Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Innocents abroad

We’ve been in Europe for a week, and I thought it was time to check in.

A couple of general observations: both Austria (surprisingly) and the Netherlands (unsurpisingly) are more diverse than on my last visit (fourteen years ago). I’ve actually seen more Muslims in Salzburg than in Amsterdam (though mostly of the sort who cover their heads but wear fashionable western dress otherwise).

We haven’t encountered any overt anti-Americanism, not even from relatives.

I guess I’ve been surprised by the lack of obvious security in the train stations. I’ve gone through exactly one metal detector (and that was in the Rijksmuseum).

The Knippenberg family highlights so far have been Delft (lovely town with great squares and churches) and the Maria-Plain pilgrim church outside Salzburg (where my folks were married back in ’55). The latter gives me anecdotal evidence that Catholic piety is alive in central Europe--there was beautiful spontaneous singing, and, gosh, I shook the hand of the Arch-bishop of Salzburg.

More later, probably after we’ve spent some time in Italy.

Cigars and Dennis Prager

I have been reading (surprise!). After my hurly-burly schedule it feels like I’m stealing from a deep place and I like it. For my light reading it’s been The Elephant and the Dragon. Very good. To remind me that language at is best is for the sake of clarity, and understatement may be best, I have been re-reading Coolidge’s Autobiography. Splendid! I also remembered that Calvin loved cigars. Which brings me to this piece by Dennis Prager in which he briefly explains (in prose) why he loves cigars and what he likes about cigar stores. I guess that does it, I’ll have to invite him to give a talk at the Center!

Telling it Like it is

I’ve been staying away from NLT, mainly because this has been the busiest summer I ever remember having. Fortunately all my business has been enjoyable, but it’s left me no time for blogging.

One thing I’ve been up to is portraying Howard Cosell as part of this year’s Ashland Chautauqua. I did a 45-minute monologue, set in December 1983--right after his final telecast of Monday Night Football. This was followed by Q&A from the audience.

Anyway, if you live in North Central Ohio, and you didn’t have a chance to catch my Chautauqua performance, I’ll be reprising it tomorrow night at 8:00 pm at the Mansfield Playhouse. This will be a special fundraiser for the Playhouse to kick off its 40th anniversary season. Tickets are $10, and the performance will be followed by a gourmet reception (courtesy of my beautiful and talented wife). Tickets will no doubt be available at the door, but if you want to make reservations call 419-522-2883.

Dems too Cocky?

Toby Harnden in Britain’s Telegraph writes what begins to look like a plausible strategy for Republican candidates in this election cycle: there’s "blood in the water" on the Dem side he argues. They may finish themselves off if Republicans leave them alone. Obama is presenting himself too much as the left-wing anti-war candidate which (as events have proven) has the danger of making him look weak and childish in the mold of McGovern and Dukakis. Hillary’s strength is that she is the safe candidate--like Mondale or like Gore. The problem is that her likability is at least equal to that of Gore or Mondale too. Which is to say that she’s not particularly likable and we all know what happened to Gore and Mondale when they were confronted with likable Republicans. Say whatever you will about all of the Republican front runners--they’re at least likable.

Putnam and diversity

In the Comments Steve Thomas section linked to this article in the Boston Globe about Robert Putnam’s latest study on diversity. Just wanted to make sure everyone saw it.

Assimilation and citizenship

Last Fall I gave a talk at the Heritage Foundation on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution and it is now published. They have put it out under a "First Principles Series" and some of the other essays might interest you. My piece, alas, is a variation on a theme with which you are all too familiar. Sorry.

And yet, perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that the simple (although, I hope not simple-minded) themes of citizenship and assimilation of immigrants continues to press, Note this Washington Post article in which the deep question is posed: Should the U.S. Government encourage assimilation? The question is not, of course, whether the Feds should spend money on programs that encourages or teaches immigrants to become Americans. That is missing the point. Please note that in the WaPo article almost all the immigrants quoted make perfect sense (e.g.: Americans "want all the people -- black, yellow, green, Chinese," Zemikel (from Eretria) said. "In other countries, they don’t want them, like, equal.").

John Rawls and the Greening of Liberalism, Part 2

Linda Hirshman contends that the success of John Rawls’s philosophy has a lot to do with the failure of liberal politics. The portion of her argument she has shared with the public so far is neither complete nor compelling. Her primary complaint is that The Theory of Justice is bloodless: “Rawls’s political actors, such as they were, looked a lot like brains in vats – theoretical beings completely disconnected from real-world politics.”

Hirshman is no conservative, and certainly no Straussian, but her critique of Rawls resembles Allan Bloom’s. Rawls makes an argument for redistribution based on his “Original Position,” where humans design a society behind a “veil of ignorance,” not knowing whether they’ll be smart or dumb, beautiful or ugly, in the ethnic majority or minority, etc. Rawls argues that people would be utterly risk-averse in the Original Position, designing a society with extensive income redistribution to make sure the least-advantaged are always as well off as possible.

Bloom’s central problem with this framework is that Rawls doesn’t adequately explain why human beings should adhere to the arrangements they devised in the Original Position once the veil of ignorance has been removed. When the strong know they are strong, not weak, they may not regard the protection of the weak as the highest priority. All Rawls can offer to urge people to maintain the deal he imagines they would have made is, according to Bloom, “sermonizing.”

This is one of the stronger criticisms of John Rawls. The trouble for Hirshman’s position is that it’s difficult to see: 1) how the “brains in vats” quality of Rawls’s philosophy became an attribute of political liberalism generally because of the publication of A Theory of Justice; and 2) how, even if this quality did affect what liberals said and did after 1971, voters noticed or cared.

It is not difficult to identify a less abstract and more obviously unpopular aspect of Rawlsianism. A Theory of Justice is an unyielding argument for a strikingly unrugged individualism. Each person must have everything he thinks he needs to pursue his “life plan,” including self-esteem. The individual whose life plan consists of counting blades of grass deserves not only the wherewithal to do so, but the assurance that he’ll be treated with no less respect than a Harvard professor. As Bloom says, Rawls insists government must be laisser faire about the ends people pursue, but beaucoup faire about providing the means to pursue them.

Hirshman may or may not choose to take issue with this aspect of A Theory of Justice. She would have a hard time, again, arguing that Rawls talked liberals into a position they would not otherwise have taken. The sentiment that people had virtually unconditional welfare rights had pervaded liberalism long before Rawls had any disciples. The prominent sociologist, Christopher Jencks, offered this rebuttal to the “Moynihan Report” in 1965: “If [poor black families] are matriarchal by choice (i.e., if lower-class men, women, and children truly prefer a family consisting of a mother, children, and a series of transient males) then it is hardly the federal government’s proper business to try to alter this choice. Instead, the government ought to invent ways of providing such families with the same physical and psychic necessities of life available to other kinds of families.”

Monster Madness

I take time out from my blogging hiatus (I’m sequestered for the next few weeks at my California house to work exclusively on Age of Reagan II) to mention a first: Yesterday I attended a monster truck show. I have a five-year-old, okay? And his favorite monster truck, Grave Digger, was participating! As a cultural matter this is beyond NASCAR: monster truck madness (which includes big air motocross, too), seems a combination of circus acrobatics, professional wrestling (good guys versus bad guys), and the Battle of the Bulge. There was a moment of silence offered for our fallen soldiers in Iraq before the engines roared to life.

Mansfield vs. The New Atheism

According to the manly Mansfield, the old atheists were against the church, but the new atheists are against religion itself, which really means they’re against constitutionalism itself. The new atheists pride themselves as being the only animals smart enough and tough enough be atheists, but their arguments, Harvey shows us, are as predictable as chimp behavior. Harvey once called attention to the philosopher-atheist’s criticism of times of "Enlightenment": They take all the fun out of "free thought." But it takes a time of alleged Enlightenment to show us that there’s nothing more boring than atheism or at least raving atheists.

Further Lessons in Political Decency

Michael Tomasky complains today that “Bush and Cheney – and conservatism in general – have wrecked our civic institutions and darkened our civic impulses. Nothing is beyond politicization: not the Justice Department; not the worst terrorist attacks on our soil . . . ” Politicizing terrorist attacks? Why, that sounds like the despicable work of the cynical conservative who gave the 1996 State of the Union Address:

[Richard Dean is] a 49-year-old Vietnam veteran who’s worked for the Social Security Administration for 22 years now. Last year he was hard at work in the Federal Building in Oklahoma City when the blast killed 169 people and brought the rubble down all around him. He reentered that building four times. He saved the lives of three women. He’s here with us this evening, and I want to recognize Richard and applaud both his public service and his extraordinary personal heroism. But Richard Dean’s story doesn’t end there. This last November, he was forced out of his office when the Government shut down. And the second time the Government shut down he continued helping Social Security recipients, but he was working without pay.

On behalf of Richard Dean and his family, and all the other people who are out there working every day doing a good job for the American people, I challenge all of you in this Chamber: Let’s never, ever shut the Federal Government down again.