Monthly Archives: April 2012

From Grasping the World to Going Home

“3 things,” I told the executive chef.  “#1: I will not be here tomorrow.  I will be in New Jersey.  #2: I can only work 4 days a week for the next 2 weeks–I haven’t packed, I haven’t begun looking for a new job, I haven’t said goodbye to my friends in the area.  #3: My last day will be no later than May 13th.”

The boss–a proud French Swiss chef whose sense of his business responsibilities is at least matched by an esprit de corps and an affection for his employees–ingested all of this in a moment, visibly disliked the taste of it, but repressed a grimace with much consideration for my well-being.  He said, “OK.”

This was shortly before 5:00 pm on Friday.  At this posting–Sunday morning–I have not slept since that time.  After a Friday night shift that didn’t wrap particularly late or run mind and body ragged, I returned to my apartment around 3:45 am.  As I’d told the chef, I was going to New Jersey that very day.

Oh, that’s right–my roommate Ben had warned me via text message that his crew from Western Pennsylvania would be joining us for the weekend.  Like most previous weekends he’d had his friends over, by sheer coincidence I was heading out of town to see mine.

I entered the apartment to the sound of a woman’s laughter, and the lights were on throughout.  2 young men I’d never seen before were sleeping on the couches in the living room.  I walked to Ben’s room to find him and his girlfriend sitting on his bed, with a woman and 2 men clustered in a semicircle on the floor facing towards the door.  Well, I guess they were arranged around the hookah, which at this point in the evening seemed to command their attention.

“Ben, you do have a roommate!” the woman exclaimed.

“So far, we’ve just heard footsteps, or seen a shadow make its way from the front door to the other bedroom, or a stray hand pick up some books and disappear into the dark again,” 1 of the unfamiliar men said.

“Uh, excuse me for a moment,” I said.  They laughed.  I might as well preserve my ambiguous status as long as possible, savor it.  I feel quite comfortable standing apart from company when it’s present.  I want it to be near but don’t mind those stretches when I don’t interact with it, moving in parallel.  It is a source of great satisfaction for it to be near, accessible.  But one’s ultimate desire is to affirm that one is a part of it; after taking off my heavy wool coat I promptly went back.

“I’m Cody,” the 1st of the new men to speak said.  “We were sure Ben didn’t have a roommate.  We figured he just hired extras to make this apartment look more lived-in.”

“Juan,” the other man, proprietor of the hookah, said.

“I’m Sassy!” the light-skinned, dark-haired woman exclaimed.  “It’s nice to finally meet you!”  I returned a smile that must have looked reticent compared to hers.  Sassy?

I often think about dispositions.  According to my AP Psychology teacher, these reveal themselves when we are babies, and they never really change throughout our lives.  Some people are “easy,” some are “difficult.”  I am “slow to warm-up.”  Rather than being readily outgoing and receptive to new people, or ill-tempered and impulsive, I find meeting new people draining, even daunting.  I begin on my guard (though I am well-aware this is unnecessary), needing time and a point of conversational access to “establish relations.”  With better appreciation of what animates another person, I begin to desire deeper connections with others–but rarely right away.  It’s as if you were unable to “get into” a band your friend likes before you heard that 1 single of theirs that gave their characteristic sound all its richness for you.  The metaphor works, but it’s unfortunate: In substance, a band is always less than the sum of its parts.  We can never present ourselves fully, not even to our fellow band members.  This is a beautiful thing, and an irreducible source of dissatisfaction.

As I’d just confirmed with the boss, I’m moving.  I wish I’d gotten to know my roommate of 3 years better.  As I think this, for some reason I recall Zach Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead–possibly because we both like Zach Snyder.  Anyway, the night before the obligatory zombie apocalypse, our heroine and her husband go on a date that consists of spending an evening together and going to bed.  (She is a nurse.)  My roommate works on campus for a board that evaluates the ethical qualifications of social science research conducted through the University; I work in a bar.  (Naturally my job, which I imagine requires less skill and discretion, makes me more money.)  As I wake up in the afternoon and get ready for work, he returns from his normalish working hours; I show up for work at 4:00 pm and don’t leave until some time between 1:00 am and 4:00 am.  Needing some time after work to decompress and stimulate my mind–though not nearly so often by adding to this blog as I’d like–I sometimes don’t go to bed until Ben gets up and leaves for work the next morning.

Are we alienated labor, sorry victims of our inverse work schedules?  We bond well when there’s time, but even when we’re both awake and free I still feel we don’t see each other as much as we should.  I recall a conversation just this Monday with another member of our grad school cohort, Javiera, and her boyfriend, Phil.  This was only the 2nd time I’d seen Phil, and within a minute I found myself elaborating on my recent decision to move back home from Washington: “I have old friends from high school that I still talk to–1 of them almost every day.  When I was an undergraduate at Drew, I forged a 2nd family with my friends there.  I know about half a dozen or so people there who, if I were to be in New Jersey or the New York area with no place to stay, I could give them a call and they’d take me in…”  (Funny story: Remember I said that.)  “…I tried to seek-out people to forge another such family down here in Maryland–and I’ve made some close friends here, which I’m grateful for–but this 3rd family was never achieved.  I see most of these people rarely, and I ache for companionship.  Some of my friends here have expressed this same feeling of loneliness or a lack of local support for their endeavors, but even when we’ve agreed on the nature of the problem somehow we still haven’t done anything about it.  We’ve all retreated into our own projects, and from what I can see we’re unhappier and sometimes less-productive than ever.  There’s something about Washington, DC; you notice it around the holidays.  Everyone goes home–and home isn’t here.  When they do have vacation time and they’re itching to spend time with friends, they leave this area.  I myself go back to New Jersey or New York for several days once a month now.”

Phil was insightful.  “I’ve noticed this trend somewhat with meeting people at this point in my life, and I grew up here.  I don’t know if it’s just about the area.  I think by the time you reach your mid-20s, most people have found those who they want to call close friends.  I don’t think most people are still in the market (as you are) to make close friends.  Your old friends from high school and college have already had a lot of experiences with you and know that you have certain interests and a sense of humor in common with you, and people you meet now at your age don’t necessarily want to make the investment to establish that kind of understanding with someone new.  So, even if you make overtures and other people appreciate them, people you meet casually now just won’t think of you in that category.  If they plan something and they remember you or you happen to be available, great, but that’s something extra.  You won’t be the 1st person they think to call.”

This made a lot of sense.  I looked around the room at Ben’s friends, heard them quote their favorite movies, received clarification on friends present but unconscious in the next room, or those they’d left behind this weekend in the mysterious country of Western Pennsylvania.  Ben was still himself, as he commendably always is, but I sensed or imagined an added serenity about him.  Maybe it was the advanced hour, and the hookah.

Hookahs work by convection, by the way: A burning coal sitting at the top of a tube draws denser cold air down through the tube, where it pulls the smoke from burning tobacco (or even worse substances in some eras) into a small reservoir of water at the bottom, making the smoke clean (relatively-speaking).  Juan offered me a drag on the flavored tobacco; as always, I abstained.  Now I get to be with Ben and his friends and apart.  I wonder sometimes–without feeling any desire to act differently–whether others suspect (wrongly) that I don’t really want their company.

“Wait,” I said shortly after.  “Cody…Juan…Sassy,” I said, pointing to each of them respectively and smugly.  “Yes!  Excellent memory!” Sassy said.  How on Earth did she get that nickname?

“Well, it’s not just you who’s meeting me for the 1st time,” I said.  “I’m meeting Ben’s Friends from Western Pennsylvania!  I’m sure my brain is engaging my now-print phenomenon, ensuring I will remember this evening well…”

I remember more than just that evening well.

Cody, Sassy and Juan gradually filed out for bed, leaving Ben, his girlfriend Kim and myself “alone” in his room.  I made sure to make my exit as stiff, shy and awkward as possible.  Where a friend and his woman are concerned, always observe propriety–whatever that happens to mean for you.

It was about 4:30 am when I left my roommate, having pledged to stay up all night so as to get a head-start going out to New Jersey.  Following a trip to the diner, a long shower and a typically-fitful packing for a mere night or 2 abroad, I left our apartment around 10:00 am.  I figured–naively–that this was a good time to text message my friends in the New Jersey-New York City region about lodgings for Saturday night.  I was returning to Drew University to see Professor Garyth Nair, my old maestro, in his last concert as conductor of the Drew University Chorale.  Mark would be upstate and couldn’t make it; I wouldn’t see him there.  Henry would be heading to Pennsylvania that night and couldn’t make it, though he generously offered his rooms at both Princeton Theological Seminary and his family home nearby for me to stay the night–provided I had my car.  (The car is back on Long Island.)  Eric and wife Kerry would be staying with the in-laws that night and so couldn’t make it; John and girlfriend Annie would be at the concert, but they too would be staying with the in-laws that night and so couldn’t put me up.  I considered asking Steve, who was helping girlfriend Kate recuperate from Saturday’s surgery…but then noted that would obviously be rude and stupid.  By degrees my own words of the Monday past came back to me: “I know about half a dozen or so people there who, if I were to be in New Jersey or the New York area with no place to stay, I could give them a call and they’d take me in.”   Well, it’s my own fault for having a mentality of entitlement.  In a matter of hours I would be a little humbler and way more sleep-deprived.

New Jersey Transit may be my favorite way to travel.  Making my way westbound from the Newark Broad Street transfer station towards Morris County, one passes into Appalachian foothills and lush, tree-covered towns that often still retain a 19th-century feel.  This beautiful densely-populated but beautiful country is barely 20 miles west of Lower Manhattan.  New Jersey is 1 of the prettiest places I’ve ever spent an extended amount of time.  People laugh when I say that, but all this does is reveal how few people are interested in exploring that state.  With a population only a little bigger than New York City, New Jersey weaves its past comfortably and unpretentiously with its present, managing to be at once quaint and commercial.  The physical manifestations of its pre-automobile heritage are everywhere (for which I am grateful, as the State’s highways are often astonishingly badly-designed, especially compared to New York’s relative efficiency).  The maple trees in New Jersey are so pervasive in some places, so vibrant, their leaves hanging on so long in the fall that they’ve sold me on the color yellow.  As I disembarked from the train in Madison, I passed through a massive stone train station, 1 of many in meticulous condition I’ve used in New Jersey.  Madison is a treed town of large downtown buildings and striking churches.  Walking through downtown I passed the hairstylist on Waverly Place and immediately my mind was distracted by a recollection of getting a haircut there; next I smelled a strong smell of ice cream wafting out from an ice cream parlor.  I found myself wandering over to Chatham Booksellers, a used bookstore that is more fantastic than I remembered it.  In my 4 years at Drew I probably only visited it 2 or 3 times.  While visiting in my 1st year as a graduate student I obtained a beautiful, mint-condition set of Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies there for $20, and a rare, mint set of Edward Gibbons’ History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with fantastically-detailed renderings of Roman life for $30.

With e-books and kindle people ask why I lug around entire suitcases full of books.  I don’t spend a lot of time wondering if books will “disappear” into our electronic media; all I know is that my shelves are filling-up as are my friends’, and that I love books.  I am never more a shopper than in a bookstore, loving the thought that I can hold in my hands a physical object that could enrich my life or even set it on a different course; this particular used bookstore is as crowded and dubiously-organized as an old professor’s office.  It’s a rare pleasure searching for the books some other reader has mysteriously turned-in, looking for that next set available at a discount.  I think what a pleasure it is to know that I’m spending my own money on these books, and suddenly I feel a surge of gratitude for the bar I’ve left far behind on a busy day.

The written record of the Founders’ debate on the United States Constitution; selected writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung; Classes, Power and Conflict, an edited volume of sociological theories of repression compiled by Anthony Giddens and David Held, and Peddling Prosperity, Paul Krugman’s old warnings against quick-fix economics for the complex challenges globalization poses to the United States.  Now I have another bag to lug around, and eventually to pack for the return home.  I haven’t the time to read all the books I have now.  I am well-equipped; I am happy.

8:00 pm; the concert starts.  The Drew University Chorale at this time consists of 26 singers, 1 of whom was abroad at the time of the concert; as they launch into Pavel Chesnokov’s “Hvalite Ghospoda s nebes,” they make beautiful music with a sound about 3 times that size.

A word should be said about the Drew University Concert Hall: When it was dedicated in 2005, it was probably 1 of the best acoustic performance spaces in the World.  Professor Nair (who had performance experience with the Westminster Choir, singing under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, and witnessing recordings of great ensembles such as the Berliner Philharmoniker), the architect for the Music School’s share of Drew’s new Arts Center, and the acoustician all collaborated regularly, keeping each other apprised of issues such as the needs for rehearsal space, ingress and egress, and equipment storage; the best means to reflect musical sounds off the floor and walls; and in the architect’s case, where to locate the walls and beams so that the building didn’t collapse.  Professor Nair and the acoustician made full advantage of improved software that allowed them to simulate the sounds that would carry from the stage to different parts of the hall, depending on the angle of the walls or the height of the ceiling, and even the materials used in construction.  (It turns out 1 of the best materials for the floor of a concert hall is a slab of concrete, and 1 of the best materials for a stage is NBA-regulation plywood–a spongy wood that dents easily.  The illustrious Berliner Philharmoniker actually once performed on a stage made out of concrete, which had to be jackhammered and replaced so that the sound from the orchestra didn’t bounce straight up to the ceiling.)

This digression aside, even with a properly-designed concert hall built and finished with the best-possible materials to carry sound to the audience, there is 1 simple element that determines whether a choir or orchestra is audible: The ensemble must make music in key.  If all vocal parts hit and sustain their pitches effectively, their notes have a multiplier effect, making the chord much louder; if several of the singers in a section or (as is quite likely) the violins are out of tune, the dissonant pitches actually interfere with each other, leveling each other out like invisible waves that clash as they move in different directions.  With the same number of performers at the same volume, the sound of an ensemble that is out-of-tune is quieter.

All of Nair’s choir music in this concert was Church music of an Orthodox or Catholic cast; as a good ironist all I care for is what space the sound transports me to.  I was touched to find that the music contained the Drew University that had been my home for 4 years, and that I had remembered for the 6 years following.  It’s no different–though the students are of course all unrecognizable now, and sometimes do seem pretty young.  It came up more than once during the honors for Professor Nair that he had been maestro at Drew for 20 years–and I remembered why I wanted to be a professor in the 1st place.  The prospect of an academic career exploring, writing about discussing (and yes, teaching) big ideas to maturing minds for longer than the lifetime it had taken me to reach my advanced degree was the promise that filled grad school with excitement for me.

Professor Nair closes–as anyone who has done what he loves for his work for a generation might–with an encore that was also a valedictory, expressing satisfaction that, while he could be here with us, there was music.

When I was in high school, my father was my band conductor.  For years I have been insensible–until my concerts would pass, at first without attendance by family and friends–to the loneliness even of my consolations, as I would continue with choir.  I will be coming home; I could avail myself of the opportunity to perform in a band or an orchestra with my father, the sort of familiar habit people sacrifice in order to move hundreds of miles to a new city so as to be at the cutting edge of…I don’t know, some fad they don’t control, mostly.  It may sound like I wax nostalgic, but actually I suspect a lot of people have a vague picture of making a fortune or pursuing a career that will bring them access to power, to “the inside,” to “History,” and as they incrementally set their sights downward they they may shrug-off the familiar things they could have for free, if only they could pursue a career closer to home, that offered mundane rewards.

As John, Annie and I move on to the lavatory, we pass the classroom with the big projector screen where we used to hold Anime Club.  DOA–the Drew Organization of Anime–was, outside the rough-11 hours or so I spent with Chorale, Orchestra and Wind Ensemble, the most time I would spend a week on an official University activity.  We would meet at 7:00 pm every Sunday–Saturday by my senior year–and go as last as 3:00 or 4:00 am in the morning, just watching Japanese cartoons.  We sampled the racy, the funny, the endearing, the violent, and the tragic.  Many anime cycle from 1 such focus to another in ways unassuming Americn audiences might find disturbing.  Then there would be AniMay Day, at the end of the school year–21 hours of Japanimation.  I was always taken by the intense beauty of anime, particularly when watched on the big screen in the dark with a group–my most-Dionysian habit in college.  As we walked past the door, we could see the current members of DOA watching something inside.  (It was after all around 10:15 pm on Saturday.)

After John and Annie excused themselves to travel to the in-laws, I walked back to the door to look-in on what they were watching.  It occurred to me that the Club might watch anime for another 4 or 5 hours.  I thought about going inside, saying I was an old Club member, and sitting down right there to watch some anime–suitcase, tote bags full of books and all.  (I can watch almost any of the stuff, provided it isn’t particularly dirty, or a particularly-vapid cutesy show called Azumanga Daioh.)

Just then a young Club member–They’re all young now, you see–emerged from the door, for a moment blankly staring at me.  “Oh, do you need to use this space?”  I must be an “adult” to him.

“No, I’m just…staring through the window!  Heh heh heh!”  Well-done, me.

He walked on.  I watched for a few more minutes.  This particular anime was a shonen–a coming-of-age man’s anime about a young man coming of age…by walking the Earth and punching life’s problems in the face.  (Bleach and Naruto are among the most-popular and discussed of these in America.)  The young, angry protagonist’s trainer explained to him that the Universe was created from a single mass in the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.  All the Universe is made up of atoms, the exposition continued.  (For the record, that’s not true; the Universe is largely composed of a fascinating and increasingly-understood assortment of primary particles, quite a few of which do not comprise atoms…then there’s the mysterious dark matter and dark energy, which apparently constitute most of the material in the Universe.  The point is that, in reverse of Nikola Tesla’s formulation in The Prestige, our knowledge greatly exceeds our reach.)  Continuing on, the trainer told our young hero that, as his body was also made up of atoms, so was he a cosmos unto himself.  Intuitive knowledge of the physical composition of his body would allow him to explode matter through unification with the physical properties of matter itself.

I find this sort of mysticism-earned-on-the-cheap very tiring these days.  Recall that this blog’s namesake is a person who believes cruelty is the worst thing we do, who disavows that his own beliefs put him in touch with any power that transcends human existence.  Yes, man is the measure–or rather, humanity is the measure.  It’s maintaining otherwise that is arrogant.  There is no objective yardstick; the Universe doesn’t care how we choose to subdivide or temper it, and it doesn’t reveal its essence or its potential to us.  I am not a cosmos unto myself; I am an assemblage of atoms, large to some objects, small to others.

I left the door without entering into the Club.  No 5 hours of anime for me that night.  Anyone I had known in the Drew Organization of Anime had left 3 years before; I knew the venue, but to enter now would be no different than to invite myself into any university anime club where I had no personal contacts.  The old Club was scattered to the winds (or at least about New Jersey); I would enjoy the old pastimes with the right people or not at all.

I arrive at the Nautilus Diner on Route 124 in downtown Madison.  It’s 11:40 at night.  I recognize the man at the register.  I take a seat for 1.  Just over the partition, by the window, I can see the booth I took with 2 girls the week following my orientation at Drew.  It was my first time out alone with these 2 lady friends, and within a few minutes a 27-year-old man introduced himself, sat down with us, and favored 1 of the young women with clever conversation (distracting me all the while with a riddle that turned out to be a trick, a device that turned me on to his game instantly).  They discussed their favorite Ayn Rand novels.  The 27-year-old took us about 2 blocks to the west, to Shanghai Jazz, where their conversation continued.  The jazz music was great, the details of conversation now lost to me, as it often is in the presence of music.  He was charming, and too old.  I stayed with the 2 women until we got back to our dorm.  He left her a long, desperate voicemail late that night.  The next day she gave me a letter expressing her gratitude.  As I recall this I regret not having talked with her more.  I am 27 years old now, and was surrounded by undergraduates as I had this extended recollection.  I felt unconcerned, and uninterested.  I turned to 1 of the books I’m lugging around, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan, a philosophical exploration of massive upsets to conventional knowledge.  (I highly recommend it.)  Strangely-enough, within minutes I am reading the passage about the protagonist of the novel Il deserto dei tartari (The Desert of the Tartars).  “Giovanni Drogo is a man of promise,” stationed at a fortress that guards the Russian marches against the Tartars.  This is a backwater posting, and after 4 years Drogo is ready to retire to the nearby city, trading on his distinguished status as a veteran in good standing while he makes a new life from himself, done now with his dutiful waiting.  But when the time draws near for his discharge, Drogo decides to extend his stay, hoping to “be there” for the catastrophic battle with the Tartars he suspects will come.  Years pass, and he extends his posting longer and longer.  Finally, he dies at an inn a short distance away, as the Tartars finally attack the fortress, the moment of fame for which he deferred everything now stillborn.  Reading this account–about a novel that a hypothetical character in Taleb’s book reads, and subsequently identifies with intensely–I saw that I identify with Taleb’s hypothetical character, and also with Taleb in feeling sympathy for those who pass up countless small opportunities for the grandiose moments that by nature so rarely come to us on our terms.  I am done waiting in Washington; how happy I am to be moving home.

After the Nautilus Diner I walked the few blocks eastward down Route 124 to the Dunkin’ Donuts.  I wondered, in my vulnerable, book-carrying state, if there were a risk of a mugging.  I remember that I’m now projecting concerns from high crime in the Washington, DC area.  During my 4 years at Drew, about 22 miles west of Manhattan, there was just 1 mugging in Madison and 2 bear sightings on campus.  The student who was mugged actually managed to pull the cash out of his wallet and drop it in his pocket before handing the empty wallet to the duped mugger, who retreated to a car.  The young man–a typically-sharp Drew student–promptly called the police from his cell phone (!), and the mugger and his accomplice were caught within minutes.  Only mugging during my time at Drew.  True story.

I arrived at the Madison Dunkin Donuts a little after 2:00 am; the reruns of the White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner is playing.  (Jimmy Kimmel was sharp and charming.)  They leave CNN on all day now; when I was an undergraduate they left FOX News on all day.  I would come here with 2 or 4 friends several times a week, after 1:00 am.  We always aimed for the time when the old Donuts were about to be thrown-out; we couldn’t tell the difference, and if we ordered half a dozen we’d get nearly a dozen.  We’d have long philosophical discussions about whether inter-subjective entities like the United States “exist,” and make racy jokes about improbable sex positions.  We’d stay up late because we didn’t want these times to end.  6 years later, in regularly-scheduled installments, they actually haven’t.

Tonight I’m on my own.  But tomorrow I will take the train into New York City and “see a few of the guys.”  Nietzsche was right; nothing is truly unegoistic.  We seek recognition from peers.  When Socrates, Aristophanes, Agathon, Alcibiades and other educated men of their day in the Athens of the Ancients gathered together, they weren’t part of an academic association; they were friends.  Plato Platonized their debate over the nature of love into the dialogue Symposium.  Their answers were subject to peer-review in a sense that is rarely contemplated today; they all “made publication” because they were among friends and seeking to express themselves clearly on this point.

As I write the last of these lines the Sun is coming up.  I often watched the sunrise at Drew–always because I had pulled an all-nighter the night before.  When it wasn’t cold at night in New Jersey (which wasn’t often), I would walk the streets of Madison at night.  Just over 20 miles west of Manhattan, the air is still at night and it’s quiet out.  Back then I had a warm bed to return to on campus; tonight I have nowhere to go.  But I’m home, and I’m happy.  My friends haven’t moved on, they’ve moved off-campus.  No one could take me in tonight, but that’s because they are planting roots in this much-mythologized and -maligned but very-special place.  I am a man of Liberal sentiments, but I am not “at home in the World,” I am at home in New York and New Jersey.  I have no pretenses of objectivity or transcendence; I am what I am, and wandering the streets of Madison en route to the warmth and light of Dunkin’ Donuts and on the lookout for that black bear, I think to myself: If I cannot carry this feeling of completeness with me to a strange place, I will move towards it.

Advertisements

Santorum’s Departure from the Primaries, or The Revenge of the Establishment

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum announced the suspension of his campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination on Tuesday, hedging on his reasons aside from his young daughter’s poor health and the failure of his Texas supporters to convert the Lone Star Republic’s Republican Presidential primary from a proportional delegate contest to a winner-take-all one.  (Texas, like most Southern and several Upper-Midwestern States, appeared to be Santorum country but couldn’t make him competitive on its own–let-alone if Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney could win some of its delegates.)  1 likely-important reason the Senator neglected to mention was Governor Romney’s apparent gain on his lead in his home State of Pennsylvania, a political embarrassment that could have killed not only his hopes of winning the Republican Presidential nomination this year but his political viability in the future as well.  On April 4, a Public Policy Polling poll of likely Pennsylvania Primary voters gave Governor Romney a 42%-37% lead over Senator Santorum, while a Rasmussen Reports (read: Republican pseudo-populist) poll of (what its obscure methodology judges to be) likely voters found Santorum still leading Romney by a competitive 42%-38%.  In any case by Tuesday, April 10th there were exactly 2 weeks to go until the Pennsylvania Republican primary, and Governor Romney had (er, unaffiliated pro-Romney super-PACs had) truckloads of cash for negative TV ads calling Senator Santorum’s Conservative credentials into question.  Such negative TV ads (brought to you by…whomever) almost certainly allowed Romney to avoid an embarrassing primary defeat at Santorum’s hands in proletarian but very socially-Conservative Ohio, and possibly even in equally-proletarian but definitely less socially-Conservative Michigan–which is Romney’s home State.  In any case, Senator Santorum, who has made his Presidential bid this year about his personal narrative as an exemplar of traditional moral values, seems to have seen fit to stay in the race after speculation abounded that he was injuring his party’s chances of winning the White House from the supposedly-insufferable President Barack Obama, but to have happily regained his humility when decisive professional embarrassment stared him in the face.  Of course, I may be doing him a real disservice in all of this, minimizing the traumatic experience of his daughter’s hospitalization.  On Friday, April 6th, Senator Santorum’s daughter Bella, who has a dangerous genetic defect in her 18th chromosome, was hospitalized with what seemed to be a recurrence of her pneumonia from January.  It’s entirely possible the Senator took this compounding and incomparably more-frightening new setback as a sign–I use the term with the minimum quantity of superstition possible–that it was time to quit the field and spend time with family.

What does Senator Santorum’s better-than-expected performance in this year’s Republican Presidential Primary tell us about the Republican base in 2012?  The Liberal Ironist thinks we have in fact learned something new about the Republican Party, and it wasn’t what we expected to learn: The Republican party establishment has weathered the Tea Party assault.  Furthermore, for all its ongoing capacity to force issues onto the political agenda (which seems increasingly to depend on the engagement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), the Christian Right is sliding from the center towards the periphery of the Republican Party.

In fact, Governor Romney’s relatively anemic lead among the Republican Presidential hopefuls since the start of 2011 aside, the fact is that he started the Republican Primary season around mid-February last year with about 19% of the (then-uninformed) Republican electorate supporting him, and he has about 40% of the Republican electorate committed to him now.  He is more than halfway to having enough delegates for the nomination, and as things stand the remaining primary and caucus States will provide these for him easily.

When Senator Santorum began to break out into the lead in several February primaries in the wake of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s recurring personality and past marital problems, there were those who argued that he posed a challenge of a fundamentally-different nature to Governor Romney, giving voice to the anxieties of the shattered blue collar heartland, places like his home State of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Governor Romney’s own home State of Michigan.  Senator Santorum, so this persuasive argument went, waxed nostalgic for the white-picket-fence society of the 1950s, and recognized that the New Deal politics of that era were necessary to sustain the suburban working-class and middle class nuclear family ideal of that time.  The chaos of our irreverent and increasingly-fragmented culture is the result of the great dispossession of our proletariat due to corporate  outsourcing and wealth-agglomerating high finance, and Senator Santorum knows this trend and embodies the dissent against it, thus representing a profound challenge to Governor Romney’s pursuit of the Republican Presidential candidacy if not President Obama’s pursuit of reelection.

This narrative turned out to be wrong.  It’s true that Senator Santorum pointedly tailored his economic plan to favor manufacturers, but he proposed to do so by eliminating manufacturers’ income taxes rather than through some shrewd and positive industrial policy.  The campaign cosmetics sustain this narrative equally poorly: Rather than stick to some brilliant narrative of Americans’ growing economic insecurity and seeing the breakdown of the family and of more traditional lifestyles as a consequence of our somewhat-nomadic and dispossessed lives today, Senator Santorum crudely attacked President Obama as a “snob” for recommending that all Americans earn a college degree.  He attacked President Obama for reading prepared speeches–well–and himself often had trouble expressing coherent ideas.  (In response to this, Conservative Washington Post op-ed writer Michael Gerson compellingly defended reading prepared speeches to one’s audience over what we naively call “speaking from the heart,” offering one of Senator Santorum’s own rambling and forgettable speeches as the cautionary tale.)

The biggest problem with the narrative that Senator Santorum had captured the dispossessed Middle America of mid-20th century life was his clear rejection by the proletarians for whose benefit his campaign was supposedly crafted: Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin all voted for Governor Romney over Santorum.  Illinois and Wisconsin weren’t even close.

The Wikipedia entry on the 2012 Republican Presidential Primaries has a good map of primary results by county.  On this map the orange represents counties won by Governor Romney (their small number belies his massive lead in both the popular vote and pledged delegates), the green counties were won by Senator Santorum, the purple counties were won by Speaker Gingrich, and the yellow counties were won by Dr. Paul.  From the map the narrative unfolds: The Republican electorates of the States of the Deep South, the less-industrialized Upper-Midwest, and the Great Plains all voted for Not-Romney.  Actually, only 2 of those States’ Republicans voted to nominate someone other than Senator Santorum for President–South Carolina and Georgia, both for Gingrich.

I would hazard a guess that Governor Romney (who has thus far carried the counties colored in orange) has won his massive primary lead among Republicans and with delegates through support by less socially-Conservative voters...and from Mormons. Map by Gage, media contributor to Wikipedia.

My theory (and it’s not original, though it has been understated) is that social Conservatives (except Mormons) have been leading the effort to champion an alternative to Governor Romney.  Thus, political eulogies granting Senator Santorum a grudging respect for holding out much longer than anyone expected in this primary are missing the point entirely: If a man crosses a great distance riding on an elephant, we shouldn’t conclude he has a lot of endurance.

Senator Santorum’s social Conservative bona fides are better-established than those of the many other Republican Presidential hopefuls from this primary season, with the possible exception of Ms. Bachmann’s.  The fact that he didn’t get a strong showing in the polls or with the electorate until February–and then by default after Speaker Gingrich’s campaign collapsed–actually says little for him.  Once he secured that support base, he never exhibited either the inclination nor the facility to transcend it.  The map is quite revealing: Senator Santorum increasingly parodied himself as the primary season went on, social Conservatives ate it up, and the rest of the Republican Party concluded that Governor Romney really was going to be their nominee after all.

So, with all the talk of Tea Party this and anti-establishment that, it really looks like we’ve seen a shake-up among elite factions within the Republican Party.  Recent, very-contrived gestures to restrict contraceptive access aside, the Republican Party may be in the midst of a prophylaxis of sorts with the Christian Right.  Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has apparently captured the lead of the party’s economic and government-sizing agenda (unless and until a President Romney should take advantage of his newly-won political space to send Ryan a rejoinder), but between the Senator McCain’s defeat of Governor Huckabee in the 2008 Primary, the disciplined anti-Federal Government Republican message in the 2010 Midterm Elections, and now Governor Romney’s defeat of Senator Santorum, the power of the Christian Right has fallen far and fast since the born-gain George W. Bush Presidency ended in chaos and disgrace.

Grassroots nothing.  We’ve just seen a drawn-out contest between an establishment man favored by the country clubs and an establishment man favored by the Church.  The country clubs won, and the ultimate result was never seriously challenged.  The Christian Right is much weaker than it appears to be, most of its momentum simply the inertia of a mass hurtling through space.  The Republican Party is for business.

What’s That? Political Mass Murderers Don’t Really Care About Sovereignty?!

You’ve got to hand it to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad: He’s a lot dumber than he looks.  He was given an undeserved reprieve a week ago when former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, at the behest of the United Nations, brokered a cease-fire agreement between the Assad Family Regime and Syria’s rebel movement, which has been active for a year and seems to be living through a slower-motion version of the way a massacre could have unfolded in Libya last year.  In short order, President Assad topped what was clearly intended to be his great diplomatic salvation with a further, unreasonable demand: Syrian government troops wouldn’t withdraw from the country’s multiple besieged cities until after rebels agreed to lay down their arms.

He must be joking–rather, he must be bluffing.  It’s worth mentioning that Syrian government forces had stepped-up their campaign of violence against the rebels while making this demand.  In fairness (though I’ll not invoke the maxim here) it’s hardly historically-anomic for 1 side in a shooting war to press its attack in the days or even the hours leading up to an armistice; if peace negotiations will occur with territory held or relative capabilities of the military factions counting towards one’s bargaining position, trying to gain a strategic advantage over enemy forces in the last moments before a cease-fire may seem outrageous in terms of surplus loss of life–but it’s certainly a rational strategy.  But this being understood, to claim that the UN-brokered cease-fire agreement is off unless Syria’s rebels put themselves at Assad’s mercy–when this is neither generally-accepted terms for a cease-fire nor in keeping with the UN-brokered cease-fire plan actually struck–is an insult to the intelligence of the mediators of this cease-fire at a minimum.  To Syria’s incredulous rebels, it is a sign they should be fighting harder.

If you can actually believe it, this wasn’t Bashar’s biggest diplomatic provocation this week.  That would have to be Monday’s cross-border incursion into Turkey–in order to kill fleeing refugees.  Yes, you heard that correctly: Syria’s military forces will not respect the sovereign territory of its neighbors if they have a chance to shoot those civilians fleeing the violence of its restive cities in the back.  As REUTERS reported yesterday, the Syrian Army responded to the rebel Free Syrian Army’s escort of a party of refugees into the Kilis Refugee Camp in Kilis Province, Turkey by firing directly into the refugee camp on Turkey’s side of the border.  This led to the Turkish government’s closing of the border later in the day for security purposes, which in the short term probably plays into the Assad regime’s plans to…well, kill a lot of people.

This escalation of hostilities seems to have been met with shock; maybe we have become desensitized to the irony of governments that murder thousands of their own civilians out of convenience making a plea for the inviolability of their own sovereign territory as a matter of principle.  If the concept of a government’s sovereign territory isn’t an extension of the concept of the personal integrity of its citizens or subjects, what is the point of having such a concept?  Rather than being a sacred trust, such sovereignty would be little-better (and in some cases, just as contingent) as gang territory.  If a government is so operationally-unconstrained that it will murder the people it is responsible for wholesale, what cause other than fear of the immediate consequences could possibly restrain it from violating its neighbors’ territory out of the same brute calculation?

Russia and China, both seemingly congenital human rights violators among nations but also  by history and strategic necessity among the 5 Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, have previously used their veto power to prevent any UN Resolutions of substance being issued on the Syria question.  Both Russia and China pressed for mediated talks between Assad and the rebels, but have interpreted such mediation in ways that were at least plausibly aimed at rapproachment between both sides.  Russia hasn’t publicly taken a position on Assad’s last-minute demands towards the rebels, and China so far has done little more than issue a plea yesterday for both the Assad Regime and the rebel uprising to honor the cease-fire which was set to start then.

Since the Assad Regime has continued its attacks on the rebels in northern cities today, and Annan’s cease-fire was intended to go into effect yesterday, the cease-fire appears to be off.

Where do we go from here?  It would be folly to think the governments of Russia and China will suddenly want to make penance for their support for Assad when this has never prevented them from pursuing their interests with murder-prone governments such as Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia or Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s Sudan.  What we’ve seen in recent weeks is just how little the President’s “reset” of relations with Russia and China has profited us.  The current Assad patriarch has revealed himself to be no less-abashed a mass murderer than his father, and Russia and China choose to define the festering civil war in Syria entirely as a zero-sum game between them and us for influence in the Middle East.  That is an interpretation, not an insight.

Turkey’s Erdogan government, through its diplomatic corps, has chosen to darkly imply that it is once again considering military action against Syria to push its armed forces back from its border.  We’ve allowed Syria’s rebels to hang by a thread for months without issuing anything so much as the term “unacceptable” that foreshadowed last year’s intervention in Libya.  Turkey is a longtime ally in good standing; it has accepted tens of thousands of refugees from collective punishment in Syria and for its humanitarianism it now finds itself vulnerable to cross-border incursions like those Sudanese militia made into Chad to hunt-down refugees fleeing the violence in Darfur.  Why let perpetrators of genocides and politicides hide behind the pretenses of sovereignty when they regularly create–and pursue–streams of humanity issuing from their own killing fields?  I say we should shore-up our commitments to our allies (such as Turkey) and to our values (such as the protection of civilians) rather than repeat a deference to nonplussed and unscrupulous world powers.

The Erdogan government has also previously entertained the idea of occupying a small area of northern Syria as a rebel safe zone.  I think that would be a good start.  If Syria regards that as an offensive action now, it should have accepted the cease-fire proposal after it became clear its violence was driving tens of thousands of refugees over its borders.  If Russia and China find a resultant hastening collapse of the Assad Regime objectionable, they should have put this morally-vacant dictatorial protege on a shorter diplomatic leash. A strong intervention now on the side of the rebels would send a message that we can play their Realpolitik game, too.

Foreign Policy: The Liberal Ironist Rues what He Wished For

Fred Hiatt had a good, if dispiriting op-ed in the Washington Post today.  He rather modestly suggests that President Obama isn’t that into all this democracy-promotion stuff.  I’ve growled about the President’s distance from urgent matters 1 day, then averred that his passivity at times has suggested of a studied patience for the right time to leverage American political power most-efficiently.  Today I simply think that when it comes to international politics, the President cares more about consensus than about principle.  The distinction is crucial; I wouldn’t say he feels the same way about domestic politics.

I had agonized for a while how to give voice to the (constructive, but firm) criticism I’d offer for the President’s foreign policy.  In a previous iteration I’d thought to say the President was insufficiently Realist in foreign policy when dealing with black sheep states such as Libya, Syria, Russia, and possibly even Sudan or Iran where there are voluminous arguments for greater reticence.  Hiatt had a better explanation: President Obama has no lack of political acuity where great-power politics is concerned; instead, he suffers from a counterproductive lack of substantive vision where foreign policy is concerned.  The Liberalism of his domestic policy program isn’t matched by anything in foreign policy beyond his campaign pledges to shore-up our alliances, and to talk with the bad guys before shooting to see if we can get any concessions on the cheap.  I actually shifted my support to then-Senator Obama over Senator Hillary Clinton in June 2007 during the Democratic Presidential Primary over these pledges alone, and while I still clearly see the corrective to George W. Bush’s obtuse and wasteful foreign policy vision, it’s an overcompensation.  Of all things, the President’s recent overheard offer of concessions on missile defense brought this front-and-center in my mind.

The Liberal Ironist makes it a point of pride to rarely concern himself with the he-said, she-said of politics, but sometimes the optics seem pretty transparent.  I think there is something to President Obama’s “hot mic” comments to outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. For those not in the know, following an otherwise low-key official talk with President Medvedev during a round of big meetings in Seoul, South Korea in late-March, President Obama leaned forward, confident his microphone had been turned off, and gave assurances to Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked successor and soon-to-be predecessor: “On all these issues, particularly on missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for (President-elect Putin) to give me space,” an obvious allusion to policy concessions that could only come after the November election, which will be President Obama’s last.

President Obama sought to explain these remarks the following day, though curiously, he really said less than he did unwittingly over the mic.  He referred to his desire to further reduce both our country’s nuclear arsenals—a meaningful goal on which he has already made historic strides–but his assurances to President Medvedev focused on the SDI defense system.  Is there really any doubt that this was what he was talking about?

I had real concerns when President Obama rescinded previous plans to locate the SDI system’s components in Poland and the Czech Republic.  I tentatively accepted the logic that there was something to be gained from a conciliatory gesture towards Russia, but in retrospect it isn’t clear that anything actually was gained from embarrassing the elected governments of 2 reliable allies in Eastern Europe.  (The governments of Poland and the Czech Republic had gone on a limb promoting the controversial missile defense deployment, and now quite suddenly they were being told not to expect it because the political successor to the military occupier of their traumatic past didn’t approve.)  About the closest we can come to really having conciliatory policy change on Russia’s part was their acquiescence in the UN mandate to intervene in Libya.  There they only agreed to a mission to protect civilians from a government that was obviously predisposed to slaughter them; the happy outcome of that intervention has been the deposition and death of Colonel Muammar el-Gaddafi and his government of revolutionary terror, and the institution of a (factionalized, but apparently savvy) transitional government there.  But in Syria we see the same movement towards slaughter in slow motion, and Russia (and China) have adopted a “once bitten, twice shy” tack and consistently defended a mass murderer.

President Obama’s “Reset” of relations, extended to countries as different but as antagonistic to George W. Bush’s foreign policy as Russia, China, and Iran, has been the stuff of controversy for Conservatives from the start of his Presidency.  The controversy pertains to the apparent relinquishment of our advantage in episodes such as the June 2009 post-election uprising in Iran or President Obama’s decision to cancel our deployment of the SDI in Poland and the Czech Republic.  At times (at least with Russia), it appeared that this “reset” had brought some benefits–the New START nuclear arms limitation treaty, Russia’s participation in a NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, Russia’s acquiescence to the fateful UN Resolution instituting a “no-fly zone” over Libya that was interpreted to sanction NATO intervention to help the Rebels win that civil war.  The Liberal Ironist agreed that a conciliatory gesture towards Russia was prudent after George W. Bush’s unsustainable bellicose idealism–which from the 2005 election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had engendered massive opposition from the more-brutish governments of the World without being able to consolidate the democratic gains in the former Soviet Countries and the Middle East that we had hoped for.

Furthermore, I recall discussions about President Obama’s resignation during the June 2009 anti-regime riots in Tehran, which the government met with force.  Some on the Right–and many of my friends on the Left–said this was the turning point or that it was our opportunity to get involved and take out an illiberal and hostile regime; I disagreed, and though our complete lack of diplomatic progress with the Islamic Republic is revealing I still feel justified in my judgment that our strategic opportunity to aid the opposition at that time was an illusion.  My angriest grumbling with President Obama’s foreign policy to date was actually early last March, when he stalled on intervention in much-weaker Libya on the side of the Benghazi-based uprising.  Still, by mid-March we had our coalition, with the United Kingdom and France on-point, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates engaged such as their force projection would allow, and the United States lobbing a lot of missiles at Gaddafi’s Loyalist soldiers and mercenaries.  1 of the Middle East’s longest-ruling agents of violence was deposed, and on the cheap.  Weird, misguided phrases like “leading from behind” aside, the strategy clearly worked.

None of this means the President isn’t the wimp his Conservative opponents make him out to be.  The Liberal Ironist half-buys the narrative Conservatives have spun about President Obama’s conspiratorial reference to an electoral hiatus with President Medvedev: “Don’t worry about this missile defense stuff,” the President seems to be saying, “We’ll work something out after our elections in November.”

The cruder Conservative attacks have focused on the premise that the President has taken 1 policy position in public while promising another to a foreign leader in private.  (Such good Wilsonians these Republican populists are, assuming sound diplomacy can be conducted with all commitments being made in full view of the public, all interest groups having the chance to take a shot at them before any agreements are stricken!)  In keeping with my skepticism (alright, contempt) towards the Wikileaks ideology, my problem with President Obama’s attempt at a private comment to Medvedev isn’t the implied authoritarian conspiracy so much as the implied acquiescence; he mentioned an inclination to offer concessions on SDI to the outgoing leader of a government that has given him very little.

Maybe some good can come of this apparent plea of weakness.  New START was a major accomplishment–though it looks like Russia no less than China has decided to base its foreign policy strategy around the defense of the political mass murderers we intend to confront.  But as far as I can tell we have, as a friend recently put it, “a President who doesn’t seem to think strategically.”  We had a comparatively-mature foreign policy discourse before September 11th, when President Clinton could carry out limited but decisive humanitarian interventions that saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and even then-Governor George W. Bush, seeking to offer a contrast, could speak in mild tones against “nation-building.”  Then the latter underwent a total ideological Gestalt-switch following September 11th, and our foreign policy discourse (such as it is for public consumption) became divided between those who (like Governor Romney) like to call Russia and China our enemies from the campaign trail, and those who (like President Obama) are afraid of the optics of intervention even when the strategic exposure and moral stakes are quite clear–or who make concessions to competitors that are paranoid, implacable, and weak.

Forced between this choice I still prefer President Obama; he has proved a corrective to the costly and inconsistent schoolyard antics of George W. Bush’s Christianity-varnished foreign policy, and accomplishments such as New START, renewed ties to East Asian allies, the successful Libyan intervention and dramatic successes in our campaign against al-Qaeda are substantive and outshine my impression of the President as surprisingly-inarticulate when it comes time to defend our values on the international stage.  So much the State Legislator is still with him.

The Pitfalls of Negotiation with Your Bad, Bad Opponents

Matt Bai wrote an interesting account of the life and death of last summer’s “Grand Bargain” to control Federal deficits in last Sunday’s New York TimesMagazine.  The Liberal Ironist notes some takeaway lessons from the failure of President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner to make relatively small concessions in order to achieve historic goals while the pressure was on and the World watched.  Some of these are general principles and some of them historical observations; they are offered in a somewhat-progressive order:

1.) Who you appoint to lead a negotiation can be at least as important as the offers that are made.

2.) Both sides’ recriminations of each other are true.
2a. It was naive of President Obama to think he could make larger demands after getting a concession in the amount of $800 billion in 10-year revenue increases from Speaker Boehner.
2b. It was naive of Speaker Boehner to negotiate from a position of ignorance about the receptivity of his party conference to a deal–understandable, considering his desire to have an agreement in-hand without so many “gnat bites” from partisan backbenchers, but still naive.
2c. A qualification: Speaker Boehner claims that President Obama upped his demands on revenue increases from $800 billion to $1.2 trillion because the President knew he couldn’t deliver the Congressional Democratic Caucus on a final settlement, and wanted to put the onus on the Speaker for canceling the dialogue.  This probably isn’t true, and possibly even projection on the Speaker’s part.  Speaker Boehner couldn’t even deliver the House Republican Conference for a more-modest compromise to raise the Federal debt limit in late-July, embarrassing Boehner and forcing him to acquiesce to Democratic dictation of much of the budget cuts to follow; while instructive, these lessons on the art of negotiation may be historically moot because Speaker Boehner never had to put the Grand Bargain to his party conference.  If the President had sought to backtrack from his commitments to the Speaker–rather than the other way around–he shouldn’t have quietly fallen-back on his previous agreement to $800 billion in revenue increases, and it wouldn’t have made much sense for the Speaker to turn down that status-quo ante offer over a matter of principle.  The simpler, more-powerful explanation is that the Speaker of the House had gradually come to realize that he–whatever his intentions–had promised concessions he couldn’t deliver.

3.) Do not undercut your negotiating partner. The Gang of 6’s alternative deficit-reduction platform from mid-summer was well-meaning–but it was a distraction. It made tougher pledges of tax increases, reflecting the stronger tendency of the slow-moving, personalized and consensus-oriented Senate to come up with a compromise. When the President drew attention to the Gang of 6’s plan, he both undermined the Speaker’s hand and increased the daylight between their positions on a final deal.

4.) House Speaker Eric Cantor was just the messenger–apparently. Unlike Speaker Boehner, Cantor actually served as as a Republican vote-counter in the House–Deputy Majority Whip when the Prescription Drug Benefit passed in 2003–and appreciated how difficult it was to move a caucus where it doesn’t want to go. Speaker Boehner made his commitments to the President based on his goals, not on a sober reading of their feasibility. The House Majority Leader always represented his position as that of a restive House Republican Conference, and looking back at Speaker Boehner’s failure to hold them together through more-modest votes, he may have been serious. This doesn’t mean he isn’t angling for the Speakership, but simply that there isn’t much point in making Cantor the villain if he was accurately conveying the sense of the Republican Conference.

5.) It’s a difficult balancing act between protecting your own goals and respecting the cognitive workings of your opposite in a negotiation. While it was less than the $1 trillion of the Deficit Commission’s recommendation or the $1.2 trillion of the President’s later offer, Speaker Boehner’s $800 billion revenue increase proposal allowed for tax reform and the elimination of tax loopholes while lowering tax rates. A deal was far more-viable while both sides could settle for this 2nd-best that allowed each side to claim an accomplishment.

6.) Developing a point that emerged off of consideration of points 1, 3, and 5, never forget the importance of trust-building.  Negotiations to strike a compromise don’t just require sophisticated thinking in order to transcend prejudices and beliefs, they cannot be considered in isolation from the outer dissonance of resistance from one’s own party.  The danger of crossing them highlights the stakes involved in being taken advantage of, or even if your negotiating partner disparages your offer by publicly entertaining another.  If negotiations fall through because of a real or perceived lack of commitment to the negotiation itself by either party, any ensuing embarrassment can lead to a “once bitten, twice shy” mentality on the part of both parties–which is what Bai darkly suggests has happened with the President and the Speaker.

You Can’t Have it Both Ways: A Clarifying Moment on Religious Liberty

After an initially muddled response to President Obama’s contraceptive compromise in mid-March, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called the compromise position–mandating that health insurers cover contraceptives in employee health plans rather than religious institution employers themselves–“unconstitutional.”  The Bishops seem to be spoiling for a fight, Humanae Vitae being at the forefront of their thoughts, well, since 1968.

The Liberal Ironist considers freedom of conscience as foundational to any political perspective founded on Liberalism–that is, with the aim to equipping individual human beings to achieve their potential.  If you are already unsympathetic, this can hardly sound any better: Issues pertaining to freedom of conscience such as religious institutions’ right not to recognize same-sex relationships or to support contraception are no more-parochial than those historically associated with the left, such as religious freedom or the rights of dissent and conscientious-objector status.  The tempests early this year over whether gay marriage or Federally-mandated coverage for contraceptive products by religious institutions threaten the prerogatives of religious organizations strike me as serious even if Democrats consider them mere base-rallying by Republicans.  Whatever political stand you take on them, they demand consideration of whether the demands of personal choice are always individual or can be collective, and how government policy should acknowledge it.  Conservative opinion-makers told us that President Obama foolishly kicked the hornets’ nest when the Department of Health and Human Services announced that religious institutions (aside from churches) would be required by Federal law to pay for contraception for their employees; the Liberal Ironist agreed that the President ignored warnings–including from Vice President Biden and his Chief of Staff–that the policy, instituted under the already-controversial 2010 Affordable Care Act would constitute a serious insult to long-established moral confessions.  (The President’s “accommodation” response–to pass along the responsibility for the cost of contraception to the private health insurers of workers in religious schools and hospitals–has taken much of the heat out of the moral argument but resulted in a Constitutional oddity where insurers are responsible for providing for important health goods and services wherever institutions have by right of their mission moral compunctions for doing so.)  Politically, the issue has swung sharply from being damaging to the President to being damaging to Republicans; the Christian Right has proved that it is not dead and that if it has lost the commanding height of power it achieved under “Compassionate Conservative” George W. Bush, it can still be the tail that wags the dog in the Republican Party, forcing it to take episodic stands on issues that alienate large swathes of the electorate, in this case women.  (The image of a large Congressional Panel, assembled by House Republicans, testifying on contraception which was all-male is as vital a symbol of Republican special-interest callousness as anything; Olympia Snowe’s announcement of her retirement this year, apparently catalyzed by a failed Senate proposal to further restrict employees’ access to contraceptives, is also a bellwether of how Congressional Republicans have marginalized themselves on an issue that initially looked like a clear loser for the President.  From moral blunder by the President to the retirement announcement of yet-another moderate Republican in under a month: My God does politics move fast these days.)

Actually, the legislation that failed in the Senate today deserves its own attention.  The “Blunt Amendment,” as it was called, would have modified President Obama’s Health Care Reform to give private employers the discretion to deny contraceptives through the company health plan–if the employer deemed contraceptives to be at odds with his or her personal moral principles.  The proposal failed, and ultimately the President enacted his compromise: Health insurance companies will pay for contraceptives for policyholders who receive health plans through religious institutions, rather than the religious institutions themselves.  Health insurers accepted this new regulatory demand almost with indifference, apparently reasoning that contraceptives were far cheaper to cover than abortions would be (and retaining the power to simply raise premiums).  Ad-hoc as it was, most concerned agreed that a significant threat to freedom of conscience had been averted.

The compromise the Executive Branch worked-out on contraceptive coverage for institutional health plans reproduces, however graspingly and ad-hoc, the compromise worked-out by the States of New York and Maryland as they passed laws legalizing same-sex marriage: While broad legal changes recognize previously unrecognized or under-theorized individual rights, religious institutions that serve certain purposes regulated by government are personally exempt.  While religious organizations around the country have fought the expansion of same-sex marriage rights in the courts, at the ballot box, and now in State legislatures, their pressuring of the Obama Administration on contraceptive coverage won them exactly the same “parallel policy” treatment towards which they had expressed skepticism on the former issue in New York and Maryland.  (Both of those States legalized same-sex marriage with carefully-worded and much-discussed provisions that religious groups that consider homosexuality sinful behavior would be free to deny marriage ceremonies to gay and lesbian couples.)

Is this a wishy-washy solution?  Sure.  Does it represent moral progress?  Well, yes.  The questions we’re addressing aren’t resolvable by a unified standard or logic.  In the eyes of Richard Weaver (in Ideas Have Consequences) or the early Alasdair MacIntyre (ca. After Virtue), such intractable differences over 1st principles presage the coming anarchy or the next civil war.  In response to the claims of moral purpose religious sects made in the public sphere, the political theorist John Rawls spun out a concept of “public reason”–a deceptively polite request that believers in any metaphysical or moral “comprehensive doctrine” frame their political stances with reference to the dry and supposedly-objective language of the natural and social sciences, which he largely took to be “uncontroversial.”  He originally advanced this idea in book form about 20 years ago; much like his Theory of Justice, it was much-lauded in the academic community and has had strikingly little impact in practice.  Religious groups in many polities, democratic and non-democratic, and where permitted to do so and where not, have become increasingly expressive of their idiosyncratic beliefs.  In a strange mockery of Rawls’ hegemonic “public reason” concept, religious believers often describe politics in supernatural terms, exemplified (though hardly exhausted) when President George W. Bush insisted to Bob Woodward that he didn’t have to consult with his father before launching an invasion of Iraq because he “consulted a higher father”–to a non-believer (or even a dissenting believer, of which there were many) a dangerous abandonment of thought for pure subjectivity.  This has made the religious right a political force for a time but has also inspired a backlash that seems to be gaining strength.  Even if the religious right ultimately results in the political and social marginalization of religious groups, however, the moral cleft issues championed by religious civil society groups shouldn’t be expected to go away.

Why have a 1-size-fits-all answer to social issues?  This may represent a small breakthrough in public policy, but I maintain it presages a consequential shift in our political conception and discourse of social issues.  The Christian Right, which reinforces the enthusiasm (a fitting word which originally meant “God-suffusion”) Republican Party, both facilitates and embodies a pervasive sense of emergency regarding the American abortion regime, gay marriage, and (How to put this?) our popular culture.  The Christian Right has actually become less-popular outside of the Republican Party, and while the United States is becoming more religiously-diverse the proportion of non-religious Americans is among the fastest-growing.  (David Campbell and Robert Putnam theorized in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs that this is primarily a consequence of the partisanship of the Christian Right over the past 20 years.)  When religious organizations demanded different treatment under the Affordable Care Act they had a legitimate grievance, but the issue highlighted that the way for them to maintain their moral mission in a complex society that doesn’t recognize their claims of moral authority isn’t control of but autonomy from that society.  This answer may be deeply-unsatisfying to many religious Conservatives, but they have little to show for their political organization and partisanship over the past 30 years; the political system has changed them more than they have changed society.

To clarify: Maryland’s passage of a same-sex marriage law on the New York model and President Obama’s compromise on the contraception controversy at the beginning of this year brought about a change in my thinking on this issue, and the Liberal Ironist now supports same-sex marriage rather than civil unions.  It is religious organizations, with sentiments based explicitly on supernatural revelation, that will have to ask for parallel institutions rather than the minority groups whose equal status they don’t recognize.  This accommodation of their moral autonomy can be made.  As the Conservative Michael Barone once put it, Americans can live together because they know how to live separately.