President Obama against the world

February 8, 2011

I have been trying to make sense of our government’s approach to the uprising in Egypt.  Not just the statements and policies, but the inner logic, the deep structure:  the vision of the world from which the statements and policies flow.

And I keep coming back to the idea that President Obama is uninterested in the world, and would – if the world allowed him – turn his back on it.

Much has been made of the administration’s inability to keep up with events on the ground in Egypt.  This is a fair indictment.  White House and State Department statements seem to shift according to the images on that day’s Al Jazeera feed.

I’ll cite one example.  On 28 January, with demonstrators brushing aside the police in many Egyptian cities while Hosni Mubarak, the country’s “president” of 30 years, maintained a sphinx-like silence, the White House made emphatic noises about cutting US aid.  Three days later, after Mubarak offered to leave office in September, Secretary of State Clinton stated, “There is no discussion of cutting off aid.”

US positions appear tactical, improvised, and often contradictory.  Egypt is pronounced “stable” by the secretary of state, but a few days later the president finds the country to be suffering a “moment of volatility.”  We deny any wish to “dictate” an outcome to the crisis, but this is how White House press secretary addresses the Egyptian government:  “Violence in any form should stop immediately, and the grievances should be addressed.”

This obsession with tactical positioning is a symptom of a much graver malady.  Toward a country like Egypt, ruled by a sickly 82-year-old despot and key to the frail US-sponsored arrangements in the Middle East, the administration had failed to articulate a vision of how American interests and ideals must evolve into the future.  Tactics were necessary because no strategy existed.

The omission can only be described as attention deficit disorder on a world historical scale.  I’m not privy to the motives of the president or his advisors, but they seem to me strangely uninterested in shaping events, in directing outcomes – in making history.  They seem to me like they wish to be left alone by a turbulent world.

Our official declarations have tended to strike an angelic pose, as if the United States lacked any selfish interests.  Of the Tunisian uprising, prime mover to the current Arab upheaval, Secretary Clinton said:  “We are not taking sides.”  For days after a human tide, like the Red Sea, overwhelmed the security forces of Mubarak’s pharaonic regime, US statements worried mainly about the possibility of violence.  “We urge all parties to refrain from violence”:  another way of saying, “We are not taking sides.”

Even when, in the press of events, the administration at length abandoned Mubarak for some sort of transitional process, the appeal was to airy “universal” principles rather than to American interests or ideals.  “We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people,” read a White House statement.  “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal,” said the president, somewhat later, on TV.  To the Egyptian government, Vice President Biden “restated President Obama’s support for universal rights.”  In a statement condemning regime violence against journalists, Secretary Clinton first spoke of “international norms” but soon reverted to “universal values.”

The values in question were “freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.”  These are truly noble ideals, but I’d like the chance to question Secretary Clinton about their universality.  Neither she nor anyone else in the administration, I feel certain, would take up the debate.  Their talk of universal values is a dodge, a way of pretending liberal democracy isn’t an American ideal.

In fact the US has an existential stake in the outcome in Egypt.  We wish to prevent an Islamist takeover.  We don’t wish to see the most populous and prestigious Arab nation – but also the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood – become, like Iran, a zealous promoter of terrorism.  We wish to see the peace with Israel hold, or else the “moment of volatility” will give way to far more dreadful times.

And because America is an ideological country, and Americans are an ideological people, we wish to have peaceful relations with an Egyptian government which embraces liberal democracy – personal and political freedom – in all its aspects.

President Obama is shy in pressing these peculiarly American interests and ideals.  He prefers the angelic pose.  In a WaPo article, David Ignatius calls him the first “post-colonial” president – which I translate to mean, the first president who believes US influence brings more harm than good to the world.  Maybe so.  This would explain the president’s shyness, and would agree with observations I have made on this blog.

Yet a sincere post-colonialist would possess the theoretical framework to prefer a specific outcome in Egypt – the overthrow of the corrupt NDP clique – and the motivation to seek this outcome by the application of American power.  Instead the president has dithered.  At present he seems to favor a transition managed by the newly appointed Egyptian vice president, a man fully implicated in the crimes of the regime.

If, as Ignatius claims, the president is in his mind a disciple of Frantz Fanon, in his actions he appears to be a servant of the status quo.

Because of his exotic personal background, Barack Obama has been portrayed as uniquely at home outside our borders:  a citizen of the world.  The reality is that, like the typical Joe Sixpack, he is deeply uninterested in, and suspicious of, the sound and fury emanating from the world – the noise of history.  His secretary of state is an invisible woman.  His State of the Union speech scarcely took notice of the existence of contending nations and restless populations, any of which can erupt, as Egypt has, without a moment’s warning, to bring grief to American lives.

On the stage of history, President Obama so far has been, by orders of magnitude, the most passive and conservative chief executive in my lifetime.  He seeks to freeze human affairs in a Faustian moment, with America’s clients distant enough that they won’t entangle us in their troubles, and America’s antagonists flattered enough that they won’t scheme our ruin.  He can then turn inward, and achieve at home his parochial transformations.

But history won’t go away.  The world is too much with us, and the United States is too large a force in the world.  For peculiarly American reasons, that force has been exerted on behalf of freedom.  From Hitler to Saddam Hussein, would-be Caesars have had to contend with the American fighting man, while totalitarians have had to reckon with a fierce American defense of liberal democracy.

American power and influence are identified in history with a way of life.  It will be hard for President Obama to tiptoe away from America’s historical commitments, without wreaking havoc on the status quo he so desperately wishes to preserve.

UPDATE:  Jackson Diehl at WaPo records another instance of the president’s obdurate loyalty to the status quo.


The moral implications of the Constitution

January 11, 2011

Almost exactly one year ago I wrote on this blog:

I believe the US stands in need of a return to its founding principles.

It turns out I wasn’t alone.  Voters in large numbers worried that the administration had abandoned the first principles of American governance in favor of an elite-managed social democratic model, Europe-style.  The November elections turned on this question, and the result – an epochal disaster for the president’s party – was a clear answer.  The people want their federal government back in the box.

For obvious reasons, the political insurgents of 2010 make much of the Constitution.  To curry favor with them, the politicians they just elected began the new session of the House with a reading of that document.  Liberals reacted with anger.  Strangely, the Constitution of the United States has now become controversial.

Liberal politicos and writers feel wounded by the election results.  They wish to strike back at their opponents, which is understandable.  But they often sound like the Constitution, to them, is some sort of antiquarian irrelevance, to be dismissed with contempt.

Some of their mockery is childish, and probably harmless.  Others seem disgusted because the Constitution once embraced slavery and banned the sale of liquor.  Such outlandish positions, they imply, remove all legitimacy from the document.  Loftier liberal critics describe the Constitution as an ancient parchment full of strange-sounding words, open to infinite interpretation.  An emotional attachment to this museum piece becomes a symptom of know-nothingism, and of a futile revolt, not against President Obama or social democracy, but the inexorable changes of the modern world.

I’d like to focus on the question whether the Constitution offers a specific moral and political perspective, so I’ll deal with the critics very briefly.

First, slavery.  If the Framers had insisted on abolition, they would have failed in their task.  It’s that simple.  There would be no Constitution, because there would be no United States.  Instead, the Framers behaved like grownups, and accepted an unpleasant tradeoff.  They chose some freedom over none.  Those who condemn this decision must explain which alternative would be morally preferable.

Second, antiquity.  The right to property goes back to Roman times.  Habeas corpus was formulated in the Middle Ages.  Representative government evolved in England during the Stuart and Hanoverian periods.  Funny-sounding words, many of them foreign, were used to express these principles of American self-rule.  It is bizarre, not to say ignorant, to equate antiquity with negation.

But is the Constitution so sketchy and obscure as to be open to any and all interpretations?  Here, at last, we come to the heart of the matter.

I don’t believe the Constitution can be considered a political platform in the contemporary sense of the phrase.  It advocates no policies or laws.  Nor do I believe it’s a particularly conservative document.  It smiles on progress and perfectibility.  Nor do I find in it a rejection of big government:  the size of the budget is left for the people and their representatives to decide.

But it places sharp limits on the scope of government, and this limitation flows from a specific moral ideal about the relation of the citizen to political power.

The Framers, to a man, believed in the necessity of “virtue in the people” – Madison’s words – to the preservation of freedom.  This entailed personal responsibility and accountability.  The individual thus was sheathed in constitutional rights and protections, which no government may abrogate.  The American citizen, by the law of the land, is a moral agent.  He does right or wrong on his own account – not that of his lord, or his president, or his government.

Sovereignty arises from moral agency, and from the first three words of the preamble the Constitution imparts both to the individual citizen, who in the aggregate become “we the people.”  Power belongs to the people:  it is never bestowed.

Yet the Framers also believed in human corruptibility, particularly when it came to the abuse of power and wealth.  They read history, and knew their Suetonius.  The trick, for them, was to find a way to balance the need for personal virtue with the requirements of a functional government.

They achieved this balance in two ways.  The Constitution, on principle, places many activities beyond the writ of government:  for example, suspending habeas corpus, criminalizing an action after the fact, and awarding titles of nobility.  Much is forbidden to political actors.  The number of constitutional barriers erected against government intrusion far outnumber the handful of positive powers we the people hand off to our public servants.

And if we look to the explicit powers of the president, we find he’s to be commander in chief, negotiate treaties, and make appointments to various offices – and that’s it.  Most enumerated powers are listed under the authority of Congress, which was expected to retain a closer bond with the people.

Principle, of course, works only for the principled.  Corrupt politicians can always uncover loopholes to trample on the document’s intent.  Being politicians themselves, the Framers knew this, and devised a practical and unprecedented approach to principled politics.  They invented a dynamic geometry of power.

In a New Yorker article which finds it necessary to observe that the sheets of the original Constitution were “made not from the pulp of plants but from the hide of an animal,” Jill Lepore concludes that the document “doesn’t exactly explain itself.”  That’s true only if one is blind to the mathematics.  Everywhere in the text there is division and subdivision, weight and counterweight, authority pared to ever thinner slices.

Power is fractured among president and Congress.  But there are two houses in Congress.  There are two senators from each state.  The president makes treaties but they must be ratified by the Senate.  The same applies to his power to appoint.  The House can impeach a president, but only the Senate can evict him.  One can almost hear the music – a Bach counterpoint – emanating from the most elaborate and baffling system in the history of politics.

The American model of government is ponderous and often gridlocked.  That was intended.  “Ambition,” Madison wrote, “must be made to counteract ambition.”  The great physical and economic might of the state must be dispersed, so that the citizen can retain his moral agency, sovereignty, and dignity.

It is this arrangement which infuriates top-down reformers:  people who think they know best.  In the geometry of power, they see a broken machine.  In the moral agency of the citizen, they find an obstacle to change.  I have no doubt this is how President Obama and the chief people in his administration feel.  They wish to improve us by absorbing moral agency and sovereignty unto themselves.  They think they have the answers, and they don’t want to tap-dance around a bunch of eighteenth-century clutter.

Social democracy, the goal of these reformers, is the political equivalent of a nursery school.  Only a few are allowed to behave like adults.

I’m also reasonably sure that those who oppose the president do so because they wish to keep agency and sovereignty in their own hands.  If, to make their point, they choose to engage in a “cult” of the Constitution, I think they will find justification in the spirit and the letter of the document.


North Korea kills, NYT chill

November 25, 2010

The actions of the shadowy rulers of North Korea are rarely transparent, but the general outlines of Monday’s violence in Yeongpyeong island are clear enough.  North Korean artillery lobbed over 200 shells into the island, which hosts a military base and a population of fishermen and their families.  Two South Korean marines died in the attack.  Many homes burned to the ground, and the charred bodies of two civilian victims were discovered Tuesday.  Eighteen people suffered injuries.

The South Koreans, who had been conducting a military exercise on the island, returned fire.  There’s no indication of any casualties by the North.

For all its antic reputation, the North Korean regime is quite adept at murder and blackmail.  It represses, imprisons, and starves its own population into submission.  In March, it torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors on board.  Earlier this month, it revealed to an American scientist a sophisticated and hitherto unsuspected capability for enriching uranium – threatening nuclear Gotterdammerung to an appalled world.

There’s a history here.  Yeongpyeong is the latest in a long list of atrocities perpetrated by the North Koreans for reasons best known to themselves.

Unless one looks at the world through the eyes of the New York Times.

The NYT’s tendentious “coverage” of the incident, committed by Mark McDonald, stands out as an atrocity of the journalistic kind.  In his initial report, McDonald seems perplexed about who fired first – although a literal reading might indicate it was the South Koreans.

The North blamed the South for starting the exchange; the South acknowledged firing test shots in the area but denied that any had fallen in the North’s territory.

One side says this, the other that, who’s to tell what happened?  Only the South, suspiciously, is forced to “acknowledge” anything.

The same approach is used when referencing the torpedoing of the South Korean warship.  The North’s responsibility for the attack has been established by a panel of independent experts, and accepted by most of the world.  But this is how the Solomonic McDonald comes to judgment:  “Seoul blamed a North Korean torpedo attack; the North has denied any role.”  How can an honest reporter decide?

Later in the report, McDonald rambles on at length about how “analysts” believe the artillery attack was really a desperate North Korean plea for food aid, which has been “strangled” by US sanctions.  One “analyst” gets more space than any other voice in the report:

“It’s a sign of North Korea’s increasing frustration,” Mr. Choi said.

“Washington has turned a deaf ear to Pyongyang and North Korea is saying, ‘Look here. We’re still alive. We can cause trouble. You can’t ignore us.’ ” [. . .]

“They’re in a desperate situation, and they want food immediately, not next year,” he said.

Here at last we are told who is to blame:  we are.  The North Koreans, led by their “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, feel frustrated, ignored, and finally driven to desperate acts by America’s indifference and strangling power.

McDonald’s report on the following day is even more egregious.  Once again he appears to wash his hands in the matter of blame:  “The Koreas blame each other for instigating the artillery barrages on Tuesday afternoon,” is his coy starting proposition.  But it soon becomes clear, from listening to McDonald’s “analysts,” that in fact the South bears the brunt of responsibility for being attacked.

“What has been missing in all the analysis is that we’re not listening to what North Korea says,” said Michael Breen, the author of a book about the two Koreas and a biography of Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader. “Because of the blustering language the North Koreans always use, you tend to dismiss it.

“But if the North was holding live-fire exercises five miles offshore from South Korea, it wouldn’t just be business as usual. These waters, they consider theirs. What’s the point, anyway, of doing these live-fire drills so close to North Korea?”

The point of the live-fire drills, of course, might be to defend the island against just such an attack as took place – but this isn’t the kind of logic “analysts” indulge in.  Anyway, a South Korean Defense Ministry official “acknowledged Tuesday night that the South had fired artillery close to North Korea,” and all that acknowledging probably adds up to a guilty verdict.

McDonald fairly sputters over news that, in a gesture of support, the US will be sending an aircraft carrier group to South Korea.  Yet another “analyst” gets trotted out to do the NYT’s vicarious opinionating:

Mr. Breen called it “foolishness.”

“The whole idea is just to give them the bird,” he said.

North Korea scholars in Seoul said the arrival of the aircraft carrier, as a potent symbol of gunboat diplomacy, would likely bolster the hardliners inside the North Korean regime.

“These guys want aircraft carriers,” Mr. Delury said. “This is exactly the response they want.”

Beyond boilerplate statements by the US military, no contrary voice is heard anywhere in the report.

Nor is consideration given to the difference in character of the two governments, North and South.  One is a brutal and aggressive despotism, the other a democracy lately inclined to appeasement:  no matter.  The only discussion of character McDonald engages in is a vigorous defense of Kim Jong Il’s.

“He’s not a foolish man at all,” Mr. Breen said. “He’s not crazy, not at all. He’s not nuts. That’s a very shallow analysis.

“If he was here on a conference call with us, he’d say, “Look, if there’s a war, my country will be finished within a week. I know that. I’m not trying to start a war, I just don’t like enemy states holding live-fire exercises within stone-throwing distance of my coast.”

So there we have it.  The US is foolish for giving North Korea the middle finger.  Kim Jong Il, however, is not foolish – he’s a reasonable guy, concerned about those live-fire drills.  Killing four people and destroying a fishing village is just his personal communications style, the Dear Leader equivalent of a conference call.

A Manichean vision seems to inspire the NYT approach:  self-loathing and self-abuse on one side, generosity if not admiration for moral monsters on the other.  Those who recall the work of Walter Duranty while “covering” Stalin’s purges will understand that the vision long ago conquered the soul of the newspaper, and like a cognitive affliction controls the facts its staff can process and regurgitate.

Print all the news which fit the mold.


Naked before the bureaucrats

November 20, 2010

Some years ago, after a particularly vigorous frisking in Heathrow Airport, London, I turned to the security agent and said:  “I think we have to get married now.”  He was not amused.

That was an age of innocence.  Today, TSA is lustily engaging in full-body scannings and genital gropings of nuns at US airports.  But there has been pushback:  barefoot and beltless, the American public has had enough of the autocrats of the security queue, and is in a state of open revolt.

This man has become a culture hero by defying the airport goons while his iPhone camera was on.  His cry of defiance has gone viral:  “Don’t touch my junk.”  The normally decorous Charles Krauthammer quotes him and piles on:  “Don’t touch my junk, you airport security goon – my package belongs to no one but me, and do you really think I’m a Nigerian nut job preparing for my 72-virgin orgy by blowing my johnson to kingdom come?”

Janet Napolitano, head of the vast mindless horde known as Homeland Security, is not amused.  What’s wrong with being groped in the groin by a goon in a uniform?  It’s part of our “layered defense” and “layered approach,” she says.

Of course, we know Janet Napolitano can see right through those layers – and God help us if she craves a feel . . .

Since a lot of digital ink has been spilled on the subject, let me just make a couple of points – without once using the words “junk” or “johnson” – then withdraw into a discreet silence.

The political class now in charge of Washington has the ambition to control our lives, but lacks the wisdom and the courage to command the ways.  Instead it issues vague generic instructions to a brain-dead bureaucracy like TSA, which proceeds to take nude x-rays of the citizenry and feel up its private parts.

For the individual, it’s a violation.  For a liberal democracy, it’s an abomination – the surrender of sovereign power to government employees.  But for a bureaucracy, it’s business as usual:  show up, follow standard procedures, peep, grope, collect paycheck.  Complaints?  Threaten a lawsuit.  Call it a layered approach.

The outrage isn’t a question of the public listening to its inner puritan.  The clammy hands of TSA give physical reality to the more abstract urges of the Obama administration, and the anger at the airports is the same that was registered at the polls in the mid-term elections.

The people in power, disguised as good shepherds, like to echo the words of  the prophet Isaiah, “All we like sheep have gone astray.”  But we are not sheep, and they are not shepherds; and it is our government’s reach which has gone far astray.


Systems of freedom, systems of control

November 10, 2010

Janet Daley chronicles the death agonies of “democratic socialism,” 20 years after its totalitarian sibling expired.

So a generation after the collapse of totalitarian socialism, its democratic form is finally crumbling as well. And, oddly enough, the latter may take longer than the former to unravel. The one virtue of totalitarian governments is that they can be swept away in a single blow, either through violent overthrow or – as in the case of Soviet communism – by their populations simply walking out from under them. But social democracy has the supposed legitimacy of the consent of an electorate which has exercised a free political choice.

This is a second death, which makes the present state of socialism, in Europe and elsewhere, not so much democratic as zombie-like.  Originally socialism was an ideal of  social justice and brotherhood.  The current version is about the satisfaction of appetites:  mindless bodies tumbling about in dark streets, looking for fresh meat.

Zombie socialism has gone terminal because it lacks justification, other than the pleasure principle.  Looking over the world, I find this to be true of the regimes which today challenge and condemn liberal democracy.  Politically they might be strong or weak, but intellectually they are hollow.  They are defined by negation and, to paraphrase John Adams, can’t explain themselves to themselves.

Unlike the Marxist-Leninists, the fascists, the Nazis – all of whom could spin endless reams of bogus political theory – the despots of the moment are reduced to weak hypocrisies or awkward silence on the subject of their own systems of government.  The glorification of the state, once the key to transforming human nature, now emanates quite nakedly from a Nietzschean will to power.

Take the case of China, a country usually portrayed as the rising superpower.  What’s the Chinese model?  In essence, a political mafia – the undead carcass of the Chinese Communist Party – lords it over the most untrammeled capitalism on earth. Why does this mafia have the right to rule?  It used to be, because they were the vanguard of the proletariat.  Are they now the vanguard of the plutocrats?

The mind reels.  This isn’t a system:  it’s history.  It’s thugs in power for one reason clinging to power for whatever reason.

Or take Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and his “Bolivarian revolution.”  What does that label mean?  Other than a sincere anti-Americanism, nothing much.  In a sense, Chavez is a throwback Latin American caudillo, basing his power not on any system but on strength of personality.  He believes he’s doing his country a favor by shutting down the opposition and talking endlessly on TV.  But unlike the classic model of the personalistic dictator, Chavez has been unable or unwilling to dismantle Venezuela’s  democracy – and has been weakened by its continued existence.

Chavez has pauperized an oil-rich nation.  Even if his Bolivarian spoutings amounted to a true model, few would be interested in testing its consequences.

Islamist radicals oppose a caliphate to liberal democracy.  But politically “Islam” is a fiction lacking a path to reality.  The old caliphates – Arab and Ottoman – were political empires conquered and held together by the sword.  We are back in a history which is particular and can’t be borrowed or loaned.

The same applies to the political arrangements of the companions of Muhammad, a shining ideal, equivalent to “pure communism,” for Islamist terrorists like Osama bin Laden.  Here the appeal to history is a pretext for nihilism and revolution:  for a war of destruction against the pervasive Western flavor of the present.  Only a handful of Muslims – and of course no infidels – wish to live under such a dispensation.

As for the Iranian model, I have written elsewhere that it is more Platonic than Islamic.  In Iran, a corrupt religious clique sheathed itself in democratic-sounding institutions – and, like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, may well have been fatally wounded by even this slight brush with democracy.

Of the Kim dynasty’s “Juche” model in North Korea, and the Castro brothers’ Caribbean communism, the less said the better.  These are family businesses, not political systems – and both families are slouching toward senility and bankruptcy.

One by one, the great systems of control have lost legitimacy, until only a single true system remains, bestriding the world:  and it’s a system of freedom.  Liberal democracy rests on the sovereignty of the individual and the constraint of state power.  These were once parochial concerns, evolved in the history of Western Europe and America, but they have seized the imagination of much of the human race, and they have taken root in Latin America, Asia, Africa.

From an accident of history, liberal democracy has become the global path to personal happiness and material plenty.  For this reason, its only real challenger since the death of the Soviet Union has been democratic – zombie-style – socialism, which rejected the free market, contested the meaning of democracy, and promised a morally superior path to happiness and plenty.

Beijing and Caracas uttered angry defensive sounds:  but a flood of righteous smugness burst forth from Brussels and Paris, Madrid and Rome.  Posturing masked a pervasive hedonism.  Zombie socialists looked in the mirror, and passionately loved what they saw.

This was never a system, but it was about control.  The zombie state infantilized its citizens by denying them any meaningful life decisions.  It educated them at length, cut their hours at work, and allowed them to retire young.  In a democratic setting, this required a lot of money.  So long as citizens remained semi-adults, they continued to produce and reproduce, but with the inevitable regression to infantile behavior they have done less and less of either.

The paradox of zombie socialism is that triumph meant bankruptcy.  It can’t compel people to work on pain of death, as did Stalin, and it can’t embrace the markets without losing its aristocratic sneer of superiority.

Hence the second death.  According to Daley, the peoples and governments of Europe have woken up from their dream of eternal childhood, taken out their steely knives, and now seek to slay the insatiable monster:

On this side of the Atlantic, there is now a broad understanding that the social democratic project itself is unsustainable: that it has grown wildly beyond the principles of its inception and that the consequences of this are not only unaffordable, but positively damaging to national life and character.

As Europe retreats from social democracy, the midterm elections put an end to the Obama administration’s plans to Europeanize the US.

Daley thinks the end of zombie socialism will be “quite appallingly traumatic.”  The moral sovereignty of the individual will have to be resurrected somehow; the social contract will be edited beyond recognition.

“How can the mechanisms that entangle government in virtually every aspect of our personal and communal affairs be disengaged?” she wonders.  “And how can populations which have, perhaps against their better judgment, become dependent on the state, be enabled to take back what should be their rightful liberties and responsibilities?”

Maybe so.  Growing up is hard to do.  Accepting that money isn’t a social construct but must be earned in the sweat of one’s immaculately coiffed brow must be even harder.  But the world has gotten over more beautiful fantasies than that of aging populations playing at schoolchildren – it will get over this second death, and look back, I suspect, appalled that it didn’t happen sooner.


Marco Rubio’s exceptional America

November 7, 2010

The midterm elections are over, and advocates of limited government appear to be on the march.  Their opponents have lost all hope of permanent power, and – understandably enough – are reacting with anger and frustration.  Much of it is aimed at their countrymen.

Peter Beinart, parsing the acceptance speech of newly elected senator Marco Rubio, is appalled to discover in it the “lunatic notion of American exceptionalism.”  Rubio called America “the single greatest nation in all human history” because “almost every other place in the world. . . what you were going to be when you grow up was determined for you.”

In such love of country, most of us will hear a familiar note:  that of the grateful son of immigrants who sacrificed their present for his future.  This is a common American story.

Beinart, for his part, angrily derides the belief that America is an exceptional land when it comes to opportunity:

Almost every other place in the world? From China to India to Brazil, hundreds of millions of people are rising economically in ways their parents could scarcely have imagined, in part because their governments are investing in infrastructure in the way the United States did in the late nineteenth century. The American dream of upward mobility is alive and well, just not in America.

We are not particularly exceptional, Beinart is saying – and we are becoming less so every day, because of the electoral triumphs of a crazed “anti-government ideology.”

Putting aside the element of sour grapes, I think it’s fair to ask whether Beinart’s or Rubio’s description of America comes closer to reality.  Is ours an exceptional nation, or are made of the same mold with, say, China or Brazil?

When President Obama was asked the question, he responded evasively:  “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”  In other words, a sort of “Nope” – except as an indulgence of national vanity or in the trivial sense that we are each special in our own way.

There is, of course, no purely objective answer.  There’s no way to measure the moral distance between America and other nations by a number, as I would the temperature of my body or the speed of my car.  It’s a matter of faith, of belief.  The faith to which March Rubio testified with the miracle of his life was in our country’s extraordinary freedom from determination.

Most human lives – I recently noted in this blog – have been been determined in a way that is difficult for Americans to understand.  Across history, a grinding poverty has been the lot of the vast majority of people, whose existence, body and soul, was stunted by the desperate pursuit of survival.  Marx named this condition the kingdom of necessity.  One declared one’s independence from it at the cost of starvation and death.

But there were also cultural and political reasons for determination, summed up in what Karl Popper called the closed society:  the belief that the status quo had been ordained by God, and that any attempt to change one’s lot in life was not only subversive but morally monstrous.  So peasants forever remained peasants, and lords remained lords.

Only in the last three centuries has this changed in any degree.  It has taken the combined energies of the Enlightenment, modern science, and the industrial and technological revolutions to open up an undetermined space in the lives of ordinary people – and this only across a patchwork of places and times.

The American Revolution, and the constitutional order it bequeathed, contributed mightily to the birth of liberal democracy:  to the open society.  Rubio gave the Founders much credit for his “privileged” life.  His father was a bartender, his mother a maid, yet he has achieved high office.  Under the American dispensation, Rubio proclaims, peasants can become lords.  His own rise gives evidence to the country’s uniqueness.

I have traveled to many places in the world, and on balance I tend to agree with Rubio.  Nowhere else is the individual not only allowed but expected to re-make himself – from the category of “foreigner,” for example, into “one of us.”  Northern Virginia in my youth was a pretty homogeneous region, but my best friend had a German grandfather and a Welsh mother, and my second-best friend had a Cockney mom who sounded like a member of the “My Fair Lady” cast.

Today, my daughter’s friends are Iranian, Lebanese, Bolivian, Chinese, a veritable United Nations of immigrant citizenry.  These kids from the four corners of the globe aren’t accepted or tolerated by us:  they are us.

In America, you are what you become.  Rubio’s trajectory testifies to this mold-shattering  freedom, though not so vividly as Barack Obama’s, a man who rose from obscure, Gatsby-like origins to the highest office in the land.

What is exceptional about America is the depth and breadth of our personal freedom.  This has radiated to other countries, which is all to the good.  But the source is here:  and as our fortunes rise or fall, so does the spread of freedom.

As for the countries praised by Beinart – China, India, Brazil – I can only presume they were trotted out as rhetorical devices rather than examples of personal opportunity.  China is run by a corrupt Communist mafia, which controls who can attain wealth and who will stagnate in poverty.  If Beinart really believes Indians can transcend their personal origins, he should look up a single word:  outcaste.

Brazil I have visited a number of times.  It’s the most unequal country in the world – I once saw people living in what looked like doghouses, not far from the skyscrapers of Sao Paulo.  Color differences seem to determine one’s economic fate:  blacks are beach peddlers and construction workers, variegated skin tones prevail in middling jobs, and whites run everything.  In Brazil there’s racial tolerance but little freedom.

Americans, in their social and political freedom, are not in the same mold with the Chinese, Indians, and Brazilians.  Some day, maybe:  it’s an evolution devoutly to be wished.  But not today, and not soon.

A people which constantly re-makes itself isn’t likely to have much patience with those who use politics to regulate behavior.  Most Americans are Jeffersonians, and have limited government inscribed on their DNA.  In a world of Leviathan states, this too is exceptional – and it accounts for the results of last Tuesday’s elections, cause of Beinart’s complaint against his fellow citizens.


The French retire from reality

October 14, 2010

Another day off from work

The French in their jours du gloire rioted on behalf of a fraternal revolutionary future.  They got the Committee of Public Safety and the guillotine instead.  Today, they take to the streets to preserve the golden past.  Alas, they will get the inevitable future:  one in which pensioners earn more, workers less, and young people are down to nothing, until the social welfare system implodes from a lack of productive contributors.

For days now, huge demonstrations have swept France.  That typically French mode of expression, the vacation in the guise of a labor strike, has disrupted the rail system, shut down oil refineries, prevented tourists from climbing the Eiffel tower.

The French people are angry – in a languid way.  Regime change is in the air – or would be, if only they could think of an alternative.

The reason behind all this trouble is President Sarkozy’s desperate attempts to reform the country’s rickety retirement system, and keep it out of bankruptcy.  As a rule, the French enter the workforce late in life, but they compensate by retiring early.  The time in between, they mostly go on strike.

Unsustainable, n’est pas Francais.

To a foreigner like myself, Sarkozy’s reform legislation seems like pretty small potatoes:  minimum retirement age will be raised from 60 to 62.

To the French, this is infamy.

Eric Floresse said his commute had been disrupted, but in a good cause.

“I think the reform is unjust, there are already lots of older people who are unemployed.

“I think there are better ways to sort out the social security deficit, it’s not the best solution,” he added.

The best solution was articulated by my first-born son, who many years ago, at the age of five, had reached the maximum level of political maturity allowed to the average French citizen.  After spending a day with his grandparents, he asked why they didn’t work.  “Because they are retired,” I explained.  After a deep reflective silence, my son declared:  “When I grow up, I want to be retired too.”

No one ever won money betting on the French government’s ability to stand up to a national temper tantrum.  You heard it here first:  Sarkozy will cave.