Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Christians: Are They the Moral Majority?

As I'm sure most people are aware, Jerry Falwell died last week. I only ever knew him as a famous Christian "spokesman" who said some things that people found embarrassing. That, and as the popularizer of the term "Moral Majority." Phil Nugent points out that this term seems oddly inconsistent with the Southern Baptist culture of Falwell, and with slight differences related to their more individualistic and anti-authoritarian attitude also inconsistent with the normal Evangelical culture of the Northwest. He says:

Having grown up in the rural Southern Baptist culture that Falwell came to represent, and having grown up in it during the last few years before it became fully owned and operated by the Republican Party, I've always believed that there was no way anyone who was really of that culture could have come up with the term "Moral Majority." When I was a child, our preachers and Sunday school teachers (and our teachers plain and simple, because in what I suppose was a violation of law, the teachers in my third and fourth grade classes used to lead us in prayer and Biblical-related discussions, for all the good that it did in my case) didn't tell us we were a part of any majority. Quite the opposite; it was always made clear that only a tiny fraction of the people on Earth at any given time would finally prove good enough to make it to Heaven and see God's smiling-Santa face.
I think this illustrates a couple of the oddities of the religious right's political involvement. Christianity has a long history of seeing itself as the "hidden city," as a separate society within society. This derives from the division between the world of spirit and flesh and goes back all the way to Jesus telling the Pharisees to give to Caesar what is his and to God what is God's. Since this is partially understood in terms of moral and spiritual purity, there is always this sense that the world of flesh--of which the state is a, perhaps the most, powerful manifestation is trying to distract and pull us away from true Christianity. This attitude seems to me to encourage a permanent notion of Christianity as the minority view. It doesn't matter what people say, or even what they do. What is fundamentally of importance is your relationship to God. Since this limits you to solely trusting the few people you know personally, or those who know and engage in the essentially religious (and hence exclusionary) markers of this relationship, there is always a limit on the size of the group that will qualify.

But yet, the Christian right is politically mobilized, and politically mobilized as Christians. They constitute one of the most vocal blocs of one of our major parties. What is the political justification provided for trying to make religious ideas binding on people? Here it became necessary to bring in the idea that actually Christianity constitutes in fact a political as well as religious majority. In other words, it is a re-making of religious ideas over into political and moral ideas. But this seems to provoke a serious tension in how we are meant to treat religion.

Take abortion. Why do Christians try so hard to make it illegal? After all, they know that non-Christians are evil and do evil things. So why are they attempting to prevent them from doing this one? Or, in the popular pro-choice refrain, if they don't want abortion, don't have one. Why should they be worried about the morality of those outside their religious communities? In other words, why is this a legal/political rather than a religious issue for religious people?

It seems to me that the simplest answer is that American Christians have largely adopted forms of reasoning more characteristic of Enlightenment liberalism than strictly fundamentalist ideas warrant. Liberalism characteristically tries to universalize their moral principles and so must treat all humans as essentially equal and indistinguishable. But if we are to treat all humans equally, it seems that we (roughly) must treat all religious beliefs as also being equal as the major religions on offer are not universalizable across all people (Liberal Christianity, which was an attempt to sketch out a picture of this universalized religion, is what led to the rise of fundamentalism).

So to argue against abortion, religious people must step outside their religion and use liberal reasoning against it. And I think the rhetoric is consistent with this claim. After all, according to those against abortion a morally significant human life begins at conception and so a properly universal liberal moral reasoning would include their rights as well. Hence the popularity of the "right to life" as an argument against abortion.

But the concept of a right to life is a creation of Enlightenment liberalism. It is not really to be found in the Bible. For instance, the image of the "vengeful God" of the Old Testament is a result of the passages where God commands the Israelite leaders to kill another nation--sometimes absolutely--even those we would normally consider innocent, such as the woman (non-combatants), children, and even their livestock. In fact, in a startling turn-about, King Saul loses the blessing of God because he decides to spare some of the innocent Amalekites. And as for the New Testament--what little political thought is contained there says nothing about protecting the rights of innocents. It is striking in light of the contemporary political scene that as far as we can tell neither Jesus, nor his immediate disciples felt it was necessary to try to effect social change through political means. In fact, while Jesus had much to say about the society he lived in, his invective was primarily reserved for the religious leadership of his own religion--a very different attitude from that of contemporary Christians.

These are difficult questions. Many early Christians, and some of the more libertarian type Christians I knew growing up had the view that Christians should not be involved in government or politics at all--but rather should keep themselves separate from the dirty doings of the world. Other seem to think that religion and politics are both good and necessary things, but should be kept as separate as possible. Others, and this is more characteristic of the religious right, try to combine the two. I am not sure that they are very successful.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Mistaken for Hegel

John Moe's take on the Republican candidates.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Giuliani and terrorism

I sometimes struggle to understand the average Republican perspective on an issue. I can understand the logic behind their denial of reproductive freedom. I can understand why many of them feel it is necessary to claim that homosexuality is sinful or are afraid of losing their cultural identity through immigration. However, I find myself bemused by what seems at times the most common Republican response to Islamic-based terrorism.

I don't think that the average Republican is consciously racist towards Arabs. However, since most racism plays at the unconscious level that tells us little about the reality of their attitudes. In general, if we wish to treat all peoples equally it is necessary to engage in self-examination. I would like to assume that this is not an exclusive characteristic of the liberal mindset. But sometimes Republican rhetoric gives me cause to wonder.

The most recent example of this was in the Republican primary debate last Tuesday. There were two main highlights--the advocacy of torture (albeit by other names) by most of the field, and Giuliani's outrage at Congressman Paul's claim that we should seek to understand the motivations of those who are attacking us.

I will admit that I find it astonishing that we need to argue that torture is immoral as I considered the repudiation of such practices one of the distinguishing marks of Western liberalism. However, I will acknowledge that many countries with authoritarian leanings have felt that the so-called pragmatic benefits make it worthwhile (and we have certainly become more authoritarian since the terrorist attack of 2001). But I honestly do not understand how a responsible public figure arguing that he is best qualified to lead our country can be willing to claim that the reason that we were attacked on 9/11/01 was simply, or only, because they "hate us for our freedoms."

It is perhaps possible that some Saudi Arabs do "hate us for our freedoms." However, to claim that that alone is an adequate motivation for an entire civilization threatening movement is transparently absurd. If they do "hate us for our freedoms," it behooves us to ask us why they resent the fact that we are free. It is true that the citizens of the U.S. have many opportunities that are not open to other people around the world. But why is it that it was in the Middle East that this inspired a movement of people willing to sacrifice their own lives in protest against these freedoms?

Some have suggested that it is because Muslims dislike the idea of freedom in general. Let's suppose this was true. Then why would they resent the U.S.? The U.S. best partner in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, by no means a free or democratic state, while our greatest enemy has been Iran, which is one of the more democratic (albeit with a strangely theocratic flavor) countries in the Middle East. So shouldn't Al Quaeda be then supporting our attempts to weaken the Iranian government?

However, even more importantly, to seriously claim that Muslims do not desire themselves to be free is to ascribe an attitude to them that even their holding it would defeat the American notions of government. The U.S. Constitution is based on the notion that ALL humans have certain inalienable rights, one of which is liberty. Thus, to claim that these entire groups of humans in fact do desire to live without freedom would be to claim that the U.S. ideals of government should be given up.

No. What must be done is to attempt to understand why it is that some groups have grown to resent the U.S. Acknowledgement or understanding of the causes of resentment is not the same as claiming that this resentment is justified (as any parent should know). And that is why Giuliani's attempt to paint Congressman's Paul remarks as claiming that the U.S. "invited" these attacks is completely false.

This is not that difficult. Osama Bin Laden and Al Quaeda did not just appear out of nowhere in 2001. They had been claiming for years that the U.S. should be punished for having troops in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, there had been clear resentment because of the bombing of Iraq for the previous ten years (as noted by Paul).

It is occasionally a temptation to treat our political or military opponents minds and attitudes as completely ineffable. This is convenient for us, because it prevents us from having to worry whether we are acting in manners that justify their actions or whether we are doing things that might be viewed as provoking violent responses that, when directed against us, we will immediately condemn. But, giving in to that temptation comes at the price of losing the liberal ideas of human rights and, furthermore, of giving up intellectual respectability for the ideas we replace it with.

Update: Daniel Larison has, as usual, a thoughtful conservative rebuttal to the notion that we were or are attacked because of our freedoms.

Update 2: To be a clearer about one of my points. Western democracy arose from the Enlightenment assumption that all people desire to be free. If you give up this belief, which is what Giuliani seems to do, then we have no justification for any intervention in international affairs (which some conservatives would welcome) and challenge whether the U.S. federal government has the authority to rule over its citizens. Philosopher types can and do argue these points, but I would be, to say the least, disconcerting for one of the major parties to espouse such a rejection of core American ideals.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Why stay in Iraq?

Some war-supporters have suggested that regardless of whether our initial decision to conquer Iraq was justified now that we are there and have created a mess we should stay there. There are usually two justifications given:

1) Iraq is the main "front" of the war on terror, so we should keep our troops fighting there to prevent terrorists from attacking the U.S. Call this the "they'll follow us home" argument.
2) The U.S. military is the only thing preventing Iraq from falling into complete chaos. If we left, full-scale civil war would break out between the warring factions in Iraq, perhaps even leading to genocide.

Okay. I don't view these as being of equal merit. The first argument seems to me fairly silly, and while the second argument raises legitimate worries it seems pretty unlikely that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is actually the proper response to worries about genocide. However, the point I want to make here is that these two arguments are in tension (if not quite explicit contradiction) with each other.

The first argument appeals to traditional American privilege in war--we always fight somewhere else (at least for the last 140 years). This has many effects, but one is that U.S. civilians do not have to bear the brunt of war in the same way other civilians do. Thus, U.S. industry is not bombed, U.S. civilians walking to the store do get killed. Yes, war is still awful, and our soldiers still die every day, but the negative effects are an order of magnitude different from that suffered by the citizens of the country providing the battlefield. The assumption of this privilege is doubtless part of the reason that the WTC Center attacks were so shocking to U.S. citizens.

However, the claim that if we leave Iraq the terrorists will follow us home relies on the notion that these future terrorists are attacking the U.S. not in order to get them to leave Iraq, but as part of some larger "Global War on Terror" (cue Giuliani's tired "they hate us for our freedoms" line.). But that means that the conflict in Iraq is directed against the U.S. and so is not inherently tied to issues around American hegemony in the Middle East. So Iraq in providing a battleground is doing a favor to the U.S. by giving us a country other than our own to tear up in fighting terrorists.

But if that is our motivation for staying in Iraq, it seems disingenuous to also claim that we are staying in Iraq for the Iraqi people's own good. We certainly do not want terrorists to attack the U.S. But if we think that terrorists have to attack something, and so it is better that we provide U.S. targets for them to attack in Iraq, then the second argument would seem to become false. After all, the clear implication of the first argument is that if we left Iraq they would then be able to start attacking the United States directly because they wouldn't be tied down fighting in Iraq. But what then of the claim that if we leave the fighting will get even worse in Iraq? Wouldn't that just mean that the terrorists would be even more tied down in Iraq?

At heart these arguments are based on contradictory motivations. The argument claiming they'll follow us home is claims that it is better that someone else (i.e. the Iraqi's) suffer U.S. citizens. The argument that we should stay in Iraq to protect them from sectarian conflict claims that it is better that the U.S. pay a price (dead soldiers and trillions of dollars) if it will prevent more Iraqi deaths. I am not sure how you can make these compatible.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Quasi-Realism Intro Pt. 1

I've been reading Simon Blackburn on ethics recently. He is primarily interested in questions about the nature of moral claims rather than which moral claims are actually correct. So he isn't so much presenting a moral system as describing how moral systems or theories operate. For instance, people who believe that people act only out of selfishness (not Blackburn's view), are telling us something about the nature of moral claims, but they are not saying of any particular action that it is right or wrong, or that we should or shouldn't do it. On the other hand, a Kantian might tell us that we shouldn't lie because it is an action that is logically inconsistent (or ununiversalizable).

Blackburn is a projectivist, which means that he believes that our moral claims, beliefs, or attitudes are based on our sensibilities rather than any kind of external law or reason. This is a view that is popular with many naturalists because of the difficulty in deriving a moral imperative, an "ought," from some fact about the world alone. For instance, it seems like a morally admirable thing to help support those less well-off. But why? For a naturalist anything that exists can be described (broadly speaking) by science. But it is difficult to see how we can describe a natural fact which necessitates an action without first appealing to some human desire. So it seems that these desires end up being the basis for action. And furthermore, these desires are ultimately things we accept (for what might be good reasons, but still, explanation comes to an end somewhere). We have an innate desire to preserve our own live, and this is not a desire that is particularly amenable to rational reasoning.

One of the major problems with this viewpoint is that it seems to leave truth out of the picture. If our moral claims are ultimately based on our sensibilities, then when I make a moral claim I am not describing some fact about the world, but rather expressing a particular emotion or stance towards life. Thus, if I say that slavery is immoral I am not expressing a belief in a proposition that can be checked for truth against the world, but relating something about my own stance and priorities. However, there ends up being many problems with understanding the meaning, however construed, of moral terms if we cannot talk about them being true or false in a way that connects to our ordinary use of the terms.

Blackburn attempts to solve this problem by proposing a view he calls "quasi-realism." This position marries projectivism with a Wittgenstein-influenced view of language. Wittgenstein claimed that our language is made up of distinct, but interlocking discourses he called "language games." What he meant is that the concepts that we use in a particular language game are understood and make sense only relative to that language game. Thus, science is a language game that talks about some parts of the world in scientific (naturalistic) terms. However, we can talk about the world in other ways as well--for instance, in religious terms, or aesthetic or ethical terms. It would however be a mistake to try to reduce the meaning of religious words to what they would mean when talking in scientific terms. Any attempt to do this would fail because the we only understand the family of religious terms that we use in relation to other religious terms. If you try to interpret them in, for instance, ethical terms you will be making an error--misunderstanding how these words are meant to be used.

Blackburn takes this notion and says that while naturalism is true we can still talk about the truth of ethical and moral terms as well. We just have to be careful to not transport the understanding of truth as scientific truth into the ethics language game. This is the basic notion: if you ask moral questions or make moral statements you are engaged in the moral questions language game. That means that these words have meaning, and can even be said to be true or false (keeping in mind that this is not meant to refer to some object--"goodness"--that we meet in the natural world), and in fact we can do all the things with moral language that we ordinarily do. This has to follow, because if we ordinarily do it, that means there is some kind of meaning when we ordinarily do it, and the only confusion we had was when we thought that it had to refer to something in the world outside of us. But in fact, since, he claims, the way in which we are set up to respond morally to the world is through our emotional and attitudinal responses, those end up being the determining factors on the meaning of these terms.

So, is this an adequate story of what we are talking about when we talk about morality?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Trusting government

Ryan asks me in comments:
As someone who seems to have confidence that his developing views [on politics] are important and matter, how do you maintain the zeal to put forth your argumemts with optimism? do you believe that this system can be saved? And if so, on what basis?
I think Ryan is mainly accurate in describing my current attitude towards political issues. I am more zealous, more enthusiastic, and more optimistic about politics than I've probably ever been in my life. Part of my enthusiasm is simply the result of developing a more coherent political philosophy rather than the hodgepodge of ideas and attitudes I had previously tried to mash together. Also, my zeal is a result of my increasing optimism--it's easier for me to get excited about something in which I think we can make real progress. However, probably the most important element is that the substantive political and moral ideas I now hold demand of me a greater appreciation of the importance of political life.

While I've always been politically involved, I think my earliest influences (primarily from my father) was a Reaganesque distrust of "big government." I took Thoreau as a model, especially such slogans as, "That government governs best, which governs least." Because I had such a strong distrust of government my political ideology was always defensive--always a matter of trying to prevent the government from usurping more of our civil liberties (my involvement in anti-abortion activities was the exception--but still defensible on Millian harm principles). Unfortunately, this defensiveness meant that political involvement could only be somewhat exhausting and easily provoke bitterness.

This began to change when I left Christianity. The form of religion that I had grown up in viewed general human society with great suspicion and so based the reasons for action in the supernatural commands of God rather than the ordinary world that human experience. So I began to realize that I would have to change my attitudes towards towards the communities in which I lived. The result was the development of an ethic explicitly based on human experience and needs rather than divine prerogatives. It was but a short step to the further realization that politics was simply morality in a communal space, i.e. normal human experience, and so just as important as the religious motivations that had previously driven me.

That is probably the biggest reason why I have become more passionate about politics. I began to become more optimistic about politics and the constructive role of government in general as I began to realize how much of my childhood distrust was the result of Republican propaganda and prejudice. I was worried about individual liberties and freedom being constrained by the government and convinced of the inevitable incompetence of any government program.

Two things changed this attitude. One was my growing awareness that the government was only one way in which you could lose your liberties. I began to see that in fact the priorities of the large corporations often run counter to the interests and liberties of their employees or customers. So the government could have a positive role in constraining the power of capital. Furthermore, I began to realize that contrary to what I had previously thought, the government not only could do some jobs better than private industry. For instance, Social Security was and still remains much more effective in achieving the goals of old age security than anything that private industry has achieved on its own. Perhaps even more noteworthy is the comparison between the VA hospital system, which is almost universally regarded as the most successful health care program in the country even though it actually spends less money than most private insurance programs.

So overall I would say that I gained a political viewpoint which grants a positive role for government in American society.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Moving left

Rudy Giuliani's candidacy has always been a bit puzzling to me. On the one hand, he is respected in the conservative community for three things 1) Being tough on crime 2) His earned passion for fighting terrorism because of his personal experience as a leader in New York 3) He stuck it to the liberals in their home territory. But then, he is not a social conservative. He has a fairly consistent record of supporting abortion rights, homosexual rights, and gun control. And I had thought that varying too far from the party platform on any of these issues was enough to prevent you from being the national representative of the Republican party.

Well, it seemed like many people were busy telling this to Giuliani as he began his campaign, so he started to waffle a little--talking about "strict constructionists" on the court and giving the signals to the gatekeepers of social conservatives that he was willing to at least act like a social conservative.

Evidently it was always going to be a matter of too little, too late. Yesterday he gave a speech to a crowd of conservatives at Houston Baptist University where he publicly acknowledged his differences on these issues--saying that while he thought abortion was "morally wrong," he still supported a woman's right to choose.

Many have assumed that this will spell the end of any real chance that Giuliani has of winning the primary. I'm not so sure that's the case.

First, Giuliani's main competition have problems of their own in presenting their conservative credentials and so are not well placed to criticize him on these issues. McCain, while fairly conservative, has been too popular with the press as a "maverick," (which is understood by many conservatives as just meaning "compromiser") to be trusted by conservatives. And Romney, while he's saying all the right things now, as recently as 2002 was bragging about his pro-choice credentials. So Republicans might feel like they have no better alternative than Rudy, and they at least trust him (and he's probably a good guy to have a beer with).

Second, liberals have been bemoaning the fact that for the last few decades conservatives have shifted the political spectrum rightward--so that what we today call a "moderate" would have just been a normal conservative thirty years ago. Well, there's been some pushback against this in the last few years, and spurred on by the deeply unpopular war that the Republican Party has willingly accepted as the barometer for their fortunes, the public has started to move slightly back toward the left.

One result of this shift is that it makes views that are unpopular in your own party seem more plausible, or at least disagreements over these issues just don't as important. For instance, I'm willing to support candidates that have come out in favor of capital punishment (looking at you Clinton), or who don't condemn the war on drugs, or support gun control. I think of all these issues as important issues, but politically speaking I don't envision any of them becoming major policy issues for the next presidential term. Why is this? Largely because the right "won" these debates, which continued to tilt the country more and more towards the right.

I think this leftward shift could benefit Giuliani. The Republicans are going to have to go back to playing defense for a while, even if they do win the presidency (unless they can also retake Congress). And even if the Republican candidate is elected, he is going to have to fight with the U.S. people over foreign policy in the Middle East. At this point, all the major candidates have come out as strong hawks, so it would strange for them to change tack if they are elected. And at this point as least, the war is a losing issue for the Republicans.

Update: BooMan makes some good points along the same lines here.

Graduate student teaching

SteveG makes some interesting points here about the training of graduate students to be teachers. My sister just finished her M.A. in education and we discussed a few times the contrast between our respective programs and the contrasting attitudes towards learning how to teach.

Another factor that SteveG doesn't mention is that graduate school is a very competitive environment, one where you, your colleagues, and the professors are all making judgements about each other's intelligence, knowledge, and creativity. This creates a value system where, especially in academic contexts, the worth of a person is correlated to their competency as a thinker or student. This means that when you leave the rarefied air of the graduate department, where even the worst students are at least still educated and intelligent, to teach intro courses for undergraduate students many of whom can barely read, it becomes difficult to maintain the necessary respect for your students. Perhaps this is not a universal phenomenon, but more characteristic of mid-range and/or underfunded universities, but most of the professors I've spoken to are fairly cynical about teaching. As much as anything, what I've been trained in as a teacher is low expectations.

However, what this does is create another incentive to devote your energies to research rather than teaching. It is not just the objective reward structure of getting tenure that rewards research rather than teaching, but also the competitive nature of graduate programs influence the values of grad students in ways that can be detrimental to their teaching.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Reading Hegel

I am currently reading Hegel's Philosophy of Right and thinking about his critique of certain aspects of the liberal tradition. Needless to say, this is a frustrating experience. I was raised with the weird mashup of libertarian capitalism cheerleading and Christian triumphantalism that makes up most of the religious right in the U.S. As I dropped the Christianity I moved towards a more liberal viewpoint (what I later learned to call Rawlsian political liberalism). However, I've maintained some sympathy for the sense of communal identity represented by the postmillenialist thinking of my childhood. I just am not sure how to combine it with the ideals of freedom and equality that incline me towards liberalism.

Anyway, according to reputation, that is the project that Hegel sets himself--to combine the ideal of freedom that is a necessary part of the modern identity with the Aristotelian notion that human nature is social--that it is a mistake to treat humans as separable from the communities in which they live.

So this should be interesting stuff. But Hegel is a very difficult writer. And, in my experience, still controversial over not just whether his ideas are interesting, but whether he is worth reading at all. This is the problem with esoteric writers--in order to properly read them you must make a significant commitment of time.

This has a number of effects. First, it makes it more likely that if you do make such a commitment that you will think the work important. After all, in difficult works there are more interpretation choices which means that you put more of yourself in your understanding of the text. This also leads to a wider range of interpretations, leading to a larger literature, which further increases the impression that a particular writer is important. Plus, there is the cognitive dissonance element: it is a natural part of the human psyche to find justifications for difficult or painful actions whether or not they exist.

Another result of obscurity is the backlash. I believe it was Plantinga who who said that one of the best ways to become a famous philosopher was to be unclear. Thus, the suspicion arises that famous philosophers who are famously unclear are perhaps simply frauds, famous not because of the appearance rather than the reality of depth in their ideas. Anglo-American style philosophy has a tendency to prize clarity and so has become especially suspicious of vagueness in philosophy (at least the wrong kinds of vagueness and unclarity).

Of course, there is then the backlash backlash. Philosophers accused of obscurity will sometimes (probably the most obvious example being Derrida) develop philosophies that actually predict the difficulty and obscurity of their views, and in fact the inevitability of some significant amount of obscurity in all writing--even of those writers deemed paradigms of clarity and simplicity.

But, while deconstruction might be internally consistent (at least insofar as consistency is possible within a deconstructed discourse), it is still vulnerable to the original accusations of obscurity disguising emptiness. Notice that this claim is not one purporting to show the falsity of the views of the obscure philosopher, but is rather a probabilistic argument: that it is much more likely that the well-known, but obscure philosopher will not reward the time spent studying her. Oddly enough, this is a hermeneutic of suspicion, something more explicitly used to critique texts in the so-called Continental philosophical style.

So: Hegel, is it worth it?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

So much for a "surge."

Republican grumbling over the unpopular war in Iraq has been growing of late--especially as Bush has remained very unpopular and increasingly irrelevant to the future of their party (no one is going to run as the "next Bush"). While they have continued to maintain an impressive amount of party discipline, even when it has meant political suicide, some have begun to suggest that perhaps we should date our military check to the Iraqi government--even suggesting that if things haven't improved by September or December that we should begin to withdraw our troops.

Too bad it is not working. The Pentagon has just informed another 35,000 troops that they might be deployed to Iraq by December to maintain the current higher level of troops into next year. The article does quote Defense Secretary as saying this is only provisional--that not maintaining the current troop levels is a possible response to the Iraqi government failing to make headway on reconciliation between the Shia and Sunni Arabs of Iraq.
I am doubtful. While it is possible that Gates himself might prefer to start withdrawing troops in September if no progress has been made (as he has never been quite the lockstep cheerleader that some others in the Administration are), it is not clear that he has the influence to actually force such a policy to be enacted. More significantly, the Bush Administration has never been against withdrawing the troops. They've just always wanted to do it "soon." After we achieved certain benchmarks, or made enough political progress, or blah-blah-blah. Since the withdrawal has always been predicated on the success of such goals as we have in Iraq, success which largely hasn't materialized, it seems unlikely that Bush will suddenly reverse course and withdraw troops only if we continue to fail come September.

This has always been the joke about the surge. Rhetorically a "surge" implies something like a wave, a sudden jolt, a coming and going. That is not what is going on here. Calling it a "surge" was just a fancy way for Bush to give the finger to the voting citizens of November 2006 by entangling us even further in an unpopular war by sending more Americans to die in Iraq. There is and was no real indication that the sudden increase of troops was meant to be temporary.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

A movie about Fox before Fox

I finally saw Network yesterday evening, a movie I was spurred on to watch from being a loyal Digby reader. It was a good movie. I quite liked Dunaway's quirky performance, and even though Holden is a bit too annoying in his "crusty, old, but honest reporter" routine (which yes, is I assume on purpose, but still, annoying), overall the performances were superb. It is a movie about a news anchor (Howard Beale) who gets fired, goes insane, gets mad, gets his job back, and stays mad (in both senses) while making gobs of money for the corporate ownership.

Of course, after Rush Limbaugh and Fox News this movie can seem a bit quaint. I mean, Shocking! Some media guy who gets angry! However, it is prescient in describing how even this, even media criticism will become just another product of the media. After all, Beale is only able to have his O'Reilly show because the corporate lackeys at the station realize the commercial possibilities of his anti-corporate message. It really is surprising how many miss this point in their complaints about the liberal slant of the media. After all, isn't Rush Limbaugh part of the media? In fact a very, very influential part of the media? Or Bill O'Reilly? Or the rest of the Fox crowd? So why is that we only count the so-called liberal media as "media"? Well, it is because we want to be angry. We want to blame someone for the problems we see in the world at large or in our own lives. And why not blame the messenger?

A more general point here about satire. For some reason, many people last year, even respectable movie critics became confused and claimed that Borat was both a really good movie and an interesting satire of American society. Both claims are false. It was funny at points, but it had the same faults that almost every movie based on sketch comedy has--there was no real plot. These movies over and over do the same thing: they take some funny character developed on a comedy show (usually SNL), and for two hours put him through a bunch of loosely connected gags. Look, SNL is sometimes funny, but it is of a different kind than a movie. It is not the short story to a movie's novel.

But more importantly, it was not an interesting satire. Network is a satirical movie. It takes a somewhat ordinary situation and by exaggerating certain characteristics highlights some of the absurdities of human society. Dunaway's talking about media shares while having sex is funny and absurd. Beale's reincarnation as a latter-day prophet is absurd and amusing. This is not what Borat did. There is nothing absurd about stupid or drunk frat boys acting like they're stupid and/or drunk frat kids. You say nothing about the state of feminism when feminists are predictably offended by some guy telling them they are naturally stupid. Pretending to not understand the function of a toilet says nothing to us about Southern civility. Don't get me wrong. These things can be amusing to some. But that is all. The comedy comes because we can't quite believe that someone would really do the things Mr. Cohen does. It is basically just another form of reality television.

Which shows us once again how Network is right in its description of television. When Beale finally loses it on the evening news and starts yelling about how angry he is, he tells the audience that they are confused, that they are what is actually real, and that it is the television that is false. But he has to say this because that is what is being sold by the television: an alternate version of reality, a more exciting and structured reality where everything makes sense by the end of the hour. So it is no surprise at all that in their efforts to give their consumers what they want, an even more convincing illusion of reality, that the corporate owners of the television networks have given us the creative nightmare that is reality television.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Bipartisan governing

John Quiggin over at Crooked Timber has an interesting addition to the many reviews* of Jonathan Chait's long article on the liberal netroots. He claims that
the real political news of the last six months is the fact that the US now has a standard two-party system, arguably for the first time in its history. From Reconstruction until the final success of Nixon’s Southern strategy in the late 20th century, the fact that the Democratic Party represented the white establishment in the South made such a thing impossible. Under the primary system the two “parties” were little more than state-sanctioned institutional structures to ensure that voters (outside the South) got a choice of exactly two candidates.
Thus the liberal blogosphere's rise stems not only from the Bush presidency (and its incompetencies), but also more generally from the Democratic Party losing most of the south during the nineties. I find this analysis encouraging as it suggests that the progressive elements of the blogosphere will continue to an important role beyond 2008.

However, I am not completely convinced by Quiggins argument. The U.S. form of government, especially when compared to parliamentary systems, has some innate conservative (in the broad sense) elements that make it difficult to institute major changes. Thus, I suspect that U.S. politicians have more incentive towards bipartisanship, not just from the media, but than the European parties he compares them with. We have gotten very used to split governements (again a reason why Bush came as such a shock to many.

What will be interesting to see is how the highly partisan netroots responds to a Democratically-controlled government. Will they continue to cultivate a combative approach to politics directed at the Republicans or will they shift towards a more positive (although not necessarily better) message about what the government should do. In other words, is the netroots suspicious of politicians or Republicans? I hope it is the latter.

I think my appreciation of partisan politics is as major as any change in my political thinking over the last seven years, and suspect that change is reflective of society at large. In 2000 I voted by drawing up a list of about fifteen things I cared about and then ranking the three candidates in relation to each item. One of the most weighted categories was bi-partisanship, and to admit how really clueless I was, Bush ranked very high in this category, higher than the other two candidates.

Looking back, I realize that the reason I could give Bush such high points for this is that, especially after eight years of Clinton, I expected the Democrats to govern by consensus, and so it meant little for a Democrat candidate to be willing to govern in a bi-partisan manner. My thought was that the Democratic party will of course be willing to compromise, but that the Republican party might remain recalcitrant. Thus, to have the Republican candidate campaign at least partially on his record of non-partisan governership in Texas was a strong positive in my evaluation of Bush.

*I have little to add in response to Chait's article, except to say that I agree with most of his substantive points but find his semi-mocking tone unfair. I also think the response to his article is a good example of one of the positives of the liberal blogosphere. If Chait had written this article about something else back in the eighties, I don't think it would have gotten nearly so much interesting and informative responses that were easily accesible by the public.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Biblical Inerrancy Pt. 3 (sorta)

I've had a more difficult time on this posting than the first two, partly because motivations are more complex than arguments, and partly because positive suggestions require more ingenuity than criticizing the ideas of others. So instead of posting either of the two overly long bad blogs I've halfway-written I will wait to conclude this topic until I can lay out my thoughts more coherently.

Instead I'll just make a couple quick comments. First, as I noted earlier, a major motivation for accepting this doctrine is to preserve doctrinal orthodoxy. But why should the Christian care? It makes sense to worry about doctrinal orthodoxy when you can do something about it. But heresy is just so much more boring than it used to be. In fact, my guess is that most people who begin to believe heretical doctrine leave the evangelical church before they can even be properly excommunicated anyway. After all, why stick around? More than likely there is another church down the block that you will find perfectly congenial to your new "heretical" beliefs. And anyway, acceptance of a heretical doctrine will generally be accompanied by a rejection of the Inerrancy doctrine--again making it seem there is little reason for the Christian to emphasize this issue.

After all, when there is only one or maybe two churches you can attend, or if you live in a society where atheism is not even a live option for even the secular then there are clear negatives to the pronouncements of heresy from the pulpit. But that is not the America that most people live in.

Finally, I find it somewhat ironic that the Inerrancy doctrine is primarily used by its adherents to defend not the theological, but moral and scientific claims of the Bible. After all, the Inerrancy doctrine is rarely useful in resolving long-standing theological disputes such as the Calvinism/Arminianism debate, or eschatological debates. Rather, it is used to argue that evolution is wrong, or that homosexuality is evil, or that women should submit to their husbands. It is within the Evangelical's rights to believe these doctrines, but they do seem removed from the core notions of personal salvation and relationship with God through being born again which forms the core of Evangelical practice and belief. So why is it such a big deal?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Happy Graduation!

To my two sisters, who both graduated from college with various degrees last weekend--congratulations! I tip my glass back to you both.