nixon to China that everyone can take an odd delight in? (no liberal will dare suggest he is being rude to the Brits or having trouble connecting with our allies). Or is Obama reflecting new realities that the US is now a revolutionary society whose immigration the last 50 years has come from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, that in turn better warrant our attention? Hussein is not the middle name of most European ministers (nor are many of African heritages), and Obama reminds Europe that we too were a colony without much of a colonialist history. All so strange.

Debt, debt, debt everywhere. The backdrop behind the entire scene is that Obama is borrowing $1.7 trillion, and with future projected budgets that require perhaps another ca. $10 trillion over the next possible eight years. The message seems to be that we Americans need new entitlements that we cannot pay for, nor have we earned them with goods and services, but we want all of you abroad to lend us the cash nonetheless. Odd, as was pointed out a few posts ago, that we will have cradle-to-grave health care due to borrowed Chinese dollars that didn’t go to basic cancer treatment to millions of Chinese who toil at factories.

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