Saturday, September 06, 2008

How the North Vietnamese Got the Last Laugh on McCain (and the rest of us)

So the original plan was to post on the Republicans' logical fallacy of choice, but after watching their convention it struck me that the most striking thing about it was John McCain's biography and how it was portrayed explicitly, but also how it's ultimate results infused the entire message implicitly. So while I would no doubt enjoy ridiculing the begging of numerous questions, or McCain's attempt to one-up his opponents in the ad misericordiam column, I will instead dedicate my analysis to John McCain's heroic battle with his North Vietnamese captors and his ultimate tragic defeat at their hands. Evidence for this defeat (which Senator McCain interprets as his victory) is drawn strictly from his nomination acceptance speech which was full of implicit admissions of the North Vietnamese triumph over Lieutenant Commander John S. McCain.

McCain's story is, by now, well known. On his 23rd mission over North Vietnam, John McCain was shot down and captured. For the next five and a half years, a battered and beaten John McCain fought a test of wills with his captors who dangled release in front of him in order to embarrass his Admiral father. He was beaten regularly. He was denied medical care. They did everything they could to get John McCain to give up. McCain and his fellow American POWs refused to capitulate and those who survived could return home with heads held high over their heroic service in an often unheroic war. But in a more fundamental sense, McCain lost his battle of wills and it's clear that he never realized it. The only thing that allowed McCain and his comrades to survive was their confident knowledge that as individuals, their lives were worth something, that they had rights that no amount of yelling, beating, or anything else their collectivist captors could throw at them would change that. Unlike the North Vietnamese, indoctrinated in a collectivist ideology which degraded individuals and exalted nothing but the "revolutionary morality" of the group (Ho Chi Minh's words), Americans were a proudly unapologetic individualistic people, and John McCain used to be one of them. That is, before being captured by the North Vietnamese.

John McCain's description of the pre-capture John McCain is a description of the sort of soldier it's easy to admire, the kind of person that I am, quite frankly, proud to have as a soldier defending our republic. McCain described himself in his speech this way: "I hadn't any worry I wouldn't come back safe and sound. I thought I was tougher than anyone. I was pretty independent then, too. I liked to bend a few rules and pick a few fights for the fun of it. But I did it for my own pleasure, my own pride, I didn't think there was a cause that was more important than me." Huzzah! Why didn't this John McCain run for President? The answer is simply that while McCain did not die that day, this version of John McCain would be killed over the next five and a half years by unremitting torture and pain. Why? McCain describes the process himself. What were the great lessons he learned while collectivist garbage passing itself as the vanguard of humanity tortured him? The post-capture McCain pathetically sums it up: "I didn't feel so tough anymore.....I was beginning to learn the limits of my selfish independence.....I was never the same again; I wasn't my own man anymore; I was my country's." McCain believes he reached the true morality of America, he claims that this experience was a "blessing" precisely because he had this epiphany. The horrid tragedy is that McCain, much closer to the true spirit of this country before capture, actually was turned into an almost perfect foot soldier in the ideological army of the very people torturing him.

Ho Chi Minh, the romanticized tyrant who consolidated a socialist "people's republic" North of the internationally demarcated border and then began infiltrating his cadres and special army units into the South in order to destroy any attempts at non-socialist self-government in the South to avoid Vietnam becoming another Korean peninsula, laid out the underlying ethical code upon which his political screed was based and he did so repeatedly. I only mention this because the mythology of Ho Chi Minh as some sort of happy-go-lucky "nationalist" who was not helped or was even betrayed by the west, thus "forcing" him to turn to China and the Soviet Union for help, is pure nonsense. Ho was a committed socialist and later communist going back to his time in France during the First World War. Ho was an ardent nationalist as well, but his sense of Vietnamese nationalism was not unconnected from his political ideas (as they shouldn't be for anyone actually). One reason he undermined and attempted to destroy the South's various elected governments was their opposition to socialism and allegiance to a moderately liberal order.

Quoting his friend, Bob Craner, who helped get him through the worst of his torture, McCain told the Republican National Convention and the millions watching on televisions around the world: "No man can always stand alone." Ho wrote an essay in 1958 entitled "On Revolutionary Morality," which sounds not dissimilar to John McCain's post-capture understanding of his relation to society and the proper ethical posture of citizens to one another. Ho was, unsurprisingly, not overly fond of individualism. In the struggle for survival he said "To succeed in this struggle each individual must rely on the force of large numbers of people, on the collective, on society. Alone, he cannot get the better of nature and subsist." This principle also applied to production: "Production, too, must rely on the collective, on society. Alone, the individual cannot produce." And aside from words like collective and revolutionary, see if this sounds somewhat familiar in light of McCain's "Country First" sloganeering: "Our era being a civilized, revolutionary era, one must rely all the more on the force of the collective, of society, in all undertakings. [McCain, keep in mind, referred to his "energy plan" as a "great national cause" that "we" must all "attack" together] More than ever the individual cannot stand apart but must join the collective, join society." (emphasis added)

What was the role of proper revolutionary in Ho's mind? There was more than one way to be a moral revolutionary in Ho's system. You could follow the list of party martyrs and others who "laid down their lives for the sake of the people and the Party, thus setting brilliant examples of total dedication to the public interest and complete selflessness." Short of that height, one had to "devote one's life to struggling for the Party and the revolution;" one had to "work hard for the Party, observe Party discipline, and implement Party lines and policies;" and one had to "put the interests of the Party and the labouring people before and above one's own interests. To serve the people wholeheartedly. To struggle selflessly for the Party and the people and to be exemplary in every respect." And unless a would-be revolutionary wanted to forget, Ho exhorted: "the prime criterion of a revolutionary is his resolve to struggle all his life for the Party and the revolution."

John McCain doesn't speak of revolutionaries, but he does speak to the proper roles citizens should play in the republic, and he also speaks to the concept of patriotism and what it should mean to proper citizens. Like one of Ho's ideal revolutionaries, McCain is a servant without (allegedly) a life of his own: "My friends, I've been an imperfect servant of my country for many years. But I've been her servant first, last, and always. And I've never lived a day, in good times and bad, that I didn't thank God for the privilege."

What should be the pinnacle of human ambition? Success? Wealth? Individual accomplishment and achievement? NO! McCain will have none of that, just like the man responsible for his torture. McCain the individual, the actual maverick, died long ago in North Vietnam. The Senator, who belongs not to himself, but to his country (the rankest form of collectivist drivel uttered at either convention this year), has something else in mind entirely. His idea of showing one's humanity is not by exercising one's reason, that faculty which separates us from the rest of the animals and allows our domination of the rest of nature and, thus, allows us to survive and prosper, but instead is exemplified by his wife's altruism and empathy: "Her concern for those less blessed than we are -- victims of land mines, children born in poverty, with birth defects -- shows the measure of her humanity."

A person's individual worth? Instead of being derived from the individuals ability to think rationally, set rational goals, and then achieve those goals, McCain gives us a collectivist valuation straight from one of Ho's contemporaries (almost anyway): "Roberta McCain gave us her love of life, her deep interest in the world, her strength, and her belief that we're all meant to use our opportunities to make ourselves useful to our country." Of course this is merely a reiteration of John F. Kennedy's famous "Ask not" query in his inaugural address, but just as Kennedy was horribly wrong, so is McCain. People do not exist in this republic of ours or anywhere merely to be servants to the state. One's "usefulness" to the country is irrelevant to their rights and the obligations of their government to protect and defend them, yet McCain's drift seems to be that maybe there is relevance after all and that is frightening. Who defines this usefulness? What are the criteria? What are the rewards for being deemed useful to the state and what are the punishments for failing to be so deemed?

McCain doesn't see anything outside of a collectivist context anymore, which is unsurprising given that he is, by his own proud admission, no longer his own man. For instance, people should not even be seen as autonomous individuals in the world of John McCain, but merely as one more member of society with something to contribute to said society or the state, or both. "In this country, we believe everyone has something to contribute and deserves the opportunity to reach their God-given potential [for contributing]." Forget the idea that Republicans used to champion (rhetorically) of being left alone by the government. McCain merely promises for the government to "stand on your side and fight for your future." Who knows what that means? But instead of being honest and standing in your way or doing the right thing and getting the hell out of the way, McCain's government will pretend that it's helping you as it attacks you where you're not even looking, from the flank.

And remember that pursuit of happiness bit in the Declaration of Independence? I had always assumed (apparently incorrectly) this applied to individuals defining their happiness rationally and then freely pursuing it in a country dedicated to protecting their individual rights, including the protection of their various achievements and properties gained in their pursuits. Not so according to McCain, "nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself." Since when? Does McCain, a man who claims to not even belong to himself, appear very happy? Also, what cause is greater than oneself? Love of country and what it stands for (any country) flows from a series of value judgements made by individuals. Should one decide to value their country and what they think it means and stands for highly enough, even the acts of fighting and dieing to protect it means that one is serving one's own cause still, since anyone who has joined the armed forces has obviously made the decision that defending the country they love is worth the risk of their untimely demise.

It's ironic that McCain and the other RNC speakers would ridicule Senator Obama's laughable "community organizing" experience for what it is, a nullity, but their own candidate lauds, promotes, and exhorts just such "service" as the pinnacle of what any person could do with their lives and for their country. If Senator Obama ever wised up and stopped being a completely naive milquetoast, he could pillory Senator McCain by his very own standards, but I'm not holding my breath. No, the saddest thing about the current state of the two party system is that when the party which usually plays up the rhetoric of liberty and individualism switches over to the collectivist nonsense of the other party, who will stand up to offer the rational alternative? The answer, sadly, is no one.

Monday, September 01, 2008

A Brief Note on "Experience" and the Presidency

"Experience" is the word of this election, contrary to all of the hoopla surrounding "change." Senator McCain has made much of Senator Obama's lack of "experience" to discredit his opponent's pretensions to knowing what he is talking about on a whole host of issues, but primarily those dealing with foreign policy. Senator Obama has now countered that Senator McCain's Vice-Presidential nominee selection, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, is an even greater novice, having only been in her current job for a year and a half. So what is one to make of all this talk of "experience?" Is it merely a canard? Or is there something to it? And if so, what?

The history of the Presidency is full of the experienced and the inexperienced, but it really depends on what sort of experience one values when selecting a President. For instance, George Washington had virtually no governing experience whatsoever when he became President. He had served in the Virginia House of Burgesses and, of course, had been Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. But, he had never been an executive officer in a constitutionally limited republican government, which is far far different from being the commander of an army. James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover were men brimming with experience that most thought would be invaluable to their respective Presidencies. Abraham Lincoln had no executive experience at all and his only national experience in government was one rather unsuccessful term as a representative from Illinois.

What sort of experience do we want in a President? The job is rather straightforward: 1) Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, 2) Sign or veto legislation from congress, 3) Appoint officers to various posts in the executive branch and the federal judiciary, and 4) Protect and defend the constitution. Very few people will ever have experience in more than one or two of these however. Aside from General Washington for instance, no one has ever had experience as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces before being President. State governors are the only people with some sort of comparable experience in items 2 and 3. And I would contend that there are very few politicians around who can credibly or legitimately claim they have any notion of how item 4 works. To put it simply, the job is a unique one that even a lifetime of experience will never adequately prepare one for. Ironically, the only thing that prepares someone to be President is being President, which is why people running for reelection are seldom besmirched as being inexperienced.

Experience is valuable mostly to voters because it provides something by which to judge how someone behaves and acts in office, under pressure, etc. Someone with little or no experience in office of some kind has to rely more on rhetoric and assurances simply because there is little or no publicly available evidence upon which they can base their claims. Incumbents are dominant not simply because of money, though that can and does help, but because they are experienced. As long as that experience does not upset a majority of their constituents, or rather a majority that cares and votes, they are highly unlikely to be turned out of office involuntarily. But while experience matters to voters when trying to get an idea of how a person will behave in office and perform as President, it is a surprisingly unreliable indicator of future job performance.

Richard Nixon did not have a reputation for dishonesty until becoming President (one of the many reasons his actions in office destroyed him so utterly in his second term). Military chiefs have been Presidents fairly often in the United States, but their various performances are hardly indicative of any patterns: George Washington served two terms and performed the job as only the republic's one indispensable man could, Andrew Jackson served two tumultuous but ultimately quite successful terms, William Henry Harrison died within a month of taking the job, Zachary Taylor had a difficult year and three+ months before dieing, Ulysses S. Grant's Presidency was an inglorious end note to a brilliantly successful performance in the Civil War, and General Eisenhower's presidency was an eight year affront to sound governance. There have been men in the job with far more experience than any of the nabobs currently running, like John Adams, John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft, etc. who have not had particularly successful times in office.

Senate experience is no more indicative of success or failure than being a governor of a state or a member of congress or even a Vice-President. Success as a President depends upon the person filling the job and the events he will face while in office. The judgement of the potential President is really what prior experience is meant to highlight in concrete ways. How does the candidate make decisions? What ideals and principles guide them to the decisions they eventually make? All the experience in the world means nothing if that experience is characterized by poor, irrational, or otherwise inept judgment.

Senator McCain should beware that fact whenever he points to his reservoir of "experience." Any thoughtful examination of his years in the Senate reveals a non-stop horror story of government expansion, assaults on individual liberty in a whole host of areas, and an "I'm holier than thou" hypocrisy unworthy of anyone trying to become President, even in these degraded times of ours.

Senator Obama should not be quick to dismiss experience when he has nothing to offer in assurance that he's thought through any of things he's saying or proposing. If he has thought them through, then it's an unfortunate sign of the caliber of his alleged "intellect."

The real experiences the press should focus on are the experiences of the American people over the past seventy-five years (at least), and the failures, big and small, of their perverse "experiment" in altruist-based and collectivist-laden government. The Presidential candidate who does not take that experience seriously and attempt to learn from it is doomed before he even gets elected no matter how much or how little "experience" he's had in making things worse.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Argumentum ad misericordiam: or, the Democratic National Convention '08

Ah, convention time is here again! Unfortunately, this means the Olympic games are now over and now the two parties of our long dysfunctional Third Party System (the First is sort of a misnomer to describe the battles of the Federalists and Republicans from 1789-1817; the Second refers to the Democrats and Whigs, 1828-1852; the Third, of course, began in 1856 when the Republican party ran it's first Presidential candidate, John C. Fremont) are taking their own crack at political propaganda. Without the power of the state to repress opposition and criticism, unlike the authoritarian hosts of this year's Olympic games, the American parties must rely on appeals to reason, or, short of that apparently Herculean effort, fallacious arguments. This has been true for some time, and both parties deal in fallacies as a matter of course. The same fallacies often, but both parties deal in some fallacies more than others. Next week, when Republicans gather in Minnesota to nominate Arizona Senator John McCain, I will focus on their fallacy of choice (you will have to wait till then to figure out what that is if you cannot already guess). But this week is the turn of the Democrats and so I will focus on their favorite fallacy, the argumentum ad misericordiam, or the appeal to pity.

This is a classic political fallacy. For those unfamiliar with the world of formal logical fallacies, the argumentum ad misericordiam is typified by an appeal to some sort of sad anecdotal story in order to then plead for an action/conclusion of some kind. For example, Al Gore was/is famous for pointing to an old person he had met whose medical and prescription drug bills amounted to more than he could afford, and thus the government should do "something" to bring down costs or to nationalize the insurance system, etc. It is a fallacy because instead of establishing the actual issues involved in such a policy decision, i.e. what is and is not a right, why, what is the proper role of government, etc., it simply tells an emotional story. An emotional story which is likely to make people feel sad or sympathetic and thus skip over all the actual issues such a decision should and does require (i.e. the actual premises of the argument) to justify the conclusion. The hallmark of a fallacy is that it takes a shortcut from the question to the answer without the necessary steps to prove it. In this case, the person using the fallacy wishes for those listening or reading to suspend their thinking and to base their judgment on their sympathetic feelings.

After just two days of their convention, the fallacy has already been used ad nauseum. While the examples could be listed endlessly and will no doubt pile up even higher as the convention crescendos tomorrow and Friday with the formal nominations of Senators Biden and Obama, I wish to focus on two of the principle speeches from the first two days. Namely, those of Senate candidate Mark Warner of Virginia and Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, and their repeated uses of this fallacy. These speeches could be critiqued for any number of reasons, for instance Mark Warner begging the question(s) when he said: "Look at health care. If we bring down costs and cover everyone, not only will America be healthier, we'll be more competitive in the global economy." How will "we" bring down costs? Why are costs high or increasing? How will the country be healthier if costs go down when it's already among the healthiest societies the world has ever known? How will this make the country more competitive? Competitive at what? Why is this a legitimate concern of the government? The list goes on and nowhere in the speech does Mr. Warner even recognize that such questions exist and require answering. Then there is Senator Clinton, who uses the ad misericordiam fallacy like it's going out of style, when she absurdly invoked Harriet Tubman's advice to runaway slaves as a parallel to present day America and for imploring people to vote for Senator Obama. There were numerous faults one could criticize (as there will no doubt be next week), but as this fallacy will come to dominate Senator Obama's message even more than it already does, there is value in exposing it fully and specifically.

The questions Mr. Warner was interested in asking and attempting to answer were embedded with appeals to sympathy and ignored the more important and fundamental questions. He said: "How many kids have the grades to go to college but not the money? [Ironically, he provides no answer to this, nor does he make an attempt to figure out why college tuition keeps going up, i.e. the increasing amounts of government money being pumped into the system, which is, ironically enough, his probable policy solution] How many families thought their home would always be their safest investment? [I don't know, but what does it matter? Mr. Warner makes a good point, real estate is an investment, it may be a relatively safe one, but it's an investment all the same. Who is not aware that investments sometimes go bust?] How many of our soldiers come back from their second or third tour of duty wondering if the education and health care benefits they were promised will actually be there? [What is he talking about exactly? Presumably this is a reference to the problems at Walter-Reed Army Medical Center, but he doesn't say exactly. As far as ad misericordiam fallacies go, he doesn't even provide a specific instance where something like this has occurred. Given that he fails to do that, it's no surprise that he forgets to address the question of what a republican government's exact obligations are to the veterans of its armed forces.]" The more important and fundamental question? Why should the government be concerned with these things and thus be doing "something" about them? Answering this is crucial for then discussing what actions are warranted, if any. Why does he not ask or answer these critical questions? If he could answer them persuasively, without the use of fallacious reasoning, it would go a long way to bolstering his policy solutions. It's curious he fails to do so. It's curious he fails to even attempt to do so.

Mr. Warner fails because he assumes, wrongly, that the answer is self-evident and agreed upon. He says so quite frankly: "I think we are blessed to be Americans. But with that blessing comes an obligation to our neighbors and to our common good. So you give every child the tools they need to succeed. That means quality schools, access to health care, safe neighborhoods. Not just because it's the right thing to do -- of course it is -- but because if those kids do better, we all do better." (emphasis added) Blessed to be Americans? What does that mean? It wasn't an accident that our country is where it is materially and is what it is politically. There was no divine favor or fortune involved, just concerted human action motivated by human ideas. Where does this obligation to others come from? Given the religious overtones of the word "blessed" one can only assume that it is the ethos of altruism flowing from the Judeo-Christian-Islamic ethical tradition. Where do the rights of these children come from? Why do they have a right to these "tools" of quality schools, health care, and safe neighborhoods? He may be correct. Indeed, if by "safe neighborhoods" he means police and the adherence to and prosecution of the laws he certainly is correct. While that goal is merely the government fulfilling its role and protecting its legal monopoly on violence, the other alleged rights are the products of other private citizens taken from one group (educators and doctors) and given to others, in this case children (children, next to the elderly, are a favorite of those who employ the ad misericordiam fallacy). While that distinction seems obvious, Mr. Warner passes over it and merely asserts that it's the right thing to do, case closed. This hardly constitutes an actual argument.

Mr. Warner was not yet finished tugging at heartstrings, he continued by focusing in on a particularly ridiculous, but nonetheless effective, "problem." Mr. Warner said:

"Let me tell you about a place called Lebanon: Lebanon, Virginia. Lebanon is in the coal fields of southwest Virginia. The population of that whole town could fit right here on the convention floor. Lebanon is like many small towns in America: It has seen the industries that sustained it downsized, outsourced or shut down.

Now, some folks look at towns like Lebanon and say, "tough luck. In the global economy, you've lost." But we believed that we couldn't and shouldn't give up on our small towns and expect the rest of the state to prosper. And that's what brought me, toward the end of my term, to the high school gym in Lebanon. To announce that we were going to bring over 300 high-tech jobs. Jobs that paid twice the county average.

One student told a reporter from the Washington Post that before this, he always thought he'd have to move away to raise a family and get a good job. I just heard from this young man, Michael Kisor. Today, he is a junior at Virginia Tech. His older brother just moved back home to Lebanon because there was an information technology job open for him that was just too good to pass up.

That's a story worth rewriting all across America."

Why is it a story worth rewriting? Since when is moving for work something to be disdained and discouraged? The story of America has always been the incredible freedom of movement for opportunities elsewhere from our earliest colonial days to the present. Mr. Warner lauded his own business failures earlier in the speech: "After I graduated law school, it didn't take long to realize that America really wouldn't miss me as a lawyer. So I started a business. My first company failed in six weeks. My next one was much more successful. It failed in six months. And then, a buddy of mine told me that there was this new idea. This thing called "car telephones" ... "cell phones." Friends told me, "Warner, you're crazy. Get a real job. ... No one's going to want a phone in the car." But I saw a different future. And with luck and a lot of hard work, I got in on the ground floor of the cell phone industry." Given his own failures and subsequent success, why disdain failure and (SHOCK!) change in the economy? Failure and change are what frees up resources to do something more productive and more valuable. His story actually illustrates this concept. If Mark Warner had remained a lawyer, he'd have been wasting his aptitudes and abilities, he says so himself quite openly. It was Mark Warner's failures and calculated risks to employ himself in the economy where he could be most successful that led to his eventual success. You'd think he'd be for breaking down whatever barriers exist within the economy so that his story becomes even more common than it already is, but, curiously, he does not. If Lebanon's economy fails then the young people will seek opportunity elsewhere, probably in one of the south's burgeoning cities. One of the great lasting legacies of slavery and the Civil War for the South has been it's economic backwardness and provincialism. Mr. Warner's solution is to try to "bring" jobs to small towns and keep people in them, but what kind of solution is that? It's certainly not a solution derived from his own life. If a person loves small town life so much, why is it the responsibility of government to try to make sure there is a job, let alone a good one, to allow them to stay in a small town? What about people in big towns and cities who want to live in small towns? What about people in small towns who don't like small towns and would rather live in cities? What about people who wish they made more money or were happier at work or would rather not work but still have money, clothes, a house, etc.? Is it the purpose of government to fulfill every random whim of any random citizen? Mr. Warner is either oblivious or duplicitous, and just as wrong either way.

[Note: Before moving to Senator Clinton, I briefly wish to take issue with Mr. Warner's historical contention that Thomas Jefferson was "the founder of our party." As a former governor of Virginia, this is inexcusable. While it is obviously tempting to wrap oneself in Jefferson, there is no good historical reason for the Democratic Party, let alone it's modern version, to do so. Jefferson's party, often referred to at the time as the Republican party, was a temporary organization whose only purpose was to defeat the Federalist party. Once that was done, the victorious Republicans ruled briefly with no or laughably minor opposition before splitting into new competing parties. One of those parties took the name of the Democracy, and was based around Andrew Jackson, a man who invoked Jefferson's policies and memory, though ironically Jefferson disliked the man from Tennessee. Henry Clay, who led the other (Whig) party, also claimed Jefferson's mantle and could do so credibly since he had been a loyal Jeffersonian Republican. Obviously the Democratic party survives to this day, but it does not advance the political ideas of Jackson (or Jefferson) anymore. The ideological founders of the modern party are William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson, not Jefferson and Jackson.]

Senator Clinton is a past master in the ad misericordiam fallacy, she wields it with ease and, unlike Mr. Warner, with great (though not too great, too many details can often spoil the effectiveness of the anecdote) specificity. Her first use of it was a real classic, right up there with anything Al Gore ever dug up: "I will always remember the single mom who had adopted two kids with autism. She didn't have health insurance and discovered she had cancer. But she greeted me with her bald head painted with my name on it and asked me to fight for health care for her and her children." Good god, what else might have happened to this poor woman to make her story sad? Perhaps if she had burst into flames upon meeting candidate Clinton it would make her story even more effective, but only slightly given how pathetic a story it already is. Of course, this woman is supposed to be more sympathetic because of her altruism, as she apparently purposely adopted not one autistic child, but two! Why she would do so is a bit of a puzzler, but ok, to each his own. But how foolish is she to adopt two children with developmental disorders while apparently having no health insurance? The fact that she then came down with cancer (and apparently is getting treatment without insurance, hmmmm........) only highlights how little thought she put into her actions. But, Senator Clinton tells us, we must provide her with health insurance. Not, as is often alleged, to get her treatment since her baldness tells us she is already being treated unless she randomly decided to shave her head, but to pay for that treatment. Why? No answer. Obviously, if the story did not move you to suspend your reason and accept the conclusion without question then you're obviously a bad person.

She then followed up with an equally dubious repetition of the fallacy: "I will always remember the young boy who told me his mom worked for the minimum wage and that her employer had cut her hours. He said he just didn't know what his family was going to do." Since these stories are from her recent run for the Democratic presidential nomination, one can only assume that this boy's mother is working under the new Democratically sponsored increased minimum wage. The Democrats increased the minimum wage in the midst of a faltering and weak economy. (Ironically, Senator Obama is now advocating a further increase of the minimum wage as part of his economic plan) Any honest economist will, at least, concede that minimum wage laws are price floors for the price of labor. As is the case with price floors in other markets, minimum wages will decrease the number of jobs and/or the number of hours offered by employers who hire unskilled labor. This is just another reason that people should try not to work in minimum wage jobs as careers, let alone decide to have families when in such positions. No one concerned with unemployment or decreased hours should ever advocate minimum wages, let alone increases in them.

Even more perversely (though unsurprisingly), Senator Clinton advocated more unionization. Unions are notorious for restricting the supply of skilled labor and forcing the price of their competitors, unskilled labor, up to make it a less attractive alternative in the face of violent, disruptive, and destructive union strikes. So her attempts to appeal to pity continually falter badly and become useless under the assault of even basic thought, but then again, they're not designed to promote thought. Instead, they are meant to short-circuit thought, and all too often they do precisely that. In grand fashion she finished it a pitiful fury, telling her listeners that "the future of our children hangs in the balance," and to "think about your children and grandchildren come Election Day." Presumably those without children should think about their potential children or other people's children and grandchildren. And since we're all seemingly responsible for everybody else, other people's children and grandchildren may as well be everyone else's.

This form of collectivism is alarming and it goes unacknowledged by its advocates (and "opponents" in that other political party) who will not deal in their ideas honestly and fully with voters. Why? is a curious question, but one which I do not care to speculate on at the moment. Americans deserve an honest debate in actual ideas and not unreasoned sob stories. Tearjerkers that are all too often about people who don't actually deserve our sympathy. But, more importantly, even if the situation is genuinely worthy of pity, these stories are inconsequential towards justifying the proffered conclusions. Ironically, Democrats are advocating government intervention for problems and calamities caused by government intervention. Contrary to the rhetoric of Democrats and Republicans, the American economy is hardly free and open, it is a mixed system of governmental interference and command elements with a previously much freer market. Whether it is health care, education, the broader economy, or anything else in the litany of calamities that is being bewailed, the culprit is almost always the previous round of government solutions to previous government-created disasters. And on and on it goes led by the good-natured, but unreasoned, sympathies of the American people.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Shocked, SHOCKED! that there's lobbying in this government

One of the most amusing bits of serialized nonsense in this election has been the extent of paroxysm and irrational hand wringing over the fact that political operatives working with campaigns or advising candidates are also, get this, former or current paid lobbyists. It is reminiscent of the scene is Casablanca when Captain Renault, famously played by Claude Rains, expresses his "shock" that there's gambling going on at Rick's, even though he's perfectly aware of it as a frequent patron of the place and an erstwhile friend of the proprietor. The duplicity and utter faux-surprise expressed whenever one of these lobbyists is "discovered" is indicative of at least two troubling things: 1) the amazing ability of people for self-deception or outright fraud and 2) the inability of alarming numbers of people to put together simple cause and effect.

To be shocked that people involved in modern politics are often lobbyists or become lobbyists is naive at best, shockingly duplicitous at worst. The government's power to control or heavily influence market outcomes and performance is immense and it would be foolish in the extreme for any person or corporation with hundreds of millions or billions of dollars at stake to not hire lobbyists to try to make sure the government, at the very least, did not harm their interests. It is also not surprising that some of these people attempt to gain favor or advantage while they're at it. Given anti-trust laws, just to name but one of many onerous ways the government interferes in the market, and the ability of the government to, literally at will, destroy entire companies, no responsible board of directors could go without having people on the ground to speak with, cajole, persuade, influence, etc. the relevant lawmakers who have the power to destroy them. Let's not forget what we're dealing with here. Lobbyists wield alleged economic "power." In other words, the most they can do, aside from almost certainly hopeless appeals to reason, is throw around money. Law makers wield the power, and it is the very real power that comes with the legal monopoly on violence, of the state. When the government "busts" a "monopoly," it literally confiscates assets and redistributes them. Good luck to the private citizen with even the greatest amount of economic "power" who would attempt to confiscate, that is steal, the property of his competitors or rivals.

Ironically, the people most up in arms about the presence and influence of lobbyists are not those who would attack the power and scope of the government. Instead, whether they are McCain or Obama supporters, these people are not only perfectly at ease with all the government currently does, but are advocating much more aggressive and all-encompassing action. The other possibility, aside from straightforward fraud or hypocrisy, is that these critics are simply incapable of putting two and two together. When the government takes on greater and greater powers and roles, people invariably begin to seek protection, favor, and advantage. Since the government, even as powerful as it is, cannot please all of these people simultaneously, it is hardly a shocker that those capable of doing so pay more and more lobbyists to cajole and jockey for favor. It is also scarcely remarkable that former office holders are the most sought after lobbyists. Not only do they know the system from the inside, but they often have existing relationships with their former colleagues. This is not a pretty system by any means nor is it in any way desirable, but to act like its logical and reasonable consequences are somehow aberrations that are out of place is ridiculous and disingenuous.

There is only one solution if one wants to dismantle this system of lobbying and that is to systematically roll back the scope and power of the government. If the government has no power to crush corporations that fall out of favor or are overwhelmed by competing lobbyists nor the ability to grant favors or special privileges, the cost-benefit of hiring and paying such people will quickly turn negative. And a free marketplace, where companies and individuals have to survive by their own merits and fail by their own deficiencies, thus not being articificially supported by the state in one of any number of ways, will be a just marketplace.

The only other course is a bleak one hardly anyone would knowingly or consciously advocate, but it's the course we're on if we don't make efforts to retreat from it. Societies with more and more powerful governments and less and less private control and autonomy in the marketplace eventually end up with fewer and fewer lobbyists. Why? The answer is quite simple. When you no longer have the ability to effect government decision making, nor the ability to dispose of your assets as you see fit, lobbying becomes the ultimate exercise in futility. All the economic "power" in Germany could not make one bit of difference to the Nazis once they gained absolute power over the economy. Private property remained in name, but hardly in fact. People produced what they were ordered to produce and they did so in accordance with government objectives, not the demands of the marketplace. In the Soviet Union, private property officially vanished and thus there was no one to lobby and nothing to lobby for. No matter which way we end up going, lobbying and lobbyists are going to eventually be a thing of the past, let us just hope that our futures don't make us look back upon either with longing.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Beijing Olympics: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Presidential election years have invariably, since McKinley's first trouncing of William Jennings Bryan in 1896, brought us the Summer Olympic Games. Perhaps the most obviously ongoing legacy of the classical in our utterly modern world, the Olympic games bring together the world's greatest athletes under their national banners. These games are unfortunately, like the 1936 and 1980 games before, being hosted by a police state. In the previous times this has happened, as it is in this case, the games have become an instrument of propaganda and obvious cheating on the part of the dubious host government.

But more on that and other matters in a moment. The joy of the Olympics is undeniable. The amazing and the talented athletes competing against each other is a display of human endurance, achievement, and beauty all brought to one spot on earth for a brief sixteen days once every four years. It's all the more incredible because it's always contrasted by the depressingly drab political pandering of a Presidential election; whereas that contest of two is all too often a choice between two things far less than the best among us, the Olympics rewards the best after rigorous competition against others who are hardly much worse. This is the good that the Olympics represent and the happiness it promises to all men the world over. The ancient Greek sense of life, that of exalting what was most admirable and beautiful in life, is preserved in the modern games and that is precisely why they are sought by countries, peoples, and cities the world over.

The bad is that, on occasion, governments that represent everything the games stand against, which stand for death and destruction and exalt all that destroys man's life on this earth, host the games. Such a government exists in Communist China and we have already witnessed numerous pieces of dubious propaganda from the minor affair of substituting little girls in the opening ceremony for the sake of "beauty" to the absurd double dealing of the Chinese women's gymnastics team who have cleverly taken advantage of the IOC's easy to get around age verification rules. We are sure to witness more propaganda in these allegedly non-political games and, unfortunately, more dubious tactics in the competition.

The ugly is all American. Whatever pact with the devil American broadcasters made with the Chinese government in order to broadcast the Olympics, it was not worth it. The completely laudatory, uncritical, and propaganda laced coverage NBC and others are providing for the Chinese government is entirely unacceptable. To be in a country with the most extensive gulag system in the world, where the government grinds up its internal "enemies" at whim, and that is an enemy to individual rights (and thus individuals, Chinese and otherwise) everywhere and yet provide silly coverage of Chinese culinary habits or the irrelevant Forbidden City or the Great Wall would be ridiculous if it were not so sad. True absurdity is to be completely unskeptical of the guides being provided to them when they tour Beijing. Of course the guides are friendly and courteous. Of course the guides show them only the most pleasant things to do and see in the capital (no surprise that everyone on camera in these excursions appears happy and pleasant, anything else would be evidence against them with their state, making what these journalists are doing all the more abhorrent). If these journalists, and that is what they claim to be, cannot travel and question at will, without minders, then they should refuse to be used as propaganda tools and merely report on the competitors and their successes. Anything else would be, and is, morally ugly. And yet, the press has the temerity to suggest that they should be "neutral" in terms of cheering for their countrymen in competition. It's enough to make someone sick. We expect this from the likes of the communists in China, but it hurts when our fellow Americans sink to such depths on TV for everyone to see.

Despite the evil that is the state based in Beijing and the ugly ineptitude that is the compromising and clueless American press, these Olympics have still provided glorious moments in athletic competition. Michael Phelps's utter domination of the swimming pool is something to behold. Nastia Liukin's triumph in the women's gymnastics all around competition over her Chinese opponents was enough to make one stand and cheer. Bela Karolyi's lovable foil to Bob Costas's annoying Chinese front man during gymnastics coverage is classic television. Who knows, maybe we'll even see a courageous Chinese man or woman refuse to be used as a pawn for the glory of the slave regime which abducts them at early ages to have their lives forfeited to a purpose they may or may not have ever pursued independently, but I'm not counting on it. If the American press willingly drinks the koolaid without complaint, why should we expect the far more courageous act of will it would take to ensure spiritual independence at the cost of everything else? Because it's the Olympics and that's what they are ultimately all about. That's why we love them and it is proper that we do.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Big Blank Out of '08

So cities around the world are going dark for an hour as a sign of "solidarity" with the earth/environment and to highlight the "threat" of human caused global climate change (in one direction or another since it seems that any "change" from whatever is "normal" is caused by us)? Why stop for an hour? Why not keep them all off all the time, every day, every month, every year? We can join those prophets of a couple hundred years ago, the Luddites, and smash all the lights. We can even devote whole days to the task (obviously not the nights) of destroying these "threats" to our and, more importantly, our planet's survival; these horribly insidious coils of tungsten and tubes full of gas.

Millions of people have already given up the benefits of hundreds of years of scientific knowledge and research and achievement in their food (for all of those "organic" consumers out there, I'm referring to you), why not go another step? A few "brave" prophets have even willingly given up the advances of medical science, the car, and the house. We can return to candles, or even better, live in pitch darkness as people did before candles were made cheaply available. Granted, there won't be much of a night life, but then again, night lives only consume energy, and energy consumption "hurts" our beloved planet and environment. What better way to prove our "solidarity" and "concern" than this, a minor sacrifice of our enjoyment of life? Life itself, in the exhalation of carbon dioxide is harmful, and the methane produced by the animals we use to support our continued existence in large numbers has been pointed to as a leading culprit in harming our "pristine" globe. Something must obviously be done.

The world is going mad in its attempts to undo civilization and its greatest achievements. We are so far removed (in the Western world anyway) from the horribly tragic and meagre material existence of only a few centuries ago that we can, without the slightest bit of thought, throw it all away without even looking back (or thinking we should even have to look back at all). That the governments in allegedly free countries around the world can actually forcibly deny power to those who would otherwise be willing and able (that is to pay) to use it is a travesty and a bleak sign of the state of things.

It's hard to imagine why Bin Laden and his cronies hate the West so much and want to destroy it right this very moment. The West, by and large, hates itself and given a few more years will willingly destroy itself and everything that made it great. Few western intellectuals defend western technology and science. In fact, the case is quite the opposite, they excoriate both as mere fronts for power and imperialism, clever masks for racism and ultimately "arbitrary" anyway, no better than "alternative" ways of dealing with reality like "magic" and other forms of mystical denials of reality practiced by primitives around the world in the past as well as now. Even more, Western science and technology are far worse because they assert an intellectual superiority which is illusory (according to these learned thinkers) and which have caused the subjugation of the entire world, its people and environment, under the pillage of their evil parent: capitalism.

Western intellectuals will not stand up and combat their foes around the world largely because they agree with them and do not see them as foes. Obviously they, for the most part, disdain Bin Laden's religious fervor, but they do not disdain his hate for the West, because they also hate it. Ever since Rousseau and Kant declared war on the Enlightenment and all that it had set in motion (every achievement of the West, in science, art, government, etc. can be traced back to that movement or the Renaissance which slightly preceded it) it has become the default position of nearly every Western intellectual to lament the achievements of the west, to fret, to whine, to wring their hands and contemplate some alternate "Utopia." Unfortunately, politicians and large numbers of people (who ignored these intellectuals for the most part, which in turn contributed greatly to their whining) are now jumping on the bandwagon of taking western achievement out of its historical and necessary context.

Now we can apparently have free governments without respect for individual rights. We can have all the material benefits of western civilization while we destroy the very foundation of their production. We can have the west without the west. Of course, all of this is a horrendous contradiction and quite impossible. Giving up Western civilization and not lifting a hand or a mind in its defense will not lead to a paradise of all the material benefits of the west minus all those western ideas that are apparently so despised by western leaders, intellectuals, and growing segments of the people. It will lead to North Korea, a country far "ahead" of the west in killing those evil lights. Just look at the satellite photos of that country at night, it exists in darkness amid a sea of electricity. They are certainly in solidarity with their environment. If that is our goal as peoples and as a civilization then we must stop kidding ourselves about having our cake and eating it too.

We will have the benefits of the intellectual achievements of our illustrious forefathers, which requires us to acknowledge what those benefits require; which requires that we stop apologizing to everyone for our alleged faults and misdeeds and actually proclaim the superiority of our way of life to in the face of competing alternatives. Or, alternatively, we will try the impossible and fail. Our affluence and abundance is currently so great, so unbelievably vast, that the idea of it vanishing seems impossible and absurd. It would certainly mark the greatest collapse of any civilization in the history of the world, but it is not, regrettably, impossible. Ideas and actions have consequences in reality. To persist in the irrational folly of the savages, which is what I will now refer to environmentalists as because that is clearly what they are intellectually, will lead us to the very state of existence which they desire. A state of existence almost too horrible to contemplate and a state of existence which will make the murderous designs of history's most evil tyrants seem like slaps on the hand in terms of death and destruction.

Bin Laden need only wait. At it's current rate of decline, the West will do the job for him. It may take a little longer than he would like, but the job will get done all the same and more fundamentally and lastingly than his crude methods could ever hope to achieve. This big blank out of '08, in ways poignantly symbolized by the hour long blackout, is a troubling sign indeed for everyone who unabashedly loves Western civilization and all that it means. Let it be a call to action. If we do not point out the cause and effect of ideas and actions, defend our greatness against all-comers, at home as well as abroad, then this will be only the first of increasingly longer and more devastating blackouts and blank outs in our near future. Where it will lead should be incentive enough to get started.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The First thing I'm going to do......

If you're currently or have been a graduate student, then you're already well aware that at some point, usually before you are able to begin seriously working on your dissertation, the last piece of the puzzle on the road to earning your Ph.D., you are required to take some sort of formidable qualifying examinations. Some schools require both written and oral components, while others "just" administer an oral examination. My oral exams will be held at noon on May 15.

I have been asked numerous times what I plan to do after they are over, assuming I pass of course. Well, aside from an obvious celebration of some sort, my plans are very, well, some might say mundane. My only goals after the exams are over and before I transition into full-time dissertation mode will be to read three works of fiction. What are they?

Amusingly and to my great regreat I began reading Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs before I began graduate school in the summer/fall of 2005, but was not able to finish it before my classes started and it has been sitting on my bookshelf with bookmark in the middle ever since. This I must finish immediately after my orals are completed.

Next, to my great surprise and joy, a scholar working in the National Archives of France discovered very recently a "new" novel by Alexandre Dumas which happens to be set during one of my favorite periods of French history, the revolution and age of Napoleon. The novel is titled The Last Cavalier and I will read that after I finish with Hugo.

Finally, and I've been longing to do this for some time now, I will reread what I believe is the greatest novel ever written, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. I first read it over ten years ago (when I was 13 years old) and while I am confident that I understood it then in spite of my age, I am anxious to read it again in the light of eleven additional years of knowledge and experience. I am also deeply in need of spiritual replenishment, which I know I can count on in the pages of that wonderful opus. I am anxious to not let the cynicism and misanthropic tendencies of the current epoch (and my own take on it) become the overriding impetus behind my own thought and spirit.

After that is complete, then I will begin working steadfastly and seriously on my doctoral dissertation so that I am not in graduate school for another three years if I can help it!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Thus the death of unity (and that's a good thing)

With the controversy over his two decade long association with a demagogic blowhard strangling his campaign, Illinois Senator Barack Obama'a Rousseauean appeal for universal unity and unpartisan politics is being destroyed by his own capacity for the disingenuous. Sitting idly by while his "spiritual mentor" condemns the country for "crimes" it has not even committed for twenty years, Obama expects the sort of divisions and hatred fostered by such rhetoric to be undone in the course of one political campaign because he speaks well and wishes it were so. This is the primacy of consciousness at its worst/best.

It is also a sign of one of two things. Either Obama is supremely foolish or he is the typical unprincipled demagogue of modern American politics cleverly masquerading as a unifying "leader." Either he is a major league dope who cannot connect cause and effect (irrational, unsupported, inflammatory, and racist ideas shouted out by his "spiritual mentor" leading to and fostering a divisive hatred) or he is a dangerous sort of ambitious person seeking to eradicate partisan animosity through unification of the body politic in and around his own person. I have set this up as a mutually exclusive dichotomy, but that is misleading. He can, and probably is, both of these things. His big league dope bona fides have been on display openly since day one in his allegedly "inspiring" oratory. His complete disregard for cause and effect, the long term consequences of his policy ideas, and the absolute bone-headedness of his approach to dealing with our enemies has been damning him on this front since he launched his campaign in Springfield last year. But his call for a unified and undivided body politic that can focus on our "problems," which he always associates with various "public" enemies (businessmen, "special interests," and "extremists" that is those who dare to oppose the idea that citizens owe the country or their communities their "service" instead of selfishly pursuing their own happiness), is a dangerous echo of Rousseau and all of his one-party state intellectual heirs. Who are those heirs? Well, only insignificant historical blips like fascists and communists who did and do insist on one party homogeneity in their politics. I think the results of this sort of un-partisan politics are obvious.

His call to get "beyond" our current political divisions is ridiculous and dangerous. A one party consensus behind anyone, aside from a George Washington type figure who would be committed to principles of limited government and was not obsessed with power (in other words, a person who no longer exists in our political universe), would be disastrous. The only thing saving the constitution and our remaining memories of "limited" government is the division in our government both in form and parties. And even that division only slightly breaks the headlong dash into further and further socialism and the command economy. Were significant pluralities or, yikes, majorities of the parties and independents to suddenly unite behind the leadership of one man who proposes to use the power of the state to fulfill promises of resources to his unified horde of supporters we are all in serious trouble, particularly if we happen to have any of those resources.

The current two party system is bad enough in that is has institutionalized two altruist political parties and, through force of law, hampers third party challenges to their supremacy. Basically, these two groups are fighting and battling over power as opposed to many extreme policy differences (though some occasionally crop up). To suddenly unite them behind one "leader" is frightening. Even more frightening is the large-scale gullibility of the electorate of hearing Obama promise this state of affairs and responding positively. And it's not just the run-of-the-mill democratic primary voter idiots either (in fairness, the run-of-the-mill republican primary voter is also an idiot), but prominent and occasionally intelligent intellectuals (like Joseph Ellis among others). Were the electorate, or most of it anyway, virtuous and knowledgeable of history and political philosophy, the rights of individuals and committed to liberty in all spheres then, perhaps, the danger of a unified body politic would be minimal. But even that ideal polity and citizenry would need to be restrained and checked against violations of individual rights. In days like this, one realizes that the rise of a national demagogue (and this has happened before, in 1932 for instance) is indeed possible.

Fortunately, the American people, even the supremely gullible, are generally skeptical and disdainful, again generally, of hypocrisy. That Senator Obama, who claims to be a unifying leader who embodies every and all conceivable qualities which the great mass of the American people hold in common, is sitting by while his "spiritual mentor" accuses the government of the United States of unleashing biological warfare upon its own citizenry and the rest of the world, murdering "innocent" people without offering any context, and bringing the just fury of Islamic terrorists upon itself explodes his logic. Ironically, Obama has been wrapping himself in this man's coattails in order to appear sufficiently religious and pious. That goal was ridiculous. His call for unity is just plain dangerous (even in wartime, a loyal opposition is useful and necessary). Now one irrational desire is destroying another. And who says there is nothing good in American politics these days?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

No Movie For Actual People

I haven't seen very many movies lately, I have been working mostly and nothing has much interested me to be quite honest. While toying with the idea of seeing There Will Be Blood, a movie based upon American socialist Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!, mainly because Daniel Day-Lewis appears to deliver another amazing performance (as opposed to any affinity I have for the themes of this anti-capitalist story or the originator of them), I decided to throw caution to the wind and see the recent winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, No Country for Old Men. If you have not seen the movie and are desirous to do so without having plot and ending spoiled for you, then stop reading now.

What an awful film. Unlike other pictures made today which morbidly focus on evil villains, but which still have alternative characters who eventually kill them (for instance Bruce Willis kills John Travolta in Pulp Fiction or Tim Roth gunning down Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs) this movie fails to offer up some alternatives to Javier Bardem's chillingly psychopathic killer. Instead there is an impotent old Texas sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones and a horribly unlucky sap played by Josh Brolin, who achieve nothing. Bardem, playing the evil killer Antoine Cheguern whose entire motivation as a person is basically to kill and rob but mostly to kill, moves through the world as an unstoppable force which the "good" and less evil people in the movie can only pathetically try to avoid before he destroys them, and destroy them he will. Brolin's character (and his wife who I will talk about in a moment) come as close as the film will allow to an actual heroic character in that he is the only one Bardem hunts that he doesn't actually kill, and he injures Bardem at one point.

I will back up for a moment to explain why Bardem is after Brolin. Drug deal between Mexican cartel and American dealers goes bad in the desert, everyone dies and Brolin stumbles upon this and finds an untended case with two million dollars in it which he takes home. Bardem is seemingly some sort of hired gun who the American dealers hire to find the bag, which has a transmitter in it. When they give him the tracking device he, of course, kills them and sets off after Brolin. The dealers then hire Woody from Cheers to track down Brolin and Bardem. Brolin, who is also being chased by the Mexican cartel people, manages to evade and injure Bardem who then proceeds to perform his own medical repairs while Brolin (who is injured) gets treated in a Mexican hospital where he is found by Woody, who tells him about Bardem and the need to make a deal with him (Woody) before Bardem finds him (Brolin). Of course, Woody seemingly forgets his own cautions and gets trapped and subsequently murdered by Bardem without the hope of even putting up a fight. While one can hardly sympathize with Woody's character, this scene is well acted and painful to watch.

So now Bardem threatens the life of Brolin's wife, giving Brolin the unhappy alternative of bringing the money to Bardem and being killed or continuing to run in which case Bardem would kill him, his wife, and get the money anyway. Brolin refuses. Of course, in classic anticlimax the Mexicans kill Brolin, Bardem gets the money, Tommy Lee Jones has a number of pointless conversations, almost unwittingly captures Bardem or gets killed by him depending on how you look at it, and the movie ends. The psychopath walks off into the sunset, unmolested by anything except occasional bad luck, certainly not by any "heroes," they either do not exist anymore or are retired, and babbling, old men (hence the title). The country, and the world, is a place for Bardem and men like him to do as they please.

The most terrible scene in the movie comes very near the end and involves Brolin's widow. So now that her husband, and for good measure mother (who dies of natural reasons I guess), are dead, Brolin's wife returns home to find Bardem waiting to "keep his word." As he had promised her husband that he would kill her, he must finish the job. When she points out that he doesn't have to, he laughs and tries to unburden himself further of responsibility by flipping a coin and telling her to call it. In the only truly heroic action in the movie she refuses to let him escape his responsibility and tells him that he will be the one murdering her, not the coin. Of course, this film is so abysmally bleak that even such heroism cannot prevail against Bardem's unstoppable evil and, without dramatizing it, we all know he kills her.

Tommy Lee Jones's sheriff, the old man in the movie, has the sense and capability to do his job and catch Bardem, but instead throws up his hands to the universe and calls it quits. Moaning about how bad things are (the movie is set around 1980) and shaking his head at how little respect exists compared to when he was younger, he doesn't even pretend to struggle for what it is he values (and even that point of definition is very vague). At the very least Bardem's monster is purposeful, and therein lies the insidious imputation of the film. Evil gets things done (is rewarded) and never is punished in any real way by anything, be it man or the universe, not even that, but people don't even try to stop it from winning.

This is not the world as it can and should be, it's not even the world as it is (not yet anyway, and certainly not in 1980). This is the world as it should never be. It is a horror movie of a different sort than those we are used to. There are no zombies or aliens, no vampires or puppets, not even any insane maniacs (Bardem's character is clearly not "unhinged" in the clinical sense) or the sort of unrelenting campy blood fests which generally characterize that genre. Instead, No Country for Old Men portrays a world where the worst evil does as it pleases, triumphs over everything essentially unopposed and those who know better ramble about dreams and do nothing. "Horror" is the only word fit for that sort of universe.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Socialism = Morality?

So it is not often that I share any stories from graduate school in this forum, because for the most part they are not particularly relevant to what I do here. I am training to be an historian of the United States, concentrating in the political and intellectual history of the early American republic. Obviously, when it is relevant I use knowledge I have gained during this training in my arguments and writings, but I don't generally post on specific happenings within my graduate program. Today, I make an exception. A seminar I am auditing in preparation for my final oral examination before I begin my dissertation has brought me face-to-face with the explicit voicing of an all-too-frequent idea in this modern world we live in.

The setting: A discussion of essays concerning the advent of slave labor in the colonial period of Atlantic/Caribbean history. The specific point which interested my colleague was a moral condemnation of slavery as a labor system. This should be a rather humdrum occurrence in modern historiography (and is for the most part), no one would countenance for one moment a substantive disagreement on this point. However, this colleague of mine was fascinated by this overtly "socialist" judgment creeping into a work of history. What does that mean? For starters (and I confirmed this for my own understanding after the class), it means quite unequivocally that socialists are the only ones who make a moral case against slavery as a labor system. When I queried in class if it were possible for a capitalist to morally condemn slavery I was told quite simply, "No." The only thing which comforted me in this moment was the fact that I was not the only one in the room insulted by this remark, in fact the sense of shock was quite palpable.

Of course, the reasoning (if it can be called that) behind this argument is easy enough to tease out and I did so with this colleague of mine afterwards in an attempt to understand the thought process at work here. Essentially socialism is about as close to a secular manifestation of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic ethical code as one can come up with. Materialism, selfishness, "greed," and individualism either have severely circumscribed or non-existent roles in both. As socialism is the only political and economic system devised entirely on the moral ethos of altruism, the life blood of the ethical doctrines of the western monotheistic tradition, it carries with it (whether stated or not) the gravitas which the religious version has gained with centuries of unquestioning obedience and worship. Things with thousands of years of history behind them tend to gain some degree of legitimacy whether they deserve it or not.

When I asked, "Well what about ethical systems which reject altruism as immoral," I was then asked, "Why is it immoral?" Rather than ask for my colleague to explain what exactly morality meant to man's life on earth and then explain how is was that altruism was moral to begin with, I merely countered that: "Altruism is self-destructive (sacrifice is, and is meant to be, destructive), a moral code which destroys you can hardly be called 'good.' [Unless, of course, you are evil] SO, back to my question, what about ethical codes which reject altruism as immoral?" Then I got the classic blank-out response, "They're wrong." The conversation ended there, I was fully satisfied that I had rooted out the origins of the statements in class, and my colleague was content to let the dialogue die on an unsupported assertion.

Of course, the horrid thing in this is that, if accepted or unchallenged (fortunately that did not happen!), a dreadful dichotomy is established. Either one accepts the awful ethics of altruism and its economic and political corollary of socialism in order to morally condemn slavery or one accepts slavery in order to avoid altruism. Obviously this dichotomy is false, not to mention a classic one dating back at least to Marx. Altruism is a doctrine of self-sacrifice, but it's essence is sacrifice. And it is the idea of sacrifice, in all its hideous permutations, whether of self-sacrifice or the sacrifice of others to one's self, which underlays socialism and slavery. Sacrifice is the common denominator.

It is no accident that societies built upon socialism resemble societies built on slavery in that the great mass of people are being sacrificed either to some smaller group of people or, theoretically, to each other. In either case, their lives do not belong to them but to others. The only real difference is whether one prefers being ground up in the sugar mills of an 18th century French plantation in St. Domingue (Haiti) or being pounded into the dust of some five year plan in Soviet Russia. Either way, you are just as sacrificed; either way, you are just as dead.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Poem?

OK, so I'm no poet. I can only read the words of Scott, Yeats, and Byron in awe with no hope at even imitation, let alone anything else. But, like Lincoln, I occasionally am moved to express myself in poetry. I share one of these rare efforts now, please be gentle in the criticism.


Two hearts,
One inflamed; the other, not.
Can love exist between the two?
When one is cold; the other, hot.

Love is worth the risk, no?
To put one’s happiness in reality’s hand?
But be prepared to be most low,
When she scoffs at a fool’s stand.

Ignore the truth for love’s embrace!
The joy you feel will help you,
But this is a most dangerous chase,
It is all your Waterloo.

Reality is as the Duke,
Strong, Firm, like Iron,
Not impressed by the fluke
Of your Corsican environ.

Love is for those who are honest,
Tricking yourself, you’ll fail;
When your false ship begins to list,
You best be there to bail!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Where is Charles Keating???

This election, particularly the Republican nomination fight, has been very puzzling. Numerous Democratic pundits keep claiming that they fear running against Arizona Senator John McCain more than any other Republican. I keep asking myself, why? What am I missing? Senator McCain is not an effective orator, would be the oldest person ever elected to the office (this is an issue and makes his VP selection all the more critical), agrees with them on most major issues except the Iraq War, and threatens to depress his own party so much that Donald Duck could be the Democratic nominee and win. Even if he overcomes those issues, there is another issue from McCain's past, a past he enjoys talking about when he refers to his own admirable military service, which will sink him. It calls into question his character, his credibility, and his own proudest legislative achievement, the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill (it might more accurately be called the McCain-Feingold Destruction of Free Speech Bill).

What is this issue, why is it so important, and why has it not been brought up so far in this campaign? The last question I cannot answer, it baffles me. Why Mitt Romney or any of the other Republicans would not skewer McCain with his own signature issue and make him look like the fool he truly is is a question I will not try to answer. Perhaps most of the electorate does not remember the Savings and Loans "crisis" of the late 1980s (in fact I was only a very small child at the time, but as a historian it's my job to look into these things), but I am sure John McCain does.

When deregulation hit the Savings and Loans Associations in the 1980s, a predictable speculative boom occurred which eventually came crashing down. Charles Keating ran one of these businesses in Phoenx, Arizona and donated money to numerous politicians, including his friend John McCain. Standard story of modern politics, right? Wait, it gets a little more interesting. During an investigation of Keating's real estate company (which owned the S&L) five Senators who received money from Keating (including McCain) met with the investigators attempting to strongarm them and get them to back-off of Keating's business dealings and practises. Basically what Keating did was make numerous high-risk investments which did not payoff, eventually causing his companies to go bankrupt, including his S&L. In an effort to avoid investigation from regulatory agencies Keating obviously called in favors (why else would these five senators, including McCain, go out of their way in one specific investigation?) in an attempt to not be found in violation of banking regulations. When the role of these senators, the infamous "Keating Five," became known, a scandal ensued and the Senate ethics committee censured them in various ways. This ended as far as McCain was concerned in 1990.

In the subsequent decade the posterboy of government corruption and payola, McCain, reinvented himself as a "Maverick" and champion of governmental reform, particularly (in grand irony) of campaign finance. It was his chief issue in his campaign against President George W. Bush in 2000, and which he finally got passed into law when the Democrats gained control of the Senate in 2001. In fact, the Keating Scandal, as inauspicious a start in the Senate anyone could create for themselves, may be the catalyst of McCain's whole subsequent facade as an "Independent" force in American politics. Essentially, he's a fraud attempting to get so far away from what happened in his first term in the Senate that most people, hearing of the Keating scandal for the first time today, scarcely believe that it's the same guy.

As a character issue, the Keating scandal is a troubling sign about McCain's priorities. Let me preface this by saying that McCain's status as a hero in unquestioned, but military heroes do not always make the best political leaders and are not above making poor decisions in their civilian lives. Being willing to use his power as a United States Senator to intimidate investigators conducting a lawful invesitgation smacks of Nixonism. It shows, at the very least, the ability to act as unethically as any public official can act without committing an outright felony.

This does not bode well for McCain running as ethical an administration as can be expected in this day and age. Perhaps the main lesson from the Clinton administration was that ethics no longer matter, by and large, to the electorate (in spite of clearly breaking numerous laws in plain view, indeed on TV in front of everyone, he maintained high popularity throughout his impeachment and trial) and thus McCain has nothing to fear from being made to look like a liar and hypocrite. I suspect, however, that the character of the reaction will be molded by the presentation (as in the Clinton case when everyone yelled, in the face of reality, that it was "only" about sex).

Though I said I would not try to answer the question of why this isn't being talked about (yet), I will advance a suspicion. Perhaps the reason the Democratic pundits (who, like all pundits, are not to be trusted) pretend to shake in their boots about McCain is because they know McCain is like Swiss cheese, full of holes. Saving things like the Keating scandal makes sense then, they want to make sure that McCain gets nominated first and he goes around a little longer blathering about his "straight talk" before they ruin him. Then again, I'm not sure if they are actually that smart.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Obama and the Founding Fathers?

Historian Joseph J. Ellis has recently published a piece in the Los Angeles Times ('The better angels' side with Obama, 19 January 2008) which seeks to defend Democratic candidate Barack Obama (Senator from Illinois) from critics of his message to independents and Republicans to unite behind his candidacy. According to Ellis, a very respected academic historian who teaches at Mount Holyoke and has published two very acclaimed popular works on the founding fathers (2000's winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Founding Brothers, and 2007's American Creation), Obama is not "a weird historical aberration." The Senator's message, which seems to fly in the face of modern two-party zero-sum politics, has "roots in our deepest political traditions," says Ellis. Even more hyperbolic, Ellis claims that Obama's appeal across party lines "is in accord with the most heartfelt and cherished version of our original intentions as a people and a nation." Unfortunately, this argument is just a latest example of the pitfalls and problems one witnesses when good historians venture into modern political fights in which they, and this is certainly no sin, have a favorite to defend.

The only way this comparison, and Ellis singles out the first four presidents of the republic -- George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison -- between the founding fathers and Barack Obama makes any historical sense is if we drop the vital context of issues and ideas. Ellis is correct on the simple level of political hope, the founders dreaded the idea of factions (self-serving groups of people working against the public good) dividing and ruining the republic and thought the creation of political parties were the beginning of a dangerous slippery slope into a state of competing and destructive factions. However, this desire for unity did not -- emphatically did not -- prevent divisions and the rise of the first party system of Federalists (George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton et al.) and Republicans/Democratic-Republicans/Jeffersonians (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Albert Gallatin et al.).

Important in understanding this split is that both sides viewed it as a temporary expedient to defeat a dangerous combination of demagogues or monocrats depending on which side you were. Even more crucial is that this party divide centered on very real differences in ideas which could not be (easily) compromised. One side supported the French Revolution, the other opposed it, one side favored the creation of a federal financial system, the other opposed it, one side thought war with France likely in the late 1790s and passed legislation in anticipation of it, the other did not see war as likely at all and opposed preparatory measures. These differences were real and important, forgetting them may allow for nifty modern comparisons, but such comparisons are disanalogous in the extreme.

But beyond that, Ellis curiously quotes Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural to support his comparison. The obvious line he pulls out of context is Jefferson's soothing words to the elections losers "we are all Federalists, we are all Republicans." But one needs to know what Jefferson meant here to understand that line. He was not just saying that party distinctions did not matter. He was saying that most Republicans and Federalists actually had agreed on a specific vision of government that I am positive would not actually be "kosher" to any currently running presidential candidate, let alone Barack Obama. Quoting Jefferson's First Inaugural: "Still one thing more, fellow citizen--a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, an this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities." In other words, to unify the country the government had to keep out of the affairs of the people (for the time period this was a clear attack on the Federalist Alien and Sedition Acts) and not drain the resources created and earned by the honest work of honest citizens. Is Obama advocating this vision of government to avoid dividing the people among "haves" and "have-nots"? To avoid creating a situation where some people hope to cash-in on the stolen wealth of others? To avoid creating a government which does anything but leave the people "free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement"? I think not.

So when people get eager or excited over candidates and want to defend them against charges of "novelty" by appealing to the authority of the ages, let alone America's founding fathers, beware such comparisons as, at best, superficial and shallow. Ellis is a very able historian and a very gifted writer, but he's not doing any service to the profession, the founding fathers, or even Obama but making simplistic and ultimately useless comparisons. If the ideas on politics that the founding fathers advocated, like individual rights, limited government, etc., were of any real importance to the American voting public, Obama's candidacy would have much much much more to worry about than simply the naivete of his call for unity.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Presidential Debates, Etc. Etc. Etc.......

Ok, so it was my policy to stay away from this insanely premature election season until the actual year in which the election was to take place finally got here. Representative Paul prompted me to jump the gun, though I kept that as much as possible to historical and ethical criticism. But having watched my first entire debate this evening (the Republican debate between Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and John McCain, I missed last night's Democratic debate due to other plans, though I did see the speeches of the three main candidates after the Iowa caucuses), I finally have some comments and observations concerning the whole swath of candidates, issues, etc.

First of all, who is not sick of the lame refrain of "change" by now? It has to be the most absurd election year cliche which only a group of complete idiots would lap up and cheer for in and of itself. Obviously, anyone elected will necessarily bring change (in personnel if in nothing else, though to assume any candidate would ever run on or govern by way of a "I will do everything my predecessor did" strategy is sophomoric at best), but Giuliani brought up the obvious point that one needs to know what exactly this change is, good or bad? If we are switching from a mixed economy, particularly in health care, to one which is completely under government command, or "only" just more so than it already is, then it is obvious that such change is poison. It would be like "changing" from the slow death of the arsenic laced water we are currently drinking to some water laced with cyanide. This is not the sort of "change" I want to vote for. Even with all of the tremendous problems of the health care system, all of which lie in the myriad interventions the government has already made into it (it is completely false and ludicrous to call the American health care system capitalist or free market, it is, like the rest of the economy, a mixed system of private ownership and government regulation), I prefer a dysfunctional mess to government nationalization, i.e. death.

The most bizarre approach to foreign policy is certainly coming from the Democrats. Obama, in his victory speech the other night in a rare moment of cliche-less nonsense, promised to get the rest of the world on board with the United States again. What does that mean? Why is much of the rest of the world not on board right now? If it is simply a disdain for Bush then electing anyone would produce a salutary result. However, if it is because the United States is fighting an "aggressive" war against our enemies (this assertion is laughable) then the only way to get them back on board would be to abandon such a policy. This is a change in the completely wrong direction. If the governments and peoples of other nations decide they do not favor our policies towards our enemies, that is their right, but it is not an obligation of ours to abandon our vital security interests in order to be better friends with others, that is a ridiculous idea and an idiotic way to conduct foreign policy. Should we just poll our allies when we wish to go to war or impose sanctions? If we would be less popular for merely defending ourselves and removing various threats to our security (a right which every nation must claim, defend, and have in order to retain sovereignty and credibility) then that is an unfortunate reflection on our alleged friends than upon us.

The Republicans of course have gone completely off the deep end on "illegal immigration" otherwise known as the global voting of feet which stands as mass proof against the absurd dogmas of cultural relativism. That people move to America for the opportunity to make money, become part of the American nation, or do whatever else they wish (presuming they are not violating any actual rights of others), presents no actual problems at all. It has long been a maxim in the making of laws, it is unwise to make laws which are certain to be broken. It merely promotes disrespect for lawmakers for legislating against reality and by making criminals of people engaged in non-violent activity which is in no way ethically or morally wrong. Certainly in cases where rights are violated (i.e. murder or rape or theft, etc.) then punishment must be meted up harshly and swiftly, but no rights are violated in the act of immigration to the United States "legally" or otherwise. It is pure folly to prevent people seeking opportunity, security, freedom, and everything else America offers from doing so. The problem is when people come for handouts and giveaways, but the problem there is with the handouts and giveaways. When you give away things for no effort whatsoever it should be unsurprising that some undesirable people would come to receive such plumbs.

Other issues I have commented on elsewhere or will comment on, undoubtedly, in the future. As for candidates.....

Mike Huckabee -- A former Baptist minister??? He makes Bush look like an atheist. Though watching him in New Hampshire, a state whose Republican voters are mostly not religious nut jobs, you might never know he just ran a campaign vaunting his "Christian leadership." What does this mean? Either is as concerned with and warped by religion as his Iowa campaign attests, or he is merely a dangerous demagogue who merely says whatever he needs to in whatever state he happens to be in. Whatever the case, he is a mess and a scary folksy windbag who I cannot see myself voting against, unless Kucinich or Gravel is the nominee on the other side.

John Edwards -- Truly the most frightening of any of the major candidates. He's basically running on a "bread and circus" message of taking stuff from anyone he calls rich and giving that stuff to anyone who is envious and angry and supports him. Not only that, but I cannot recall in my own experience or my knowledge of history a candidate, even in modern times where qualms about presidential ambitions no longer exist, a candidate so devoted to making himself president. The man has basically been campaigning since the day after John Kerry conceded the previous election. So maybe it's no shock he seems so much more angry and aggressive this time around, I'd be too if I campaigned non-stop for five or six years for anything and did not win hands down.

John McCain -- Ughhh, how is this guy so popular, particularly as a "maverick" or opponent of politics as usual? Am I the only one who remembers the Keating Five scandal? Why does McCain get a pass on that? Just because he was held hostage in Vietnam and survived politically in Arizona hardly seems reason to forget that he was the poster child for the bought and sold politician. Kudos to him for recasting himself as a maverick and the great champion of fighting "special interests" and money is politics (oh yeah, his bill with that genius Russ Feingold has really cut spending on elections or curbed commercials or any other of the alleged ills it was allegedly supposed to combat, I can't imagine why that ineffectual admission the candidates are now forced to make when they pay for ads isn't working!), but his actual record is less glamorous and even though the press seems to love the guy, I seriously doubt his opponent (if he is nominated) will let the public live in ignorance of McCain's less glorious past.

Hillary Clinton -- What a lame candidacy. Her only claim to fame, that which led directly to her senate seat and all of this vaunted experience she now claims is so vital, is that she was a former President's wife. Big deal. Under that logic, Laura Bush should become President, she has the most relevant reservoir of recent experience to impart to the job. Seven years in the Senate however, actually constitutes legitimate experience that should not be entirely discounted, but her opponents also have Senate experience (Obama nearly three years, Edwards six) not to mention prior local political experience in the case of Obama. This is mostly irrelevant anyway, "experience" in holding prior offices has never been an accurate judge of competency in the presidency. For instance, James Buchanan had been an ambassador, a Secretary of State, and a congressman for about twenty years and was a disaster as President. Abraham Lincoln on the other hand served two years in the House of Representatives and received one patronage job in Illinois from President Taylor, that's it. Building one's entire case on their alleged advantage in office holding experience will also fall by that strategy.

Fred Thompson -- He seems to have checked out of the race, angling for a VP nomination perhaps to a Giuliani who might need a more "conservative" man (not to mention a Southerner) to balance out his ticket? I don't know, but he seems to not be interested in his own candidacy so why should I be?

Barack Obama -- The talk of the town, the hot shot, the front runner. In a year which seems to guarantee a Democratic victory, being the Democratic front runner would seem to make you in line to be the 44th President of the United States. Honestly, at this point, even though he utters nonsense when he's not uttering ridiculous nothings, he's probably one of the least offensive candidates in a party known for producing offensive (to reason, morality, anything) candidates. Even I think he's a likeable fellow, not that that's a reason to become President, but it's a plus when both of your opponents (Clinton, Edwards) are jerks. Obama is essentially a milquetoast, a fresh slate, a blank. I don't mean to suggest that he's an idiot, but since he rarely says anything that isn't just a cliche or whatever his opponents also say, he's sort of just a nebulous personality that lacks originality. This is not as bad as it sounds. He could turn out to be a decent president assuming he does not surround himself with pacifists and compromisers and does not have congressional acquiescence to do whatever he might suggest domestically. I need to see more of the man to be quite honest, but these are my initial impressions.

Mitt Romney -- The guy has too many ideological "transformations" this late in his life to be taken credibly by me. And these "transformations" are almost all nearly in the wrong direction. His strategy to combat a religious zealot Huckabee is to "me too!" his way around it. This is distasteful in the extreme, and I think fundamentally dishonest.

Rudy Giuliani -- The most unconventional of the major candidates. Despite being a high ranking member of the Justice Department in the Reagan administration, his most relevant recent experience though was as mayor of New York City. The road to the White House has rarely led from such an unlikely source. Clearly the impetus of his candidacy is not as a prosecutor in the Justice Department, or a goofy crime and poverty fighting mayor in the country's biggest city, but as the person on the ground during the worst shedding of American blood on American soil since the Civil War. The country underwent something nearly undefinable during the hours and days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and even though Joe Biden can ridicule Giuliani's constant evocation of that day, what should this man speak of? Clearly and appropriately that event became the focus of his public life (as it should have become Biden's if he wants to claim to be a foreign policy genius). Mayor Giuliani, of all these candidates, is the only person who still has the continuing and very real problem of crazy religious fanatics trying to kill us in his center sights. He is also the only Republican running with any sensible thoughts on issues of private life and conduct who is not also nuts (Ron Paul). So as things stand now, I think he is likely to do the least amount of harm of all candidates while also pursuing vigorously the only actual issue in this campaign that matters at all and that the President by himself has a shot at effecting quickly and directly.

More later.