University of Maryland students take up their school President's challenge and write a local history of slavery and its role in its founding. This is a serious work (only 48 pp, rtwt), with wonderful graphics, full of information and sober insights: The Declaration did have a great influence on freeing slaves. Did you know, though, that free blacks could not own dogs, but that they did own slaves?
The students conclude that their University had antebellum roots in both slavery and free labor policies. After the Civil War state segregation policies thwarted national policy, which was color-blind:
By the end of the 19th century, the Maryland Agricultural College had become the University of Maryland, a federal land-grant college. In 1890, new congressional legislation, the second Morrill Act [the first was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln], stipulated that there be no "distinction of race or color" in the use of funds the federal government supplied. However, the school's trustees, deeply committed to maintaining a racially exclusive institution, refused to accept black students at the College Park campus. Instead, they allocated one-fifth of the Morrill funds to the Princess Anne Academy on the Eastern Shore for the education of black students. Black students were no longer excluded from higher education in Maryland, but they were segregated and barred from the College Park campus.
Given the bad stuff we have seen coming out of the University, it is a relief to see some good work.
1. Several people have written fearing or hoping that I might be near death because I haven't been posting lately. I appreciate the concern, I guess. But we postmodern conservatives or 21st century Thomists don't believe that the doctrine "I blog, therefore I am" is realistic. All is well and I'm at a nice conference in Savannath, maybe the most beautiful city in America.
2. This conference is rife with young conservatives. And, naturally, they were all grousing with disbelief at breakfast over Obama's big Nobel win. The African American lady who was serving breakfast was glaring at them, thinking, I'm sure, that these people won't pass up any opportunity to let our president have it. She may, properly understood, have a point. Who cares who gets that fairly silly prize? It's not like Obama ran for it, as far as I can tell. No good president could possibly get it. And if they want to give it for pretty words that signify almost nothing, it doesn't pick my pocket or break my leg.
3. Whether the Republicans make big gains in Congress in 2010 will depend mostly on the state of the economy unless there's the reality or perception of dangerous foreign policy weakness. It would be better if the Republicans had either big brains or an effective leader or two, but that probably won't be the key. Anxiety is trumping ideology with the swing voters these days. No two economists agree on what things will be like a year from now, and it's difficult for we Republicans to know what to hope for.
Brutal murderers on death row or imprisoned politicians get themselves nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in order to prove their continued worth to humanity. To see how this is done, check the process for nomination, and the qualifications for nominators. Peter Schramm should nominate the Ashbrook Center--for something. He and many of his academic colleagues are qualified to do so.
A better nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize would have been this Romanian (try to ignore the frightening photo) who writes mostly in German about life under Communism. Herta Mueller snagged the Nobel Prize in Literature instead.
The Nobel Prize Committee should be in the business of conferring celebrity on unknown human-rights and toiling in the most god-forsaken parts of the world; the people who really need the attention (and even the money). It should be in the business of angering powerful tyrants by giving their victims a moment in the sun. Choosing Barack Obama, who practically orbits the sun already, accomplishes the exact opposite of that.This is the way small "l" liberals worth their salt (which ought to include, by the way, all respectable American "conservatives") used to think and talk and distinguish themselves from the pettiness and puerile servitude that marks the behavior of great manipulators and the great boot-lickers of the world. The conferring of this award to Barack Obama seems to be of a piece--as its opposite and equal reaction--with the rejection of Chicago for the Olympics. It begins to appear that the world believes we can be played.
"I am one of the 'great unwashed masses' (despised by purists) who is struggling with the steep learning curve in American politics. I am also one who has read some of the articles complaining about us with revulsion . . . Recognize that we are not stupid, you aren't the only ones who would like to stuff a napkin in Beck's mouth at times. [On the other hand] [r]ealize that Beck treats us with respect, as do all of the Fox hosts and guests. What do you offer us? Stop griping, start sharing your knowledge, and help us get up to speed or please duct tape your keyboard."
"Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?" Steve Hayward asks in the Washington Post. His diagnosis is that the patient is, at least, on the critical list: "The brain waves of the American right continue to be erratic, when they are not flat-lining."
The source of the ailment is the unhappy and unbalanced relationship between conservative intellectuals and activists. There used to be, in the golden "Age of Reagan" from 1964 to 1989, a sustainable division of labor between them. The activists relied on the intellectuals for ideas and rhetoric, and the intellectuals were happy for the activists to mobilize voters and constituencies. "Today, however, the conservative movement has been thrown off balance," says Hayward, "with the populists dominating and the intellectuals retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas."
Perhaps, says Hayward, conservative intellectuals are "simply out of interesting ideas," the kind that would provide "compelling alternatives to Obama's economic or foreign policy." Nature abhors a vacuum. If the National Honor Society types have stopped saying illuminating and useful things, the sarcastic kids who jeer from the back of the classroom at Right Wing High will speak up more often, setting a different tone.
Important as it was to conservatism's political strength, the old division of labor between intellectuals and activists will be hard to restore. John Derbyshire laments the absence of "middlebrow conservatism." The lowbrow conservatism of talk radio is "energizing and fun," he says, but routinely caters to "reflex rather than thought." Talk radio reassures down-the-line conservatives that there's no need for them to reassess and modify their old ideas, investigate new ones, or doubt their own intellectual and moral superiority to liberals. What it doesn't do, according to Derbyshire, is "speak to that vast segment of the American middle class that lives sensibly - indeed, conservatively - wishes to be thought generous and good, finds everyday politics boring, and has a horror of strong opinions."
Winning a hearing and votes from that vast and electorally crucial segment is partly a matter of tone. Derbyshire laments that conservatives can't or won't express themselves with the "studied gentility" and "affectless voices" of National Public Radio, relying too often on "bullying bluster" rather than "bringing a sportsman's respect for his opponents to the debate."
Even if a new, pitch-perfect conservatism gets all that right, however, there's still the problem of substance. As Ramesh Ponnuru writes in the current National Review, ""The principal sources of the Left's revival are not difficult to identify: the years of denial that our strategy in Iraq was failing; stagnant wages; Republican corruption; the financial meltdown.... Republicans must... present plausible solutions to voters' concerns about health care, wages, and so forth--particularly if the results of Democratic policies are not unambiguously disastrous."
David Frum makes the same point: "We lost in 2008 in large part because we had not governed successfully over the previous eight years. More than political tactics, more even than media, what matters in politics is results. If national incomes had grown by 1% a year under George Bush instead of stagnating, Al Franken would have lost [Minnesota's Senate election] in a landslide."
Wonky inventiveness will be a necessary condition for discharging this political duty, but not a sufficient one. Conservatives still have to resolve, or at least manage, the tensions within their coalition. In a huge, diverse country with a strong historical and structural bias toward a two-party system, large, strange and tense coalitions will be a permanent problem for both parties. Some of the strains within the liberal coalition were made clear during the 2008 contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. (They were voiced memorably by the national president of the machinists' union.)
John Derbyshire outlined one of the fault lines in the conservative coalition six years ago when he discussed 'metropolitan conservatives," an issue he revisits in We Are Doomed. Metro-cons, to take a couple of particulars, believe in evolution and oppose laws outlawing homosexual acts between consenting adults. According to a fair amount of polling data, these positions put the metro-cons to the left of more than 40% of the America population, which means it probably puts them to the left of at least 80% of the people who voted for McCain/Palin. Derbyshire describes the metro-con's anomalous situation concisely: "I dislike modern American liberalism very much, and believe it to be poisonous and destructive; yet I am at ease in a roomful of New York liberals in a way that, to be truthful about it, I am not in a gathering of red-state evangelicals. Setting aside our actual opinions about this, that or the other, I am aware that in the first gathering I am among people with whom I have, at some level, a shared outlook; and in the second gathering, not."
His resolution of this tension in 2003 was unpersuasive. Admitting that it would be "the legions of real, authentic conservatives out there in the provinces" who would keep conservatism politically potent Derbyshire says, "God bless them all for keeping America strong, free, and true to her founding principles. If the price to be paid is a sodomy law here, a high-school Creationism class there, well, far as I am concerned, that's a small price indeed."
This doesn't sound like a sufficient basis on which to hold together a political movement. Rather than indulging ideological preoccupations they cannot endorse, conservative intellectuals need to emphasize a posteriori reasoning in their thinking and writing. The best way to make conservatism viable is to focus relentlessly on the tangible, the particular and totally legitimate preoccupations of their fellow-citizens. In a speech at the outset of his New York mayoral campaign in 1965 William Buckley said, "The purpose of politics is to do, to the limited extent it is possible to do anything by government action, something for the people of New York, to whom is owed, by good government, the security of their liberties: to work without harassment, to live without a crushing fiscal overhead, to educate their children with minimum interference from extrinsic distractions, to walk confidently in the streets, and sleep quietly at night. Public action is needed to secure these private ends."
Ronald Reagan employed the same idiom to great effect, such as when he asked Americans, in his debate with Jimmy Carter, "Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the store than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was four years ago? Do you feel your security is safe, that we're as strong as we were four years ago?" One of the reasons those questions helped elect Reagan president was the subtle and powerful way they drew wider and wider circles, starting from private and mundane concerns, then connecting them to ones about the nation's economic vigor and its strength and reputation in the world. The rediscovery of those habits of thought and speech will be necessary to restore the intellectual and political health of American conservatism.
NYT quotes at length Matt Spalding's Senate testimony on ever-expanding government and the Czar controversy:
And I conclude by noting that we have a dilemma between the current Congress that tends to give away large amounts of authority -- for instance, in the TARP bill, which gave the secretary of the Treasury extensive delegation of power, $700 billion to purchase troubled assets; low [sic.: that's "lo"--where is the proofreader! :-). UPDATE: The NYT goofed; my apologies] and behold we now own General Motors and we have a "car czar." Setting aside the policy, was that Congress's intention?
Matt's full statement to Senator Feingold's subcommittee is here.
Not since Jimmah' donned the sweater has there been so much apparent anguish over a made-for-TV crisis of confidence. Now, it would be putting it much too strongly to say that I think this question of the "de-intellectualization" of the conservative movement is much ado about nothing. It would be putting it too strongly to suggest that I think all worries about excessive populism on our side are nothing more than intellectual snobbery and foppishness masquerading as genuine concern about the truth of the matter. It's not only that. There is real and legitimate concern for the direction of the movement--most especially because it does not appear (at least for the moment) to be moving anywhere. It does not seem to be dynamic or persuasive . . . at least not to groups not already inclined to be persuaded. So it is perfectly natural and certainly healthy to ask questions about why we seem to be up against a wall.
But it is still fair to say that a good bit of this existential questioning is less a crisis and more a bit of preening self-indulgent, narcissistic and . . . dare I say, cowardly exhibitionism? (And no, a cowardly exhibitionist is not an oxymoron.) In addition to some precious and sentimental nostalgia about conservatism's so-called "Glory Days" (you know, back when there were only three or four national publications with a conservative bent), I'd also add that there's an unseemly amount of whining coming from some quarters in the conservative intellectual class about not getting the "recognition" that they deserve . . . especially when it comes to cash. Well, duh!? It seems rarely to occur to many a would-be philosophic soul that he ought to be content when he's not offered a cocktail laced with hemlock. And when he's lucky enough to be at all gainfully employed in the "occupation" of public philosophizing, perhaps he should content himself with the possibility that one of his more marketable students might popularize a few of his ideas and, thereby, score for himself some of the lucre, fame, and "recognition" this teacher thinks that he, himself, deserves. Perhaps that famous student might also throw the teacher a bone of thanks. But then, perhaps not. No matter. If and when those thanks are offered, a good number in this bunch will not be satisfied . . . they will find some fault in the work of their proteges and continue their lament about the stupidity of the world. Philosophers like that will never rule--however much the world needs their wisdom. Reagan was no philosopher, maybe. But he waxed philosophic when he noted that it was amazing how much one can accomplish when he's not concerned about who gets the credit.
In that spirit, I find very little with which to quibble today in this fine post from Jonah Goldberg--though I'd heap even more praise on Steve Hayward's measured and thoughtful piece in last Friday's Washington Post. I'd also note that Steve was very clever to give the thing the title he gave it . . . and that Peter Schramm is right to note that the Huffington Post was not clever enough to read beyond it (much less into it). No Straussians there, I guess . . . but you'd think they'd find a few to hire . . . if for no other reason than translation purposes. But . . . let it go.
(See also Jonah's USA Today column on Glenn Beck and I will repeat my admonition not to miss the podcast with Steve Hayward over at Infinite Monkeys.)
It seems to me, however, that apart from the most obviously annoying aspects of this complaint about the "crassness" of the conservative movement (which I admit strikes me mainly out of a sentiment of disgust with its lack of charity for ordinary well-meaning people doing the best they can with limited political leadership and busy lives that are not--gasp!--dedicated to the study of politics) there also seems to be an amazing amount of missing the point. Which is funny, considering that so much of the criticism stems from a concern for a supposed lack of reflection on the Right.
If conservatism has hit a wall or if it has maxed out as a movement and is incapable of persuading anyone other than the masses it's already garnered to itself, is the fault with the natural inclinations of sentiment that lead so many to conservatism or, rather, is the fault with some aspect of its argument that remains unpersuasive (or unknown) to the yet unpersuaded? The sense of so many people that conservatism had been taking it in the shorts until talk radio (and a host of other popularizers) came around and made it cool to be conservative again is not simply wrong. Tired as the argument may be, it is true that conservatives have long been in the minority in the media, in the arts, in the corridors of most leading universities and even in the classrooms of the minor league ones (to say nothing of the elementary and secondary education systems). People were not simply wrong to suggest that "if only" conservatism could "get its message out there" the support would follow. Political movements, after all, are not (or, rather, ought not to be) fraternities or sports teams that pride themselves on their exclusivity. Conservatism certainly did need a PR campaign of sorts. And beginning in the early to mid-1990s, it began to get one. It was built . . . and they did come--at least they came to listen or to watch and even, sometimes, to read. The lament now seems to be that those who came did not, in that listening and watching, learn properly to play the game from watching the commercial.
For there are some people who have a way of turning up their noses at PR campaigns. This stuff is beneath them, don'tcha know? It's rather vulgar and tasteless . . . and, besides, it's short on subtlety and substance. Yeah . . . it is. And so . . . what's your point? It brought conservatism an audience . . . this is where the intellectuals are supposed to enter, stage right. And to their credit, many did. In the twenty plus years I've been at this stuff, I don't recall a time before now when I'd meet with as many folks in day-to-day ordinary life who could rattle off names that I recognize from what I had previously considered to be only scholarly or obscure reading. I don't recall a time when my unwillingness to purchase cable television seemed to put me at a disadvantage in recounting arguments from leading thinkers when accosted by my parents or their friends or people I run into at my kids' school or in the grocery store. I don't recall them ever suggesting that I go get a book or check out an article in a conservative journal before the advent of FOX News. But now it happens with a regularity that I ought to find humbling . . . that is, I would, if I weren't already so humble. ;-)
So why are the priests in the temple now complaining that the masses now have the printing press and are learning to read? My suggestion to them is to learn to offer a coherent political argument and then learn to make a persuasive political case for it. Yes, this is difficult work--much harder than communing with your peers. It's wonderful that you've enjoyed your years in the intellectual wilderness and that you've made good use of your time at the monastery communing your intellectual equals. But now you are called upon to edify the huddled masses . . . show us. Where's the beef?
The beef . . . or, rather, my beef with too many conservative intellectuals is that a good number of them seem to lack an understanding of the nature of the thing they seek to combat. What is today's liberalism? While they obsess and fret about liberalism's or (more accurately) progressivism's victories, not enough of them are asking the obvious questions they ought to be asking about why progressivism is still fighting the battles that it began more than 70 years ago. After 70 plus years, why hasn't progressivism been as utterly successful in transforming American politics and the American character as they seek to be? Why does every success of progressivism come wrapped up with in a paper that looks, amazingly, like our very own Constitution? Why are so many Americans still inclined to be conservatives (in the American rather than in the British sense of the term)? And why, given all of that, does conservatism seem to have such a rebellious sort of energy to it these days?
Jonah hints at it when he suggests that this is a "moment" (though only a "moment") for conservatives to gird their loins and shout "NO!" That's true, though incomplete. It's not just that we like to oppose change for opposition's sake. And it's not just that we're in a re-grouping mode after the defeats of the last election and the stunning audacity of the White House's current occupant. It's that the nature of the changes proposed is decidedly contrary to SOMETHING. Hmmm . . . what could that be? What is it that conservatives, in their bones and in their hearts (if not always so clearly in their heads) want to conserve?
I will leave it on this note: if conservatism these days looks a little rebellious, a little loud and a little uncouth, it ought to be remembered that the Constitution and laws our intellectuals love to revere came after the Revolution . . . that is to say, only after the principle of government with the consent of the governed was secured could we move on to a rational debate about the best ways of securing it in perpetuity. I don't suggest that we need the equivalent of a revolution before we can get on with more rational political discourse at this time. We've already had our revolution and, God willing, I pray we never need another one. We've already put into place an instrument designed to preserve the principles of that Revolution. For more than 230 years, it has done that job with an amazing amount of efficiency; even in spite of the head-on efforts of three-generations of progressives. But the Constitution, though not "living" as the Progressives would have it, is neither a dead nor mechanical thing. It will not work in perpetuity without a citizenry firmly dedicated to the principles that caused us to create it. We do not need another revolution, but we do have to rescue the principle of government by consent (and all that it implies) before we can expect to see a turning down of the political volume. As long as that principle is under assault by a significant portion of the political class, Americans will do what Americans have always done best. We are an ornery people at heart. It takes ornery people to do something so audacious as to declare that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights . . . It takes an ornery people to imagine that self-government is a possibility in a world that is much more familiar with despotism.
Yes, we'll need reflection and choice to shepherd us through this rescue mission. But we're also going to need to rally the troops around the right ideas before we can begin, in earnest, to rein them in.
Polansky and Letterman may approach Jean-Jacques Rousseau's depravity, but they could surely not withstand his withering criticism of the terpitude of actors and other artists. That is the tension Richard Reeb explores, at that Rocky Mountain mainstay, Backbone America, founded by the redoubtable John Andrews. Artists regard themselves as "creative" gods, when in fact they are typically puerile reflections of their times. That postmodernism lies at the heart of Obama's writings, too, for he is at heart an artist.
Literature, Poetry, and Books