Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Liberal Ironist Will Represent Jon Stewart’s Pro-Sanity Faction on the National Mall This Saturday…

The Liberal Ironist will represent Jon Stewart‘s Rally to Restore Sanity on the National Mall this Saturday…at Stephen Colbert‘s March to Keep Fear Alive, which he shall protest!  Someone must do a good imitation of a person standing up to persona conservatism!  Plus, mock-protest of false demagoguery is a good venue to produce an incidentally-timely message to partisan activists that hostility to opponents and evocation of a constant sense of crisis alienates people rather than converts them.  While this may be self-evident to those who tune partisans out for their suspected dogmatism, cynicism and expressive nastiness, activists themselves don’t seem to recognize this ironic situation, that they have consigned themselves into a corner by holding in lower esteem those who think differently than they do, thereby failing Nietzsche‘s criteria for an uncorrupted mind.  Ideological postures that spread through a population with the speed of oil on water often also penetrate with the depth of it.  The Liberal Ironist knows that profound conversion requires something other than alarming hyperbole and epithets applied to entire groups; claiming the consensus for oneself also isn’t enough.  It’s right and good to equip those you want to persuade with information; thereafter, give them the words to explain what they see–in a normal speaking voice.

On that note: There will be pictures.

Harvard Historian Casts Barack Obama as a Liberal Pragmatist (In Contrast to a Centrist Bill Clinton)

The New York Times had an interesting book review 2 days ago on an upcoming book the Liberal Ironist would like to read, on the philosophical influences of President Barack ObamaJames T. Kloppenberg, a Harvard historian, maintains that the President Obama is in fact substantively a Liberal–but one whose primary influences are Pragmatists such as William James and John Dewey.  This Kloppenberg abstracted from the President’s various speeches (which in uncharacteristic fashion he wrote himself), essays, and his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope.  If such intellectual ancestors seem too wishy-washy, Kloppenberg has bolder claims on offer:

“Mr. Kloppenberg compiled a long list of people who he said helped shape Mr. Obama’s thinking and writing, including Weber and Nietzsche, Thoreau and Emerson, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. Contemporary scholars like the historian Gordon Wood, the philosophers John Rawls and Hilary Putnam, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz and the legal theorists Martha Minow and Cass Sunstein (who is now working at the White House) also have a place.”

Nietzsche and Rawls?  Surely the President isn’t trying to rouse the common citizen from a state of aesthetic and moral hibernation while asking himself whether our current economic arrangements serve the needs of society’s least-advantaged…Well, actually, maybe he is doing those simultaneously.  Ironically, that would be a positive way of saying that Obama is both on the Left and a craze, as his harsh detractors claim.  While this is the most-qualitative (read: subjective) of indicators, Obama does seem to have a weird ability to reconcile the demands of performance art and passion for policy that are alternately expected or needed from a President.  Even in the case of President Clinton, who undeniably had both charisma and policy knowledge to an exceptional degree, these characteristics didn’t seem so “integrated” as they do with Obama.  Seeing the Obama Presidency unfold has the aspect of witnessing a story as it happens.  I think I get this impression because the President isn’t just “articulate” but because has actually staked-out a philosophical space for himself.

It isn’t necessary to judge on the authority of this mere hunch when one considers what President Obama has himself prepared to say on a variety of occasions.

Consider his Keynote Speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention:

“…If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there is a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

“It is that fundamental belief — It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.

“E pluribus unum: ‘Out of many, one.’

“Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us — the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of “anything goes.” Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

This is an elevated speech for a national party convention; even when it aims to raise the blood of partisans it generally has a philosophical pedigree.  That in itself wouldn’t be difficult for a professional speechwriter, but Senator Obama was a professional politician.  He didn’t rely on the advice of professional rhetoricians (whom I acknowledge are very good at what they do) to tell him the right words to get his point across.  These words were already on his mind.

Divided Government: The Way Forward (Yet Again)

Sam Tanenhaus has written a fine essay on the partisan turmoil often underlying periods recalled for their towering political figures and bipartisan unity.  Looking back, the siege mentality that set in between Congressional Republicans and President Clinton after the 1994 midterm elections resulted in effectively-functioning checks and balances (aside from the Republicans’ cynical and actually self-defeating impeachment investigations), significant policy reform such as the 1996 Welfare Reform that both parties want to enhance rather than demonize, and (sigh…) a balanced budget.  But Tanenhaus’ essay isn’t about the Clinton era, or the Reagan era, or the Nixon era.  It’s about the Eisenhower years, and it’s eye-opening.

While the Eisenhower years are cast as the “good old days,” they sound like they were charged with all the terror that Modernity run amok had to offer.  The country (excluding the military, honors to President Truman) was quite segregated and black Americans were still widely-disenfranchised of their 15th Amendment rights.  In this period in particular, the ideology of “proper roles” for the sexes was at a level most of us would call inhumane.  Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist paranoia had Americans afraid in ways they never should have been.

There’s a lot to dislike about the current political environment, of course.  Unemployment remains high at an (official, undercounted) 9.6%; the Republican candidate for the Senate in Nevada can presently cast the long-established Muslim community of Dearborn, Michigan as a militant takeover of that city and remain ahead in the polls; meanwhile some on the left hope that Angle beats Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, because he hasn’t pushed some of the progressive legislation they’ve expected in the Senate (the open fact that he probably sacrificed the balance of his political career for health care reform notwithstanding).  The point is that split-partisan control of the Presidency and Congress might be the corrective we’ve been looking for to produce needed policy innovation.  Jonathan Rauch has claimed divided government is the corrective to ideological parties for years, and not surprisingly has returned to this theme this spring.

As discussed in a previous post, the Liberal Ironist thinks the House Republicans’ “Pledge to America” was near-pitch-perfect for them politically; it focused almost exclusively on issues of Federalism and market reforms, and it was ambiguous only to the extent that they could advance ideological or pragmatic versions of their legislative agenda.  The Republicans’ best strategy would be to try to govern: They need to decide early-on whether to develop a working relationship with either the President or the 60-plus most-moderate House Democrats AND 12 moderate Senate Democrats.  To negotiate with the President to reduce the scope of the Federal Government would offer the most-stable relationship–though that would likely be harder to frame for activist supporters and some Tea Party freshmen.

Lead agency for crafting new bills will definitely shift to the House, but if the Republicans don’t try to build a working coalition that includes some Democrats, they won’t have legislation to show for it: Barack Obama will still be President until 2012, plenty of time for his approval ratings to pick up if the employment situation improves, and the Republicans are projected to be 12 votes short of being able to break filibusters in the Senate.  A hostile approach, ironically, would probably weaken Congress’s policy influence further to the relative gain of the President and the Supreme Court, which would shape existing laws and institutions ad-hoc or by reaction.  In short, there is a way forward for good governance here, as there was in the mid-late 1990s; the Liberal Ironist thinks the way to do it would be for Republicans to make a Bill Clinton out of the man already in the White House.

Whither United Kingdom?

Don’t look now (Well, OK, look), but a massive natural experiment in economics is currently underway in the United Kingdom.  The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has concluded that the way to put economic growth on firm footing is to cut government spending–come what may.  The Washington Post reported on the specifics of the budget cuts last Thursday, October 21st.  This policy is based on a strong challenge to the principles of Keynesian economics.

Keynesian economics refers to the macroeconomic theories and policies advanced by John Maynard Keynes, the British economist best-known contribution focused on the means of ending a recession, rather than generalizing about the character of economic growth.  For Keynes, economic health is essentially a measure of the ability of money to transfer freely from one set of hands to another; hence the emphasis on its empirical score–gross domestic product–among our current economic statistics.  When the President–and George W. Bush was as inclined to do this as President Obama is currently–talks of the need for economic stimulus or the importance of people getting out and spending money, he is speaking Keynesian.  The Keynesian solution for a recession is a simple but massive government project: Create aggregate demand.  Cutting taxes on citizens and corporations during the recession can help by leaving money in the hands of targeted consumers and employers, but government stimulus spending–and this can include long-term investment in new public works projects (badly needed in this country), the one-off consumption of previously-overproduced goods, or (in theory) even a war–is potentially more-important than tax cuts, because it creates rather than encourages demand in key industries that need a lift.  Stimulus spending isn’t permanent, of course; it is supposed to taper off as the newly-employed feel secure-enough in their private finances to consume, and investors make new financial commitments.  Having been given medicine that only the government could prescribe, the markets are left to do their thing.

F. A. Hayek, alternately, had both an ideological and a practical objection to government stimulus of aggregate demand during a recession.  While both men are good Capitalists, Hayek is a strict free marketer who doesn’t believe instrumental management of the dynamics of consumption and investment is sustainable over the long-term.  He doesn’t seem to have an answer for an economic downturn, aside from thrift and forebearance.  (It isn’t surprising that contemporary democracies, regardless of ideology, have almost never been interested in this message while in the throes of a recession.)  Hayek’s analysis focuses not on what instrumental policies can get the economy out of recession, but on the overproduction or bubble investments that led to recession in the first place.  Hayek thinks stimulus spending is just government leveraging either to reward enterprises for which there was insufficient demand to begin with, or even to create inefficient levels of production which will catalyze yet another investment bubble.

To clarify the difference between stimulus spending to get an economy going and the minority conservative perspective which opposes this form of “pump priming” on the grounds that it facilitates investment bubbles, watch this helpful rap video.  No, I’m not kidding, watch it; it’s brilliant.

Where were we?  Oh, right–Britain.  Well, right Britain, as the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is banking the country’s future economic growth on the idea that foreign investors are more-concerned about the government’s ability to reduce its budget deficit–11.5% of GDP and the highest in the developed world–than its ability to boost aggregate demand.  That’s a radically pro-market assumption–one their government is essentially alone in making.  (The Greek government didn’t have much of a choice.)

The Liberal Ironist, like pretty-much everyone, is a Keynesian: He agrees with those who would say that the unsustainable investment and production choices of the past become more the subject matter of History than Economics once unemployment is high, consumption is flat and banks leery about lending.  We should want to create aggregate demand; recession can wreak havoc on near-all parts of life, as anyone who has been unemployed long-term or depends in some way on their State budget well-knows.  National governments are the only venue for deficit-spending not on a massive scale but in coordinated aggregation.  Sometimes in a large, complex system like the economy you can hurt a lot more people if you don’t “reward failure.”  We have no real reason to believe that letting over-leveraged industries collapse will discourage future investment bubbles or production gluts, so even if Hayek is essentially right about the causes of imprudent investments, that doesn’t matter during the recession to follow.  The Cameron-Clegg government is making a bold statement about its belief that international investors will reward its aggressive steps to get its fiscal house in order; the fortunes of over 60 million people are riding on a conjecture–one which, however-educated, defies a generally-effective procedure of post-Depression economics.  Paul Krugman, a Nobel-prize winning economist and very-much a Liberal, predicts doom.  In any case you’d think Republicans and Democrats alike should watch what happens in Britain in the context of massive budget cuts closely.

But you’d be wrong.  In practice Economics isn’t any more-parsimonious a science than Politics, and timing can be everything: The IMF has already opined in favor of austerity measures, and the year-to-date finding is that the Brits are spending more money in the face of massive budget cuts; GDP growth in the United Kingdom over the past year has grown at 2005-2006 rates!  The Financial Times‘ online “Short View” video segment hypothesizes that this may be a form of “reverse Ricardian equivalence,” meaning that the government’s austerity measures signal to the consuming public that their government isn’t going to have to raise taxes an indeterminate amount in the near-future to pay down its debt.  It warrants mention that this significant GDP growth in Britain launched well-before its recent, massive divergence in fiscal policy with the United States.

While a policy of austerity that works for a developed economy of 60 million might not be relevant to a developed economy of 310 million, we may just have a macroeconomic theory to challenge Keynesian economics on our hands.  That theory could be vindicated in Britain and still be folly in general–but if the sky so much as doesn’t fall in, Prime Minister Cameron’s austerity policies will likely capture the imagination of the Republicans going into the 112th Congress.  There is an outside chance that our new Federal economic and fiscal policies will be the work of the UK’s soft-spoken and pragmatic Conservative PM.

Cause for Tense Optimism About the Way Forward with Russia

The Liberal Ironist has an update on the previous report on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s agreement to attend the upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon November 19th-21st.  The Guardian has extraordiary news about the prospect of Russian rapproachment with NATO.  NATO officials and the Russian government are entertaining a variety of as-yet broad proposals for Russian assistance to the War in Afghanistan.  The measures under consideration include everything from increased access to Afghanistan from the north, logistical support for the war effort, and (if this development is tolerated by the Afghan government) a Russian role in training the Afghan military and security services.

The article points out that Russian cooperation with NATO on the War in Afghanistan is timely both for Russia and the United States.  Russia is dealing with a heroin problem; at least 93% of the World’s opium comes from Afghanistan.  Meanwhile, abiding suspicion between the Afghan and Pakistani governments–and a visible deterioration in relations between the US and Pakistani governments–has led to doubts about Pakistani assistance in the fight against the Taliban on their side of the Hindu Kush.

No, Russian soldiers will not be coming back to Afghanistan.  But this is an ironic twist to our rapidly-developing rapproachment with Russia.

Vertigo: When There’s No Bottom to Get To

“…I cannot tell you exactly how much time passed or how much happiness there was, but then he threw her away. He had no other children. His wife had no children. So, he kept the child and threw her away. You know, a man could do that in those days. They had the power and the freedom…”

That line, given by a local historian who runs a bookstore, has a sort of personal irony for me now: Having seen Vertigo at least 4 times before this Saturday, I hadn’t read the inherent dramatic irony in it–that in this movie there are 2 men who have the power and the freedom to treat the women in their lives horribly.  Alfred Hitchcock always seems to like the idea that “nothing has changed.”  There are really only 4 characters in Vertigo–2 men and 2 women.  The women are in the story so the men can make them suffer; the men are in the story so they can make the women suffer, and do so because they’re suffering already.

Having long-since acknowledged the obviously-“uncivilized” nature of John “Scotty” Ferguson’s fetishistic attachment to a lost lover’s image, this grim joke–the message that nothing has changed and that the men who are inclined to take whatever they want still seek “the power and the freedom” to do it–somehow completely changed my perception of the film this time, as though just below their well-dressed and soft-spoken comportment, Scotty and his college acquaintance Gavin Elster are savage beings of a very old type, not just beyond the influence of moral convention but apparently unable even to see the fruitlessness of their own passions.

 

Gavin Elster is unhappy that the San Francisco he knows is changing...and that his wife is possessed. (One of those causes of his unhappiness is even real.) Note the extreme distance between foreground and background in this perspective: I'll come back to this again. And again.

 

 

Throughout his work--centrally in Spellbound, Vertigo, Psycho, Marnie and Frenzy, Hitchcock had a longstanding interest in both narrative and symbolic representation of the unconscious drives in human beings.

 

The Liberal Ironist was beginning to reflect on this upon leaving the theater last night, when to his surprise he found that while he had been inside it had been overrun with a monstrous horde of the walking dead.  Their expressionless faces, sagging arms and dull eyes still trouble me as I write this.  However, they were slow zombies–in most situations little more than a nuisance so long as you don’t do anything stupid.  In a matter of minutes I was several blocks away, the lumbering, mindless creatures had not followed me, and I was able to reflect on the film again.

 

Hitchcock is the first director to give me a sense of vertigo from ground-level--though it helps when someone actually falls. Hitchcock pioneered 2 visual techniques that transformed the way I watch movies (and which is intended to be more broadly-subversive). In one part, background elements, including people, pass from a mundane, even restful order to do something shocking. In the other, rarer form, something awful is concealed from view by an inert, innocuous object. Either technique provokes mistrust of the received appearance.

 

As I was saying, this is at least the 5th time I have seen Vertigo.  It becomes a little more-troubling every time I see it.  From his brief engagement in college to his friend Midge and his continuing bachelor status, one might already have concluded that there is something a little “off” about Scotty; in truth he is destined to be alone.  There is no indication that he (or she) has had any romantic attachments since that time; there are mild insinuations to the contrary.  By contrast, Roger Thornhill, the protagonist of Hitchcock’s frequently-comedic North by Northwest, at one point asserts “I have two ex-wives, a mother and several bartenders depending on me.”  In Hitchcock films, there are protagonists who have and protagonists who haven’t managed to consummate their love; in the latter case (as in the recent, comparatively-faithful remake of All the King’s Men), this detail of characterization has a way of taking control of the entire plot, literally violently hijacking the movie–as in Vertigo and also Psycho, 2 years later.

 

"Somewhere in here I was born...and there I died. It was only a moment to you, you took no notice." Much like with his simultaneous narrative and symbolic portrayal of our fundamentally irrational motivations, Hitchcock likes to punish our lack of attention with both word and image. I'm hard-pressed to think of another director who does this so consistently.

 

If we can take his actions throughout the film as any indication (and they are certainly more-emphatic than his words) Scotty’s lonesomeness isn’t a mystery.  Upon discovering his object of desire, he begins to gratify his desires without hesitation or reflection, even insisting in speech that he will “take care of” the object of desire; for the most part he takes control of her.  Having rescued Madeleine Elster from drowning, Scotty not only brings her back to his apartment, but immediately and actively sets about arranging all aspects of this scene to match some fantasy image.

The Marxist movie critic Slavoj Žižek (considering the breadth of his writing this is as good a title to give him as any), writing in The Fragile Absolute, digressed on a debate as to whether Scotty’s climactic loss of his object of desire means his liberation from a burdensome and unethical pathology or his universe’s loss of its minimal consistency.  On every previous viewing I’d suspected the climax to be a disaster from which Scotty’s mind couldn’t possibly recover; but this time I noticed the quiet certitude of his words, “No, no, it’s too late, she’s gone–She’s never coming back.”  Having found that the object of his desire was in fact real–and immanent!–he despaired.  Again there is a powerful irony to this: He found the woman he was looking for, and she really loved him. Was he really so indignant at the thought of an elaborate deception, having always been so coercive himself?

There is a simple explanation both for his climactic resignation and his continuing lack of interest in his friend Midge, and it’s the closest thing the Liberal Ironist can find to a “key” to Scotty’s character: His object of desire had to be weaker than him, stupider than him.  She wasn’t: She was real.

 

Both the story and the storytelling are marvelous in Vertigo, and here we get an early, trend-setting example of a twist. Upon seeing it a second time you can find yourself watching a completely-different movie: Once voyeuristic from the perspective of a man, then voyeuristic from the perspective of a woman. Note once more the sense of vertigo evoked from ground perspective. I'm telling you, it's everywhere.

 

Machiavelli Was Right: Mercenaries are Unreliable

“…Since these new rulers were priests and private citizens, they knew nothing about armies and turned to foreign mercenaries…The result: Italy was overrun by Charles, pillaged by Louis, ravished by Ferrando, and disgraced by the Swiss.

“The mercenaries moved quickly to take away the standing of the infantry and appropriate it to themselves.  They did this because, not having a state of their own and living by their profession, too few soldiers would not afford them the standing they needed, whil they could not support and feed as many soldiers as they did need.  So they limited themselves to the cavalry, where the force was smaller and could be fed and paid.  As a result, in an army of twenty thousand you could not find two thousand infantrymen…They did not attack cities at night, nor did those defending the cities attack the encampments outside.  They did not build stockades or ditches around their camps, and they did not go on campaigns during the winter.  All these things were consistent with their military conventions and, as I have pointed out, enabled them to escape fatigue and danger.  They have driven Italy into slavery and disgrace.”

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, “On the Different Types of Armies, and of Mercenaries”

The Liberal Ironist sees Machiavellian prudent wisdom as applicable to all manner of political and military problems; for this reason it is so unfortunate when we bear drastic costs due to an ideological belief that the dictates of prudence can be ignored when they can’t.  This post should be seen as a sequel of sorts to the early-October post on Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ Duke University speech.  Our all-volunteer military, impressive as its performance has been, still represents the smallest military-to-civilian ratio our country has ever maintained in wartime.  As much of the emphasis in our media discourse has addressed the psychological strain imposed on re-deployed personnel (and particularly their officers) and the financial strain imposed by addressing serious combat injuries and veterans’ needs, a possibly-darker “conceptual scoop” has often gone unaddressed: Our military actually hasn’t been large-enough to fight our two wars of the Aughts.  This has resulted in heavy reliance on security contractors–in effect expensive, unaccountable mercenaries which have been tied to a disproportionate number of incidents of violence against civilians.

Actually, their biggest departure from the way Machiavelli characterizes mercenaries in Renaissance Italy appears to be in their surprising failure to protect themselves from insurgents, US military units that cannot identify them, even irate civilians tired of their heavy-handed presence.

The New York Times has published its first in a series of reports on the way reliance on contractors made the Iraq War–and continues to make the War in Afghanistan–longer and more-dangerous.  This is a story worth following, in order to recognize both that the seemingly-structural problems of the war in Afghanistan are in part the result of unintelligent strategic choice, and the importance of realistic assessment of the costs to a democracy of fighting a major war.

These security contractors aren’t evil or intentionally-parasitic.  It is understandable why soldiers or Marines whose terms of service are concluded would want to join these outfits: The pay is much better, their strategic responsibilities often narrower and the chain of command is less strict.  For professional soldiers, work as a security contractor must hold a powerful appeal.  That said, this phenomenon has made the work of the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq more dangerous and more expensive, and has even diluted the power of the military for strategic decision-making.  So, why have there at times been as many security contractors in Iraq as active-duty US military personnel combined?

Again, members of these mercenary outfits aren’t necessarily bad guys.  They aren’t bandits; they came to the country by request.  Many have a military background, and many are under contract with the US military; Hamid Karzai even retained American bodyguards through a security contractor.  Many of the accounts in the Times story focus on security contractors as victims of violence–whether at the hands of insurgents, US or Iraqi soldiers that often cannot tell their unmarked vehicles and often-local drivers from those of insurgents, or even from Iraqi civilians apparently outraged at their previous treatment.

But the most-disturbing incidents involve apparently unmotivated (and at times unprosecuted) killings of Iraqi or Afghan civilians.  Blackwater Worldwide, which has changed its name to Xe Services to dodge its existing infamy, paid $1 million in hush bribes to Iraqi officials following the September 2007 shootings in Nisour Square in Baghdad which killed 17 civilians.  By fall 2007, Congressional investigation found that Blackwater had been involved in 195 incidents of shootings of Iraqis, and had opened fire first on 163 of those occasions.  On January 28, 2009, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the expulsion of Blackwater Worldwide.  The government had previously attempted Blackwater’s expulsion following the Nisour Square shootings, but the Bush Administration refused to comply.  Ongoing use of security contractors has arguably generated more hostility between our government and Iraq’s than incidents of collateral violence involving our own soldiers.

Following several incidents of shootings of civilians, embarrassing conduct, and unauthorized distribution or carrying of sidearms, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced in August that all private companies proving military services would have to leave the country within the next 4 months.  The US military has preferred a gradual phase-out of security contractors, arguing that their expulsion on a deadline could leave a security hole in Afghanistan that neither the government nor any of its NATO sponsors would be prepared to fill.

With so many virtual mercenaries carrying out narrow, private duties in Iraq and Afghanistan, it isn’t necessary or helpful to characterize them all as mad dogs or opportunists; the simple fact is that their massive presence in our war theaters facilitates indiscipline, confusion and mistrust.  Unbound by the rules of engagement, irresponsible to the military chain of command, and uncoordinated with the military command structure, the modern mercenaries haven’t just killed civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan; they have fired on our own soldiers, too.