Category Archives: Political Representation in the Humanities

Lincoln: A Review Through the Lens of the Theory and Practice of Politics

I find it ironic that a friend of mine and I who went to Lincoln in high spirits came out of the movie fighting bitterly.  We didn’t see eye-to-eye at all about the quality or significance of what we had just seen on the screen.

I had been riveted by the account of an America divided and almost ruined by completely-incommensurate views on politics, whose Representatives were guided through a time of great uncertainty to vote for a far-reaching change to the United States Constitution; my friend had been bored by a staid representation of a perfect President Abraham Lincoln, a cliché-ridden one at that.

We both saw the same movie, and we were hoping to find different things in it.  Considering the story was one of people who were worlds apart coming together to give incomplete standing to a burning moral truth, our complete disagreement over what we had just seen was disappointing.  (Actually, it fouled-up the whole evening.)

Lincoln 1

President Lincoln in the opening scene, speaking with curiousity to 2 Negro soldiers. Lincoln seemed far less certain about the prospects for good race relations than he did about the need to abolish slavery. He is portrayed as finding his way on the issue.

But this is a review of the movie through my eyes.  Lincoln is not a probing biography of 1 of our most-beloved Presidents, but rather a political account of 2 momentous months of his life–December 1864 and January 1865 to be precise, just weeks before his death.  Lincoln is simply about the passage of the 13th Amendment, or about President Lincoln’s way of achieving it.

This is the story of the crowning political accomplishment of an Illinois lawyer, elected President during a time of profound political division, who would controversially assume a variety of powers to the Executive Branch, antagonizing both the opposition party in Congress (those thus often implacably opposed to his political goals) as well as those of his own party who found the President insufficiently-zealous in his advocacy against racism (and thus counted him either a consummate opportunist or worse, an academically-aloof appeaser).

Lincoln 2

In several scenes we have the benefit of watching President Lincoln deliberate with the many naysayers of his Cabinet. As per Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Lincoln was good at identifying and contending with loyal opposition.
In a memorable early scene, it gives him the opportunity to demonstrate his intellectual fancy footwork, his lawyerspeak.

That’s right, when I watched Lincoln I saw a good parable for President Barack Obama’s political circumstances.  I’ve previously been told the likeness is a bit melodramatic, but I strongly-disagree (and I truly think the fact that I love President Obama is incidental).  It’s certainly true that our current political deadlock pales in comparison to the 600,000 Americans killed in a war to end slavery and preserve the Union, but political junkies who downplay the likeness between our time and theirs at the elite level are actually minimizing how abnormal the depth of current partisanship is.  Put differently, shouldn’t it bother us that we have to reach back to the Civil War in order to put today’s partisan political differences into perspective?

Lincoln may not give us the upstart young lawyer, the Congressman from Illinois or the eloquent but failed candidate for the US Senate, or even the evolution of the hapless pragmatist into the crusading Abolitionist, but what it does give us is 2 months of cat-herding within an energized Republican Party which culminates in the legal abolition of slavery in the United States.  At the time the Republican Party is split, primarily between an establishment wing we would now characterize as Conservative and the Radicals who might otherwise be viewed as Conservatives today but whom were adamant about enshrining full racial equality (and providing basic property for former slaves through subdivision of the old Southern plantations) in Federal law.  The Democratic Party is mostly Southern or rural in its power base, though it is also powerful in New York City, where many Irish immigrants were conscripted for the war but lacked much experience with Protestant Abolitionism; overall it is quite opposed to abolishing slavery.

By this time the Emancipation Proclamation has already abolished slavery in the Confederate States by wartime Executive order.  But in a marvelous monologue we see the lawyer Lincoln, as he runs through competing, often exclusive rationales for the Emancipation Proclamation that might not hold up under Constitutional scrutiny at the end of the war.  The Border States–Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Missouri and the Oklahoma Territory–still have legal slavery because “forced” emancipation could not be constitutionally justified as a wartime measure.  Not only could the Emancipation Proclamation be ended and slavery even restored in the Confederate States at the end of the war, but in a particularly cruel reversal plantation owners may even have the gall to demand the return of their “property.”

The Senate has already passed the 13th Amendment by a large 38-6 majority, but the House of Representatives retains a large-enough Democratic Caucus that they need crossover votes in that chamber to send the 13th Amendment along to the States.  While many House Democrats have lost their bids for re-election, it is uncertain how quickly the Confederate States will rejoin the United States, thus raising the prospect that the political window to abolish slavery could shut suddenly.  Thus, President Lincoln is unsure when the 13th Amendment will pass, if not in this lame-duck session of Congress.  The abolition of slavery must have the force of law before any delegation of the Confederate States of America is able to ask for preservation of slavery as a condition for rejoining the Union.

The President needs the votes of Democratic Representatives–fast.  Naturally, he turns to the offer of patronage jobs as the easiest way to obtain them.

1 of the things I liked best about Lincoln was its juxtaposition of Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of an almost pure President Lincoln (and this portrayal is every bit as amazing as you must have heard) with the amorality (some would say corruption) of politics–a state of affairs which doesn’t trouble the President in the slightest.  He isn’t campaigning against corruption, he’s campaigning against a great evil.  He has bag-men collect lame-duck Democratic votes in the House for him, sometimes literally in the dead of night, he serenely lies in public about the state of peace negotiations with a Confederate delegation, he insinuates powers to the Executive Branch–and primarily troubles himself about the Constitutional ramifications when he suspects that the Supreme Court will soon do the same.  President Lincoln can be called a Conservative on policy and philosophy, but not in spirit.  To appearances he shares nothing of the Constitutionalism and innate fear of Federal Government expansion which binds contemporary Conservatives together.

Representative Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA)

Tommy Lee Jones as Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, who distrusts President Lincoln as a self-aggrandizing politician. President Lincoln is able to appeal to his sense of what is achievable in their political environment to temper his zeal.

The tension between President Lincoln and Representative Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA), a Radical Republican who militates against racism to the point of maintaining the full equality of Whites and “Negroes,” provides a simple but very timely lesson in good politics.  President Lincoln warns Congressman Stevens that his blunt public expression of belief in the full equality of faculty of Blacks with Whites strikes many as too radical, and thus a political burden in the fight to abolish slavery.  Stevens defends unvarying argument from principle, likening it to having a compass, saying that his aim is simply to move towards true north.  Lincoln in turn agrees that such basic orientation is valuable (and implies the possibility that Congressman Stevens has it), but then notes that the map of local terrain is at least as important for navigation as the compass.  “If, deprived of knowledge of the terrain, you should happen to wander into a swamp, what good is it that you know true north?” the President asks.

Congressman Stevens, normally almost contemptuous of President Lincoln as more of a politician than a moral champion, allows this point and even seems troubled by it.  During subsequent debate on the draft of the 13th Amendment in the House, 1 of the Democrats opposed to passage puts to Stevens the question of full equality of faculty between Negroes and Whites.  Though he has visible difficulty with the question, Stevens avers that he merely seeks to secure legal equality of Negroes with Whites.  Tellingly, this evasion angers both the pro-slavery Democrats and the Radical Republicans.  Representative James Mitchell Ashley (R-OH) has it out with Stevens right outside the House chamber.  “Is there nothing you won’t say?!” he asks, mortified by what he considers Congressman Stevens’ extreme abdication of his integrity.  Stevens, however, has internalized the President’s message of circumspection, and acknowledges that if it provides for the abolition of slavery in America then and there (as opposed to untold years hence), there is indeed nothing he would not say to achieve it.

Congressman Stevens dominates a scene laden with irony late in the movie, in which a re-elected Democratic Congressman from his home State of Pennsylvania informs him he wishes to vote for the 13th Amendment and subsequently switch parties.  Before accepting his offer, Stevens rebukes the Democrat, who is tongue-tied, transparently self-serving and seems almost frightened by the man he has come to see.  Stevens says he is a sorry inheritor of the party of Thomas Jefferson.  In an instant, the irony of the party of Lincoln becoming a fundamentally-Southern party struck me, and I was met again with this mythological resemblance of the story to our own partisan deadlock.  This was 1 of the aspects of the film my friend found the most distasteful: President Lincoln’s adversaries in the Democratic Party are portrayed as an assortment of deplorable human beings–some afraid, some complete yokels, some transparent bigots relying on the decorum of their legislative chamber for protection, some violent.  I was untroubled by the portrayal of the President’s Democratic opponents as morally-ugly or as fools–for a very specific reason: This is a story about how President Lincoln and his political allies were able to win some House Democrats’ votes.  The political story we need is 1 about an opposition party we might be inclined to see as morally-ugly or as fools, but whose votes are needed on far-reaching legislation whether we come to see merit in what they stand for or not.  If that sounds like too bleak of a message, ask yourself if it is not true that 1) Democrats and Republicans in the Federal Government disagree with few cross-cutting party cleavages on most of the policy issues that either party considers urgent, and 2) Democrats and Republicans will have to continue to work together for at least the next 4 years even to pass a budget.  This is the aspect of President Lincoln’s story that is most-illuminating to us at this moment.

On this point my friend averred that this meant the film was not meant to be timeless; in response I said that a work of art–or of history–is permitted to bear the mark of the time it was made as much as it may the time it recalls–as long as it does so in a manner that reveals rather than obscures something about the reason it was made.

The final House vote tally is tense.  There is evidence, however circumstantial, that lack of access to information once facilitated the passage of legislation: The 13th Amendment has been justified to Congress as a measure that could bring the war to a swifter conclusion, as with the Constitutional abolition of slavery the Confederate States of America would have no bargaining motive to prolong a war its leaders already knew they could not win.  In reality, however, while the House debates the 13th Amendment there is already a Confederate delegation in Virginia negotiating terms for their surrender!  The Confederate delegation, in turn, must be misled into thinking that the 13th Amendment isn’t going to pass, and that their prompt surrender improves the chances that their States could be readmitted to the Union in time to block its passage during ratification.

These multiple deceptions seem not to trouble President Lincoln in the slightest–not even, particularly, in the exceptional level of risk they entail.  He cares about his goal, which is the abolition of slavery.  He was originally pragmatically-oriented towards this social question, but the circumstance of the way gave it such a central importance in his mind that he came to append a transcendent importance to ending it.  He didn’t care about assuming statutory powers not provided to his office in the Constitution, he didn’t care about doling-out government jobs for votes, he didn’t care about what legal or moral rationales would persuade people, he didn’t care about lying to fellow leaders of his own party he had known for years or for lying to everyone outside of a handful of confidants in order to marshal needed votes on the day the Amendment was passed in the House.

President Lincoln was a pragmatist who re-defined his later life as being about the achievement of a moral end, procedure, the appearance of scandal, and parsimony of philosophy be damned.  He was right, and his critics were wrong.  He is counted among the heroes of history, and he got there (as is so often the case) by refusing to concern himself with the cosmetic side of politics that is the fodder of so much daily political discussion.  While it is so often our lot to pedantically discuss what is right before us, he exercised his moral imagination.


Merry Christmas, Everyone

I’ve said more about Christmas before, but it warrants mention every year: Christmas is about the birth of a child in a stable in a backwater Roman province who will grow up to declare that every human life has meaning.  2,000 years later, the World has been made new by this idea.  This message of seeing potential for greatness in every human life didn’t sufficiently create Modernity (which won’t be recognizable in our political thought for over another millennium and a half following its appearance), but with Jesus’ message it is perhaps on the edge of our thinking and aspiration for the first time.

We celebrate Christmas just days after the darkest night of the year.  The message, I think, is clear: When people come together in full faith–in each other, not some divinity–they can completely remake the circumstances in which they find themselves.  This is among the youngest of the ideas bequeathed to us by Antiquity; indeed, this idea eventually transcended Antiquity itself entirely.  We can make the darkest time of the year into the brightest–but we need each other to do it.

Don’t trouble yourselves overmuch with 3 persons or 1 persons of some divinity, or of whether the Pope succeeds validly from Peter, or whether you rely on the clergy for the administration of sacraments, or of the nature of the Communion, but with communion itself.  Consider the provocative words of the man who said that, if a traveler asked you to go 1 mile with him, you should be prepared to go 2.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  Find your peace in others today.

Let Me Tell You a Likely Story

There is a man of noble bearing (having been born to a father who set a good example) who thinks he should also be an aristocrat (meaning in this case that he feels he and others like him should prosper whether they work for it or not; we’ll call this man “the Governor”).  The Governor has a castle (We’ll call the castle “the 1st Presidential Debate”).  This man is under-siege, but it’s a well-built castle in a strategic location (which we would call “the economy,” but surprisingly this turns out to be irrelevant), and the supply stores are vast because the Governor is very, very rich and knows how not pay his taxes.

But the Governor becomes overly-ambitious, and decides to meet the besieging army out on the field (which we’ll call “the 3rd Debate”).

His plan is to send his cavalry (We’ll dub this cavalry “the Romney tax plan,” though judging from the Governor’s penchant for outmoded weapons systems, we might just want to call it “the Cavalry”) on a charge against the besieging army (which we’ll say fights for a “President,” as a dynastic succession and aristocracy the likes of which the Governor fights for happen to violate both the letter and the spirit of the cherished laws of this particular country–hence the battle itself).

So the Governor sends his cavalry/tax plan/Cavalry out to meet the enemy encampment, and quickly loses most of them to the President’s hidden spike traps and camping ninjas (which we’ll call “the President’s repeated and emphatic revelation of the fact that, as is known to them both, the Governor has no plan to cut all marginal income tax rates by 1/5, make this rate cut deficit-neutral by closing tax loopholes, and avoid vastly raising taxes on the middle class simultaneously”).

Realizing too late the gravity of his mistake in listening to his Neoconservative advisers (heretofore and eternally known as “several very-familiar men and 1 woman whom are so transparently out of their depth that it would be funny they are called ‘advisers’ by the man who would be king, if only their advice weren’t under-researched with tens of thousands of lives hanging in the balance”) the Governor retreats back to his castle.  Visibly-exhausted and seeing his prospects of victory slipping away from him by steady attrition, the Governor doesn’t even realize that some of the President’s ninjas (we’ll say about 5 trillion) get over the drawbridge after the Governor’s retreating cavalry, taking the gatehouse and opening the door to the body of the President’s forces (which we’ll call, I don’t know, “the President’s constant identification of the Governor’s contradictory promises on tax cuts, deficit-reduction and military spending that the Generals and Admirals don’t want”).

So here is where it stands with them: The Governor’s storehouses are overrun (much as, as it happens, the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on pro-Republican super-PACs was wasted) and the Governor is holed-up in his keep, stoically praying that he will be allowed to depart his false high ground with his dignity intact, his plans to forge an aristocratic society having been foiled both by the superior strategy and sheer numbers of the President’s foot soldiers (which is…well, literally what just happened).


This is not a fairy tale.  We beheld it live, whether we marked the ebb and flow of the battle or not.


The American Mind Opens to Psy

In 1987 Professor Allan Bloom, previously of Cornell University, published The Closing of the American Mind, protesting what he called the 2 uncritical beliefs of contemporary American undergraduates: their belief that truth is relative and their moral commitment to equality. What proceeded was a sweeping account of a philosophical error which Bloom thought to have overtaken Western philosophy in the time of the Renaissance–namely the premise that man’s passions can be disciplined and directed towards productive pursuits, that the human lot overall could be improved through the widespread correction of prejudice and cruelty with the rational faculty and the satisfaction of material needs. This focus of Liberalism on utility, he argued, had weakened the moral integrity of the west until it fell prey to the opportunistic contagion of Fascism and Communism–and in his own time, multiculturalism.

Well, we have now witnessed the consummation of whatever process Bloom was so afraid of. On September 14th, while you were probably at unawares, Korean rapper Psy literally remade Cornell University in his own image–and he did so not through conscious effort but by way of the willing aspirations of a fleet-footed avatar. No-doubt the shade of Professor Bloom solemnly intoned that the West finally fell just 11 days ago, on Ho Plaza, Gangnam-style:

In any case, props to Psy: He did something truly different, and now a lot of people want to do it just like him, too.

Korean Rapper Psy, whose odd appearance and offbeat dance moves have interacted with his Korean pop credentials and lively sense of humor to make him pretty much hands-down the most-famous Korean pop artist ever, owing to the near-instant worldwide fascination with his recent single, “Gangnam Style.” Maybe it’s time I reviewed Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s primer on the constant potential for the unanticipated big event, The Black Swan.

The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter isn’t about Vietnam.  It isn’t really a war film.

Before my recent viewing I last saw The Deer Hunter over 9 years ago; at the time I would have said it’s obviously a war film.  In actuality it is about friendship and post-traumatic stress, in that order.  3 patriotic steelworkers from suburban Pittsburgh–grown men who have known each other their entire lives–march off, (more or less) unafraid, to the war in the jungles of Vietnam.  Mere minutes are spent in combat in Vietnam because it is what these men reveal about themselves before the war, and how these idiosyncrasies are warped and intensified in the wake of its violence, that is the story.

Robert De Niro plays Michael Vronsky.  As the introspective witness to the way war shatters his friends, he is present almost constantly.  He is the leader of sorts of a group of 6 men who work the steel mills.  Maybe he is the leader because he is the best hunter in their group; perhaps it’s because he is the one who makes the craziest gestures.  It could also be that he is the leader because he sees the World so differently from the rest of them, and though most of them never say so, they all sense it and it resonates with them.

In any case our introduction to Michael hints at the tension of his life in the provincial suburbs of an industrial city like Pittsburgh.  He steps out of the steel plant and looks skyward, noting an ellipse of light around the Sun.  He claims that “the Great Wolf has blessed our hunt,” solemnly calling it “an omen.”  There is a touch of levity in his voice, of course, and the hint of an educated man.  This leads 1 of his friends to say that “The problem with you, Michael, is that no one understands you sometimes.”

Michael (to a Green Beret, before going into combat himself): “…What do you mean, ‘F*** it’?…Set him up with another round, all the same. Hey, man–F*** it!”

In the coming minutes each of these 6 men reveal things about themselves that foreshadow how they will spend the war years.  Brooding but wise, Michael will come back shaken by what he has seen, but he comes back whole.  Sensitive and perhaps naive, Steve will come back both wounded and traumatized.  Quietly-nervous Nikonar won’t come back at all.  John the bartender, a talented musician, brings music to the group of friends at their happiest and their saddest moments.  Seeing the movie again, his character really stood out to me: We see him singing in his Orthodox church choir, we see him singing with obvious classical training while his friends simply goof-off during the drive out to the hunting grounds.  Then we hear his beautiful and wistful playing of the piano in the bar when they return from the hunt.  4 of his normally-clamorous friends go silent; they have distant looks on their faces.  When John finishes he looks sad, as if he has confessed to a thwarted ambition.  Of all the memorable moments in the film this is 1 of the most-important to me, as it dispels any doubts we have that some of these men have real but rough-hewn talents, and had they been encouraged more or educated differently they might not work at the bar or at the steel mill.  They love the safety of their home but they seem to quietly bristle at its blindness to their talents at the same time.

Michael has family and friends, tradition, work, and a pastime in a free country: Upon reflection, his quiet patriotism and awed gratitude is easy to understand.

In Vietnam we see mere moments of the brutality of combat.  We learn that Michael is no stranger to them at this point in the story, but also that he is not the master of its fast-moving brutality.  His vaguely-survivalist philosophy–for some unexplained reason he believes “A deer has to be killed with 1 shot”–serves him surprisingly well when he finds himself in captivity.

The 2 Russian roulette scenes may be the most-famous from this film.  Even for our jaded film audiences of today they retain their staggering brutality.  Even the lighthearted, almost adolescent early scenes have a kind of gravity to them, so the surreal cruelty of peasants-turned-Viet Cong officers forcing South Vietnamese and American prisoners to take turns pulling the trigger and waiting to find 1 of the bullets loaded into a revolver is at once absurd and totally believable.  Steve screams and wimpers; Michael comforts him.  Nikonar very quietly undergoes a total spiritual implosion.

The large protest movement never did touch President Nixon’s “silent majority” of Americans.  It plays-out far indeed from quiet Clairton where these 3 soldiers are from.  When Michael goes home, he finds a town grateful for his sacrifice and apparently none the wiser that there is an antiwar movement.  But they also know next to nothing about what he experienced on the other side of the Earth.  A local store owner tells him, “You really won over there,” a meaningless statement in the face of the bloody chaos he left behind, and knows to be spreading towards the South-capital Saigon.  1 of his friends even crudely asks, “How does it feel to be shot?”

“I feel a lot of distance…I feel far away.” Having served with distinction, Michael comes home to a hero’s welcome, but all he wants to do is come in to town quietly. He misses his friends, but he is unable to take seeing them all at once.

“Don’t–” Michael begins.  “Don’t hurt, if that’s what you wanna know…”  Michael is quieter upon coming home, which is striking because he was quiet to begin with.  He looks older, though upon consideration the viewer realizes this is mostly because of the relatively stiff, alert way he carries himself.  De Niro is such a subtly-declarative actor in these scenes that we can almost see the adrenaline coursing through his veins when, during a hospital visit, a nurse noisily overturns a supply cart and he instantly imagines gunfire.

It occurs to me now that the narrative pitch of The Deer Hunter is aided by its point-to-point depiction of the journey: We see the massacre of a village–by American Air Cavalry and their South Vietnamese allies, no less, the murder of a remote Viet Cong dungeon, the underground space where Russian roulette is outrageously played as a high-stakes betting game, and the chaos of the American embassy as Communist sympathizers close-in around it in the days before South Vietnam’s fall.  Then we see Clairton, Pennsylvania.  There are no in-between spaces, because in spite of its deliberate pace and considerable length, The Deer Hunter is the story of a gulf of space so much as of being lost in a different world.  Michael makes it his personal mission to find Nikonar; what he finds is disturbing-enough that the Liberal Ironist recommends you see it for yourself.

A death among this group of friends carries the full weight of a burial.  It is handled by a montage, which is just as well as one can hardly imagine any words were said among these friends at the time.  That they should at times so clearly have something to say yet so often want for a better means of expression is interesting, and sometimes heartbreaking.  But at this moment that the war in Vietnam has exacted its last toll on them, the musician John has invited all of them over for a large brunch.  For a moment he is overcome with emotion, then halting at first, next with resonance, he begins to sing “God Bless America.”  Once Linda, a longtime interest who has become involved with Michael by degrees, joins in, they all do.  There are no bitter recriminations about the war; director Michael Cimino is not Oliver Stone.  This is not a political film, though it does carefully portray people who embody a very simple politics.  The people of this Russian-American community feel blessed to live and work in a free country, and they bear a loss that is deeply but not bitterly felt.  This is the proletariat of mid-20th century America, and in this account at least it is not alienated.

Angela: “What a grey day…”

Where it can be found, this sort of world ought to be defended.  This is a serious contender for the saddest film I have ever seen.  Seeing it now, I feel The Deer Hunter has as much heart as any film I’ve seen.  Rather than war, it’s about knowing where home is, and being able to go back.

Christopher Hitchens: Just the Man

A friend of mine observed upon news of the sudden death of North Korean despot Kim Jong-Il how unfortunate it was that Christopher Hitchens did not at least live long-enough to witness his demise an ironic 2 days after his own.  I both agreed and felt it wasn’t so inherently-tragic: While Hitchens’ own tireless passion for the liberation of peoples suggests he is among those who believe that nothing is providential or inevitable about the struggle against despotism, both his prose and his public speech suggest the quality of a champion of enlightenment and liberation who suspects he will not have to contend with his adversaries for long–at least not in historical terms.

In an age of vulgar peddlers of fruitless confrontation and eloquent pleaders for civil accommodation, Christopher Hitchens was neither.  His was an eloquent plea for vitalizing confrontation.  He was a fine Nietzschean agonist, allowing that a mostly-conventional Democratic Socialist can be a Nietzschean agonist.  He was a mid-20th century leftist-populist all his life, inspired by George Orwell both in his embrace of the traditional movement for Social Democracy and in always volunteering his prose for the offensive against those who seek to close down debate through assertions of authority.  His particular revulsion towards religion led him to the enthusiastic (though not unqualified) embrace of President George W. Bush’s War on Terrorism and Iraq War, making the otherwise-unreconstructed Social Democrat into a Neoconservative for the rest of his life.  In 1 of his last publications before his death, Hitchens defended—with visible trepidation—our government’s intentional killing of a US citizen working with al-Qaeda in Yemen earlier this year.

Given this strange combination of influences and motions, each of which simultaneously made Hitchens “cool” and “not cool” to the more-dogmatic partisans of the left and the right, eulogies for the British reporter, author and polemicist have focused on his integrity.  This is considerable, for while many of Hitchens’ views were in substance more-moderate than those of the associations he made by them, his brilliance in expressing condemnation, contempt and counter-intuitive provocation meant that he would often sound like a committed partisan when he was in fact a studies recruit—and to stretch the military metaphor, an officer at that.  His reasons were at times thoughtful, at times less-so, but always clear.  While his passions were always substantively-political, he might still be best-understood as a writer.  No one can express himself so well without that very fact affecting everything he does.

Somehow I’m still skirting the subject of Christopher Hitchens the polemicist.  This would be the time to note that Hitchens’ success as a public intellectual is about the presence of a particular vice among his obligatorily-recited virtues: Hitchens could be as expressively-shrill as he was substantively-rational.  In short, he developed his talent for drawing blood with prose because he was a hothead.

If you have any doubt of this, consider that Hitchens was beaten and almost kidnapped by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party—a Lebanese Facist faction—after he defaced one of their publicly-displayed swastikas with the Mother of All Curse Words.  Was he in the right?  Of course.  Was he doing something impulsive at great personal risk, with naught but a personal sense of satisfaction to be gained?  Of course.

What are we to say in response when, at the outset of the War on Terror, Hitchens’ opening remark is simply “You want to be a martyr? I’m game.”?  William F. Buckley Jr., that part-Paleoconservative, pre-New Right founder of the National Review, expressed himself similarly though more-mutedly, in “So You Want a Holy War?”  Hitchens’ enthusiasm for a war against zealots, I suspect, was motivated not by the exact character or identity of those on whom we would make war, or by their intention or capability to do us harm.  Hitchens seemed as eager as anything simply to rinse the World of religious fundamentalism, as if this conflict really were of the same nature as 1 immense war against Fascism, or perhaps like many large wars against Communism fought across 2 generations.  Now, as domestic protest movements topple long-ruling dictatorships and amidst the transitions we frantically try to sort-out the “good Islamists” from the “bad Islamists”—there is a difference and we had better develop an eye for it—everything begins to look more-complex than it did in Hitchens’ Enlightenment typology.

Still, if “we” (I leave it to the reader to imagine the faction) could laud all of Hitchens’ judgments in matters political, would he have had his integrity?  He threw in like a partisan but thought for himself–and thus across party lines–and he would write prose as beautiful or as ugly as the point he wanted to make required.  As much as a journalist can be, he was an exemplary public intellectual, unconcerned with silly conceits like “objectivity” or standing “above the fray.”  He never crowed loudly, and he would stay with a cause, like the Iraq War, after it had become unpopular if he still judged that it was right.  He presented himself as a man possessed of few delusions, and as he was when he ridiculed the propaganda of dictators or the public censure of makers of respectable opinion, he was telling us the truth.

(The Intellectual Bankruptcy of) the Conservative Take on 2008

It should’ve been clear to us that the Tea Party movement had a very different interpretation of what happened on Wall Street than most of us did.  In principle their rallying cry is President Reagan’s old refrain, implausibly-applied: “Government is not the solution.  Government is the problem.”  Reflecting a cognitive interpretation of the same sentiment, Republican presidential hopeful Governor Mitt Romney said in August that “Career politicians got us into this mess”–meaning the 2008 Financial Crash and the Great Recession–“and they simply don’t know how to get us out.”

A Conservative friend recently posted a von Mises Institute opinion piece calling the animus of the left-wing “Occupy Wall Street” protest movement misplaced.  In Axel Kaiser’s view, it is Federal regulations that caused banks to invest and borrow perversely, not the freedom and agency of investment banks and hedge funds that expanded the credit market into a customer base with little collateral and uncertain prospects, offering them borrowed money.  This is a typical Conservative explanation for the Financial Crash, though it telling took the right a long time to get this story straight.  Those whom are interested should read Mr. Kaiser’s account–not because it is correct, but because we should not be insensible to or ambivalent about the organized group of radicals in our midst.  They blame generations-old institutions for the spectacular collapse of a barely-regulated Wall Street.  They uphold the problem–a mentality conducive to anarchy in our large and fast-moving financial sector–as the solution.  I want to challenge this argument at length; while it is expressed discreetly and eloquently, it is still a dangerous canard.  The history of our financial markets in the past decade is too important to be re-written by apologists.

Mr. Kaiser seems to be well-read and reasonable about a great many subjects; however, I didn’t feel that way about his economic theory or his moral philosophy.  Attacking what he considers a philosophical premise of contemporary Liberalism, he says that “the idea that the common good or the general interest is something different from the sum of all individual interests, and that government is a separate entity that through coercion can elevate society to a higher degree of moral perfection and happiness” is a falsehood.  I promptly begin to doubt his judgment.  Government is “a separate entity that through coercion leads society to a higher degree of moral perfection and happiness.”  This is not a position that necessarily enjoins socialism; it is the justification for a government’s possession of military and police force.  Does anyone deny that absolute defense of reason through coercive capacity which Thomas Hobbes describes in Leviathan?

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Having the same rationale in mind, the sociologist Max Weber later described the state as “a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.”

The government which exercises military and police power in order to protect people’s lives and property is itself never “the sum of all individual interests,” and it is not and cannot be sanctioned in all its resource-consuming actions by unanimous consent of those over whom it wields power.  Again, the fact that the state’s sovereign capacity for violence elevates the general morality in deed and even thought is not an argument that enjoins socialism—though I will admit that I find the arguments distinguishing the right of the state to protect people from the harm of intentional criminality or from unintentional market or environmental effects to be circular and unconvincing precisely because I acknowledge that this is exactly what government does.

Kaiser has a much stronger argument than the one that rules-out government’s right to regulate our economic activity, and that is skepticism of the government’s capacity to regulate this activity efficiently and justly—that is, his invocation of “the diverse and irreducibly complex world of individual interests.”  But while this is a stronger argument it is also a more-flexible one; episodes of waste in resource-allocation by government or long periods of crude handling of an economic activity by government regulators may constitute an argument for cutting this program or reforming this regulation (or a parable about the limits of what regulations can achieve) but it neither de-legitimizes nor repudiates government regulation as such.

The article is at its analytical weakest in assessing the origins of the 2008 Financial Crash—which is, of course, its objective.  Fannie Mae was created back in 1938 as part of the New Deal, in order to promote and finance homeownership; Freddie Mac was created in 1970, essentially as an extension of Fannie Mae’s mortgage-financing operations.  “(W)elfare programs to make true the progressive “homeownership-society” dream in the United States created the structural conditions”—or so Kaiser argues.  This is a weak hypothesis; an argument that a 70-year-old government program is the sufficient culprit for a financial crisis which simply ignores the fact that the spiral of toxic debt played out in investment banks and hedge funds that had become far more-complex in their asset management, more risk-prone in their investments and more deeply-indebted than any government anywhere in just the decade preceding the crash fails on its own terms.

Former Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Patterson wrote probingly about this phenomenon of the conceit of Wall Street’s reigning specialists in his book The Quants.  (I reviewed this book–which I love–1 year ago on this blog.)  Wall Street’s hedge funds and investment banks had become dominated by computerized fast trades based on highly-abstract statistics and modeling.  They did this based not upon knowledge of actual market conditions or long-term investment in a company but on inductive bets that shares of certain companies were over- or underpriced.  These transactions were essentially unregulated, and they directed trillions of dollars of assets.  Malinvestment, yes, but are we sure this anomic crash is about interest rates?

Mr. Kaiser reveals a disinclination even to distinguish between the subcomponents of government power he finds to be illegitimate—namely, its capacity to create entitlements and its power to regulate the economy.  From what is intended as his climactic red meat: “…Because people do not understand that the source of the crisis was government, as Bastiat predicted, they now go on the streets demanding even more of what caused the problem in the first place: government. That is the paradox of the outraged.”  (One could argue that he is referring to those “Occupy Wall Street” protesters who have demanded maintenance or expansion of the welfare state and not to those who have called for tougher scrutiny of the financial sector, but if so I would still level the same charge of obtuseness in thinking on him for targeting for critique a movement without a coherent message and never bothering to define it.)

Mr. Kaiser doesn’t do much better when he claims that “The dramatic rise in the price of raw materials and agricultural commodities since 2008 is basically the result of the inflation created by central banks.”  I don’t know how many serious economists would sustain this argument.  In spite of 2 rounds of “quantitative easing”—Dollar-creation by the Federal Reserve to promote currency flow through the economy—inflation is low by historic standards.  The rate of inflation has been much lower under Ben Bernanke than under any other Chairman of the Federal Reserve for over 30 years.  That’s a weirdly-basic fact for Kaiser to overlook when he seeks to attribute a cause for price increases in commodities.  That increased consumption by large developing nations such as China and India and political volatility in countries producing such commodities (such as the states of the Persian Gulf or the tragically-misnamed Democratic Republic of the Congo) could be the reason for the price increase actually seems not to have occurred to him.  While we’re speaking about ideologically-misplaced outrage, Mr. Kaiser is also circumspect about whether the price of commodities such as precious metals has been driven up by Monetarist Conservatives such as presidential candidate Ron Paul, who essentially exhort their followers to hoard gold, resulting in the obvious overpricing of those strategic metals.  The latest also-rans to join this Monetarist survivalism are probably going to lose money on account of their reactionary opinion-sources.

Mr. Kaiser’s criticism of the Federal Reserve’s role as “lender of last resort,” including its power to bail-out insolvent but strategic American banks, skirts the central question: If the Federal Government should allow insolvent banks of any size to go into bankruptcy “like any other enterprise in the real economy,” what happens to the cash assets of those who deposited money in that bank?  The Federal  Deposit Insurance Corporation currently insures the first $250,000 you deposit in a bank; if a bank is allowed to declare bankruptcy, should the FDIC simply pay-out as much as its rules permit for all depositors?  Where does that money come from?  Wasn’t the 2008 Wall Street bailout actually a more-just outcome than this would have been?  Or in the absence of the Federal Reserve—which predated it by 20 years—shall we dispose of the FDIC as well?  Should you as a depositor be every bit as responsible as the bank to which you entrust your cash if your assets are lost in a series of ill-conceived and unredeemable loans?  Kaiser seems to consider such questions beyond the scope of his article; considering his many strong claims, they are not.

Immediately following his objection to the Federal Reserve’s role as “lender of last resort” he adds that “In addition to this perverse incentive, banks work under a fractional-reserve system, which allows them to operate with very low capital reserves, so that their owners have little to lose if the bank goes broke.”  As a free-marketer, Mr. Kaiser presumably would overlook the regulatory response to this problem that I would consider most-intuitive—simply limit the amount of deposited or invested cash that the bank can lend-out again—and insist that banks be told they’re on their own.  Surely this would make them more-prudent investors of their depositors’ money!  The problem with this narrow fixation on the “perverse incentive” of the Federal Government’s protection of banks’ assets is that it is based on a strained but ultimately-unfalsifiable assumption: Protections against a worst-case scenario provided by the Federal Government make bank executives indifferent to the collapse of their lending schemes.  The strange claim that the loss of billions of dollars shouldn’t be sufficient incentive to lend depositors’ money prudently but the belief that they will at least remain in business suddenly makes them heedless to risk aside, the fact remains that the Federal Government didn’t save Lehman Brothers, which went very-much bankrupt.  Around the same time Merrill Lynch was bought-up by Bank of America at 61% less per-share than its value in September 2007, a year before the Crash; the previous March Bear Stearns had been bought-up by JP Morgan Chase, for just 7% of its per-share value from 2 days before, when the Federal Reserve pledged a $25 billion bailout.  How can all these Conservative opponents of the Federal Reserve seriously argue that all these bank executives and hedge fund managers were operating in a risk-free environment?  1st of all, this would have been a totally-speculative conceit on the part of bank managers—one strangely absent from both exposition and criticism of our supposedly rock-solid financial sector before the massive Federal bailouts of 2008.  2nd, the Federal Reserve couldn’t save Bear Stearns, and apparently didn’t think to save Lehman Brothers or Merrill Lynch.  If the regulators were so slow to bail-out Wall Street that some of its major financial institutions collapsed as crucial weeks slipped by, this strongly-suggests that the extent of collusion charged by Fed-skeptics is a fantasy.

Bear Stearns used money borrowed from a variety of sources and backed its investments with credit-default swaps—essentially paid insurance policies for other investors to cover their loans to subprime borrowers—resulting in a leverage-to-assets ratio of 35.5:1.  If the Federal Reserve Bank (95 years old in 2008) and the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac complex (70 years old) were the primary catalyst of the events of 2007 and 2008, there is no explanation why the Crash shouldn’t have happened much sooner, pertaining to financing of some other sector of the economy.  But the size of hedge funds, their connection to investment banks, and the extremes of borrowing by banks both from vast foreign capital markets and through sophisticated “financial engineering” had only become dominant in the financial sector throughout the decade prior to the 2008 Financial Crash.  None of this can be blamed on government.

Mr. Kaiser’s moral sense is at low ebb when he subversively argues that income inequality is only a moral issue when the human actions that cause it are demonstrable:

“It has been argued that inflation and the lack of economic liberty are central causes of poverty and inequality. (Left-wing French public intellectual Stéphane) Hessel does not acknowledge this fact, declaring himself outraged by inequality in general. He says it is outrageous that in poor countries people live on less than two dollars a day. Two things have to be said in response to such claims. In the first place, there is a reason to be outraged only when inequality is the result of arbitrary confiscation, fraud of any sort, or bad economic policy. But when inequality is the result of freedom, there is no reason to be outraged at all, especially when everyone has enough. Only envious people can be outraged by the wealth some have legitimately gained…”

No, it is not the case that one must be envious to be outraged by extremes of wealth; it is enough to believe that poverty does graver harm to a given society than taxes.  Mr. Kaiser sidesteps the real issue: It is not that some people are very rich, but that some people are very poor.  That the true cause of the outrage Mr. Hessel expresses could elude him is remarkable; Kaiser even cites him objecting to poverty without mentioning wealth!  Dispossession due to arbitrary confiscation and bad economic policy are indeed ruinous and outrageous (though I can’t recall the last time I heard a Conservative speak out in favor of native claims settlement—a blind spot perhaps enabled by John Locke’s implication in his Second Treatise of Government that American Indians had no right to lands they hadn’t cleared for agriculture).  But fraud is equally-outrageous.  What is Kaiser’s opinion of Goldman Sachs’ $550 million fraud settlement?  Goldman Sachs settled a case in which they were charged with helping a hedge fund profit off of credit-default swaps for subprime mortgages that they expected to default, thus prompting the credit-default swap to be called-in.  Goldman Sachs designed these credit-default swaps which they expected (intended?) to be insolvent and sold them to investors; at the same time they were selling subprime mortgages to working-class people they had just made a bet would default on their loans!  The Federal Government had nothing to do with this; when trying the fit of the old Fed—Wall Street collusion yarn, note that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had staked their assets on the opposite “bet.”

Furthermore, what about poverty?  Kaiser writes as though his argument that circumstances of commission that create poverty are an outrage while circumstances of omission that impoverish people are not is self-evident; in actuality it is ideological and highly-contentious.  It is based on a primitive bias in our thinking—the “do no harm” fallacy.  This fallacy argues that bad results of human intervention or agency are more serious than those which are foreseeable but which only occur when humans fail to act.  This is an intuitive distinction; it is also sometimes a very callous and even an impractical one.  At its essence it amounts to arguing that a mugger who beats his mark badly and runs off with her money has committed an outrageous act while a passerby who witnesses the incident and does nothing to help the incapacitated victim afterwards or to report the incident has not “committed” an outrage because he is not obligated to help.  Kaiser makes the bizarre jump from Hessel’s professed outrage at poverty to the suggestion that such anger must be motivated by envy at the luxury of the rich.  From the time I was 1st aware of it I never begrudged the rich their wealth—but when I encountered poverty, which is thick on the American landscape, I concluded that viable measures to reduce it had their own legitimacy and should always be a subject of political debate.  I’ve seen people who would probably die without government assistance; the idea that such government assistance is illegitimate because of abstract concepts is more morally-odious to me than envy.

What is most-unfortunate about this article is simply what it indicates about many Conservatives (in contrast to the simultaneously more-identifiable and more-diffuse term “Republican”): They have not taken the 2008 Financial Crash as an opportunity to learn anything.  This is tragic.  The issue isn’t that they are still Conservatives—say, that they haven’t embraced President Obama’s 2009 or proposed 2011 Stimuli or his 2010 Health Care Reform, or that they are not a party to the current Wall Street-bashing or even their increasingly-vocal contempt for the new Dodd-Frank financial regulations.  It’s that so many of them embrace the bizarre idea that their intellectual integrity requires them to believe, post-September 2008, only what they believed pre-September 2008.  If the goal really was intellectual stasis, then mission accomplished: Having believed that a government program to promote homeownership was illegitimate, they now find that it is responsible for the worst financial crash since the Great Depression!  Believing that a then-95-year-old institution that can influence the value of the US Dollar by fiat is somehow alien and unnatural, they find that its imposition of low interest rates must be the enabler of the malinvestments that led to an outbreak of foreclosures around our country and jeopardized the nation’s banks.  The fact that hedge funds controlled trillions of dollars in cash, were virtually unregulated, able to borrow billions of dollars worth of foreign currency from any other country in the World—whatever the local interest rates might be—and to (theoretically, at least) insure each others’ loans through credit-default swaps (thus making underwriting subprime borrowers’ debt very profitable in the short-term), are all unworthy of mention, in the author’s view.

I immediately want to acknowledge that the author maintains an even tone and even some level of sympathy for his political opposites; being able to attest to his emotional grounding, however, I find myself surprised and frustrated by his failure to elaborate on his charges about the importance of New Deal-era “structural conditions” to relatively-recent events.  In his fixation on an obviously-saturated and undisciplined “Occupy Wall Street” social movement rather than any actual arguments, whether lay or academic, that blame market finance for the Financial Crash and the Great Recession the author has failed to address the dominant narrative that would validate his claim that the protestors’ anger is misplaced.  Applying an ideological assumption to a new and surprising development—which, like the rest of us, none of their ilk had predicted in advance—is not thinking.  Whatever one’s commitments may be, ideology must become unfixed and permitted to drift with the absorption of new and incongruous phenomena for any thinking to be done.  Rote ideology-application falls somewhere between recitation of a speech or the application of a mnemonic device.

I have changed my mind about a few matters since 2008.  From an ideological perspective, I no longer think that promoting homeownership is a sound goal for the Federal Government—though I still believe it was historically.  I will frankly admit that I was no more aware of the instability of our financial system than most people before 2008; I prefer stricter regulation and oversight of Wall Street now because of the extreme intellectual conceits and risk acceptance of our supposedly-brilliant “financial engineers.”  The deficits we were running before fiscal year 2009 didn’t bother me; the deficits we are running now do.  The wealth inequality in our country before 2009 didn’t disturb me greatly; its abrupt increase since the Financial Crash has—enough so that I am a recent convert to the idea of raising taxes on the rich.

So: While we may be skeptical of the ramshackle “Occupy Wall Street” movement for blaming corporations for all our problems, rashly personalizing Wall Street’s errors and improprieties, for calling for cuts in military spending (Who is going to enforce the most-urgent UN mandates? China?), or for simply having no agenda at all, this doesn’t mean we should let rehearsed but unreflective Conservative activists change the subject.  While it has turned a massive profit over the past generation, the past 4 years or so have revealed that the “financial engineers” are not the masters of our complex and interdependent World but a volatile compound in it, both useful and combustible.  Conservatives elide the difference between anecdotes of bad government regulation and the very legitimacy of government regulation itself.  Lacking the inclination to consider compound solutions for the complex problems of interdependence, they imagine that “good” consumers, businessmen and investors can protect themselves from shocks caused by “bad” ones.

But in today’s politics it is not Conservatism that is philosophically-underdeveloped but Liberalism.  What we need now is not a renewed commitment to freedom”—the Tea Partiers and Congressman Ron Paul will gladly squeeze all the water out of that stone for us—but a compelling intellectual defense of the social safety net for an age of inflating benefits and diminished fiscal resources.  We also need a clearer concept of a properly-restrained financial sector.  On that note I’d like to quote Kaiser’s own closing:

“…If people get outraged for the wrong reasons, they will inevitably demand the wrong solutions, making the problem worse. It is especially irresponsible, in these times of social upheaval, to call for outrage and resistance without first a clear examination of what is wrong and how the problem should be approached. This is the role of intellectuals and opinion leaders…”