Hipster Doofus
Monday, April 26, 2004
Bank Shot

Matthew Yglesias has a lot of good stuff to say at Tapped about the differences between democracy promotion in Eastern Europe during the late Cold War and in the Middle East today. But there's another difference that I don't think gets enough attention. During the Cold War, things were pretty straightforward: we supported dissidents in their struggles against despotic regimes because those regimes posed a threat to us. Things in today's Middle East are different -- the greatest threat to America is not the despots, although some of them are plenty threatening. Rather, the greatest threat is that the despotism of the region creates angry, frustrated people who turn their rage against us. Ironically, this puts us on the "same side" as our most bitter enemies, in that we both seek to change the status quo in, say, Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- although, of course, the changes we seek are starkly different.

Thus, we can't look at democratizing the Middle East the same way we looked at democratizing Poland. Rather, we have to imagine that Poland never fell to Communism, but withered throughout the Cold War under a decrepit, undemocratic allied regime, a regime that in turn gave rise to a left wing radical movement that threatened America's security. Or else we can dispense with the Cold War alternate histories and look squarely at the situation we're facing. It's a lot more complicated than what we faced in Eastern Europe.
Seeing Evil

David Brooks has some good points in his column on the evil of the Columbine killers and Al Qaeda terrorists. But the overall thrust of the piece is misguided.

Brooks decries the post-Columbine analysis that dwelled on the purported victimization of the killers: they were bullied, they were socially marginalized, they must have come from bad homes, etc. Instead, he cites to last week's excellent Slate piece for the theory that at least Harris was purely and simply a psychopath, given to megalomaniac, blood-drenched grandiosity.

But then he goes a step further, implying that the lesson in all of this is that we shouldn't try to figure out why people do evil things:

"Now, in 2004, we have more experience with suicidal murderers. Yet it is striking how resilient this perpetrator-as-victim narrative remains. We still sometimes assume that the people who flew planes into buildings and those who blew up synagogues in Turkey, trains in Spain, discos in Tel Aviv and schoolchildren this week in Basra are driven by feelings of weakness, resentment and inferiority. We cling to the egotistical notion that it is our economic and political dominance that drives terrorists insane."

But Brooks is creating a strawman. I don't think too many liberals want the psychological healing of individual terrorists to be a central component of the war on terror. For all we know, Mohammed Atta and his crew were, to a man, clinical psychopaths of the Harris ilk; Osama Bin Laden himself may well be, too. But there's a very real question as to why their penchant for evil, whatever its psychological dynamics, sent them on a quest to commit mass murder against Americans. Why was their bloodlust directed towards such political aims?

And the far more compelling question is, why does their bloodlust hold such appeal to others in the Muslim world? I'm sure that Kleibold and Harris have their (sick) admirers, and, sadly, they may even have their copycats. But it can hardly be said that they have a movement. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, does. While the vast majority of the Muslim world has rejected its works, the group managed to rally thousands to its camps before September 11; since then, the impairment of its leadership has apparently spawned numerous successor organizations.

Perhaps many of the young men who went to those training camps were psychopaths like Harris; perhaps the same can be said for those who have taken up the cause over the past few years. But that's not the end of the conversation, as Brooks seems to imply that it should be. Politics is not something to be exercised when all the evil people are out of the way. Rather, it serves to manage the phenomenon of evil: to keep it from emerging, to manage it when it does, and, yes, to punish it. Thus, after World War II, America did not simply decide that Stalinism was evil and announce to Europe that, of course, it ought to reject it. Rather, we coupled our containment of its power with a generous benevolence towards those societies that might fall prey to its temptations. Similarly, today, we cannot allow the evil of our enemy to distract us from the political nature of our struggle.

Of course, our political situation in the Middle East is far more complex than simply, "they resent us." But the resentment is there, and we simply can't stick our collective head in the sand about it if we are to confront the political issues that bedevil us. And, in the long run, we can't win the war without successfully addressing those political issues.
Friday, April 23, 2004
More Body and Soul

After this sad story broke, I was waiting all day for Jeanne to comment -- and she doesn't disappoint.
I don't much care for the foreign policy instincts found in Bruce Bartlett's latest, but his analysis of the Bush White House strikes me as spot-on, and brave. For my money, here's the key quote:

"I am not yet convinced that President Bush manufactured evidence for their existence as a pretext for war. But I do believe that he has fostered a White House culture that contributes to error with a stifled internal debate, a decision-making process that seems to short circuit research and analysis, and an obsession with loyalty and secrecy that makes the Nixon White House appear as a model of openness and transparency."

It's hard not to see this dysfunctionality as being all tied up with the preposterous "anti-elitism" of the Administration (link via Body and Soul, which has some great points on the subject also.) This President really seems to buy his schtick: everything he does must of course be right, and there's no need to question what he does, because the only people who would ever question anything he does are fancy-pants intellectuals.

If that last sentence didn't make any sense to you, it's because it doesn't.

Obviously just another left-wing partisan hack with an axe to grind....
Wednesday, April 21, 2004
More on Wolfe, Left and Right

More thoughts on that last post....

I think something that Wolfe (and Goldberg) sniffs at, but doesn't flesh out, is the striking similarity between today's Right and the hard-core Left it so despises.

To paraphrase Wolfe's formulation of liberalism, liberals care about process as much as, if not more than, policy outcomes. An extreme example of a quintisentially liberal project might be the American efforts in Iraq (or so, at least, we hope): we don't ultimately care if the Iraqis go with consumption-based or income taxes, or how they structure their healthcare system, or whether educational funding is local or national; but we care a great deal whether these decisions are made by a elected leaders after non-violent debates in which all Iraqis can speak their peace.

Back in the U.S.A., a truly "liberal" democrat might have a lot to say on taxes, healthcare, and education -- but just as important as policy outcomes is, once again, that they are reached in a truly open, democratic fashion. The same is, of course, true for many conservatives and people of the Right.

But the ends-more-important-than-means, process-is-for-sissies mentality that famously pervades the hard left conception of politics has clearly found a home in today's Right. Perhaps you could overlook the occassional impeachment of a president on to-say-the-least tenuous grounds. And one side had to come out of the 2000 recount saga with the White House and, if its candidate had lost the popular vote but proceeded to act as if he had won 55%, well, then, hey... that's probably just a coincidence, and not a slap at our democratic (small "d") heritage. Come to think of it, it's silly to wait ten years to redistrict. And if you lead the nation to war on grounds that turn out to be, er, kind-of sort-of shaky, it would still be entirely appropriate to use the war in campaign attack ads. By the way, where can I get a civics lesson plan on the Medicare bill's passage?

But when you put the pieces together, it's clear that the right wing has constructed a machine that cares more about winning than observing liberal norms. There are very conscientious classical liberals within the GOP and amongst its supporters, people who want liberal democracy to flourish in America. But the gestalt is a movement beset by the notion: we could care less.

I fear I drifted from the similarities between the Left and Right to a wan recapitulation of my last post. I'll try to focus next time.
Crying Wolfe

I know I'm late to the whole Alan Wolfe/Carl Schmitt thing... but I'm late to the whole bloggin thing anyway, so I suppose I'll have to forgive myself. (Isn't that convenient reasoning?)

I recall having the impression that Wolfe's piece was pretty widely sniped-at by the right. I'll use Jonah Goldberg's response as a representative take-down. I find it generally wrong, because I find Wolfe's analysis generally compelling. But it's wrong in an illuminating sort of way.

It's tough to argue who the "real liberals" are. As Goldberg points out, it's a bit unfair for Wolfe to cherry-pick O'Reilly and Coulter. But it's also unfair for Goldberg to strike back with a half an hour's worth of trolling lefty websites -- or even with his general assertion that, yes, there are mean democrats, too.

I'm perfectly willing to believe that there are plenty of mean Democrats, and plenty of generally pleasant Dems who fly off the handle every now and then. And there are certainly Republicans who are not only friendly, but also liberals in the classic (and even more recent) sense of the word. But I have little doubt that, outliers and strawfolk aside, liberalism, as described by Wolfe, is much more welcome amongst "liberals" than within today's right.

I won't compile lists of GOP Schmittians. But one who's worth noting is Grover Norquist -- he's not just using tasteless-doesn't-begin-to-describe-it analogies to blast Democratic policies (although, see the estate tax, he does); he uses them to blast the very practice of bipartisanship. And he's hardly some obscure fringe character in the recent history of the right.

Looking at the big picture, it's hard to look at the Presidential campaign and see the Democrats as the Schmittier party. Republicans are free to rally 'round George W. Bush as a with-me-or-against-me clear talker and blast John Kerry as a mealy-mouthed flip-flopper. They're also free to insist that the GOP is truly the party of sitting down and hashing out differences in a spirit of "uniting not dividing" compromise, as opposed to the absolutist Democrats. But I don't see how you can argue both.

But Goldberg is right to see Wolfe as recognizing the existence of Schmittism on the Left. I don't think Wolfe's being too clever by half on this score -- I think he's quite clear about it. There is a hard core of leftists-not-liberals who seek the utter politicization of human activity in order to advance their eventual aims. But go a few degrees towards the center, and the tendency becomes a lot less pronounced. Keep going right, though, and it eventually picks up.
Monday, April 19, 2004
I'm Sure He Was Being Ironic

Rush Limbaugh has gone far past the pale with his latest(?) "he's-an-entertainer-not-a-newsperson" insinuation (via Instapundit, which can't bring itself to pass the outrage along without a countervailing dig at Air America).

Farber's point on Cheney is a good one. Something tells me that if John Kerry were to go on the air with someone who casually insinuated that, say, Dick Cheney (the Laura Bush comparison doesn't really work here) had someone assasinated, we'd hear a whole lot about it.

If, in fact, he has, please feel free to correct me. (If you're out there.)

I don't think that liberal hawks -- or most any hawks whose hawkishness stemmed from some source other than intellectual obedience to the Administration -- need to admit that they were wrong on the grounds that the White House's bungling was inevitable. (See also here, and, as these links look down, access them both at their mothership.)

Commentators are perfectly free to support a policy in principle, even if they doubt that the people who would carry it out are up to the task. Perhaps over the long term this doesn't hold true -- a staple of principled conservative thought is that, on account of human nature, government servants are incapable of carrying out the grand ambitions of those who would improve society. And perhaps it's untrue in a class of very discreet cases -- for example, supporting "fast track" trade negotiating authority to President Bush is a very different proposition from supporting it for, say, a President Gephardt. But, in late 2002 and the winter of 2003, the position that the war in general was a good idea, coupled with the concern that Bush would flub the aftermath, was perfectly valid. It's not like it was an up-or-down vote.

And on the issue of an up-or-down vote....

I'd say the nuance-hawk position was valid in that situation, too. Yes, there's the whole keys-to-the-car angle. But there's also the fact that Members of Congress don't get to pick who the President is at any given time (insert joke about how the Supreme Court does here.) With the track record that this Administration has racked up, you could make a plausible argument that nearly any appropriation or authorization was irresponsible -- frankly, it was forseeable that federal departments would be used for improper political purposes. But you still fund them. And, in 2002, if you generally supported the idea of dealing forcibly with Saddam Hussein's regime, you couldn't support doing so under the leadership of Al Gore or John Kerry. You were stuck with having the policy -- like any federal policy -- executed under the Bush Administration. And that Administration is responsible for the execution.

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