Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Eros and Thanatos

Paul Seaton called our attention to a bunch of essays sponsored by the Cato Institute on the quest for indefinite longevity. Only Daniel Callahan is tough enough to recommend that we actually pass laws against those who would invent our way of nature’s deadly, species-centric intention for each of us. Ronald Bailey is the extremist in the other direction, looking forward to the time when free individuals (especially Ronald Bailey) live forever in a world unburdened by children. Diana Schaub beautifully explains the negative consequences of pushing back thanatos will have on eros, but her thought experiment doesn’t really imply any public policy recommendations. The truth, I think, that if we have the capacity to achieve indefinite longevity, we will. There won’t be any effective "pro-death" opposition to it, especially as the voters gets older and older. So the big thought experiment is really to think about how to live virtuously--with responsibility and in love in light of what we really know--under the new circumstances. People will be more anxious and disoriented and so in some ways more unhappy than ever, and it’ll be more important to be good if you really want to feel good. The book to read on this, in MY opinion, is MY STUCK WITH VIRTUE. I do applaud the Cato people for at least beginning to reflect on some downsides of the modern project of reconstructing all of being with free individual in mind. And even Ronald Bailey is to be praised for showing us what an extremely modern man looks like and thinks about. Once again, we can’t forget Darwinian Larry, who reminds us that nature will win no matter what we do. Then, of course, there’s St. Augustine and Pascal, who say that even living a thousand years is nothing in light of eternity--and no modern man really promises IMMORTALITY, just INDEFINITE LONGEVITY.

Walkin’ from New Orleans, again

Our friend Matt Franck has read the fine print.

Seming is Believing

David Brooks’ column today about the two Obamas, one genial, easy-going, but very much a man of the effete Left, and another Machiavellian, reminds me of this bit of commentary from John Adams:

Mirabeau said of La Fayette, ‘Il a affiche desinteressement’ and he added, ‘this never fails. You know the sense of the word ‘affiche’? It is as much to say, ‘he advertised’ his disinterestedness.” This is equivalent to saying that he employed a crier to proclaim through the streets ‘O Yes! O Yes! O Yes!’ All manner of persons may have the benefit of my services, gratis, provided always and only that they will yield me their unlimited and unsuspecting confidence and make me commander in chief., and after I shall have gained a few victories, make me a king or an emperor, when I shall take a fancy to be either. This has been the amount and the result of most of the disinterestedness that has been professed in the world. I say most, not all. There are exceptions, and our Washington ought to pass for one.

As far as I can tell, the key question, regarding Obama, is what his true intensions are. Sometimes, it seems that he’s been talking Left in order to please certain constitutencies, even as he prepares to steer a more moderate course in practice. But sometimes, it seems that he really wants this expansive republic to have the kind of regime that is only suitable for a small one.

Recall here, Obama’s NAFTA kerfuffle, and the question of whether Obama means it when he says, "Look. I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market." (Quoted here), or if he’s geniunely baffled by the Laffer Curve.

One final point. There are several instances in the past few centuries of men who believed that they were free to be Machiavellians today in order to change the world into a place where such hijinks were no longer necessary. Others, like our friend John Adams, believing that the would could not be fundamentally remade, tried to burst such bubbles.

The Coming of Indefinite Longevity

Will it be a fundamental crisis for philosophy and theology? Or will we need them more than ever? Indefinite longevity will surely be bad for love. I promised to love you for eternity, but I really meant fifty years tops. But mabye love means, first of all, love of self. Living for an indefinitely long time would, presumably, be good for that. I can’t love myself if not I’m not around to love and be loved. Darwinian Larry, not without reason, doubts indefinite longevity is possible. We’ll never be able to control all the ways (evolutionary) nature is out to kill each one of us for the good of the species.

No, I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth

I’ve just been a little busy, what with summer school, faculty development seminars (I’ve read more Petrarch than I cared to, and less Adam Smith and Montaigne), and summer swim meets (the Knipp kids aren’t undefeated, but they’re pretty doggone impressive to this unbiased observer) and all.

Here, for all the world to see, is evidence of the fact that I still exist on the web. That review of John DiIulio’s "blueprint" of the future of the faith-based initiative should be read in tandem with Stanley Carlson-Thies’ more sober and less partisan overview.

I have a few other things in the pipeline as well--an essay in the next issue of the Acton Institute’s Religion and Liberty (not yet online); a slightly revised version of my response to Patrick Deneen’s Berry at Berry talk, which will appear, with a very impressively revised version of Patrick’s talk, in The City, about which you can read and to which you can subscribe, here; and, finally, a book review somewhere in the Weekly Standard pipeline.

After I grade everything this weekend, I’ll have a little more time for this enterprise. And after summer swim championships next weekend (yes, our season ends by the end of June, so fleeting is the glory that smells of chlorine), I’ll have even more time.

The Haditha Narrative Continues to Unravel

OK, girls and boys, who remembers the Haditha massacre? This was supposed to be the My Lai of Iraq, the defining atrocity that would stand as a microcosm of everything that was wrong about the war. In March of 2006, Time magazine ran a story that claimed, based on interviews with locals, that in November of 2005, a squad of Marines had killed 24 civilians in cold blood in retaliation for the death of one of their comrades killed by an IED in Haditha. Responding to the story, the Marine Corps launched an investigation and in May charged a number of Marines from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment of killing the civilians and a number of officers for covering up the alleged killings.

As I have said in the past, if the Marines killed civilians in Haditha in revenge for the IED attack, they would be guilty of a war crime. But as the complete story has emerged, as opposed to the partial and leaked information from questionable sources that created the original narrative, it seems to be the case that the killings, though a tragedy, did not rise to the level of war crime or atrocity.

The military justice system agrees. Of the eight Marines charged with offenses ranging from unpremeditated murder to dereliction of duty, charges against six have been dismissed and one defendent has been acquitted. Only the leader of the Marine infantry squad involved in the incident still faces reduced charges. His court-martial has been delayed.

The disgrace here is how the Marines were treated by the press and anti-war politicians, led by the odious Jack Murtha. My discussion of the whole affair can be found here.

Random Observations

1. It turns out that Tiger’s leg injuries have taken him out for the year and have career-threatening potential. The other golfers are pygmies compared to him, and I regret saying ambiguously negative things about him.

2. Lieberman is resurfacing as a McCain VP possibility. I assume that someone will tell Mac not to go with his gut on this. Even the convention, with good reason, would rebel against the choice of a liberal Democrat.

3. More promising is the very Hawkish and Jewish Rep. Eric Cantor, who has a very consistently conservative voting record. It’s not true that he’d get Mac significantly more Jewish vote. But right now he appears to be the most formidable Republican politician in VA--a state Mac will need to win that’s quickly trending Democratic. (Gilmore is down 30 to Warner.)
Cantor also seems quite able and looks young and nerdy in a good way. Does he he have the stature and/or eloquence to escape the boring category? The written versions of his speeches are very short on nuance and poetry. Still, my 10 minutes of research suggests that Cantor is at least worth discussing (as Fred Barnes has done). My tentative conclusion is that he’s no Bobby J.

4. I have to say that Mac’s new enthusiasm for offshore drilling does not seem very authentic.

5. The betting by some today is that Obama will pick Biden--which would be seen as a solid choice of an experienced man by a candidate confident of victory.

Michelle Obama’s View

Lisa Schiffren reviews Michelle Obama’s performance today on The View. I actually made a mental note (and this proves the ineffectiveness of my mental notes) to watch the program today because of her appearance. But when 9:00 rolled around I was busy baking a birthday cake (yes, from scratch) and . . . well, good grief . . . it’s The View. There are few things that bore me more than The View. If I want to watch something like The View all I have to do is take my kids to the park and watch the mothers huddled around the picnic tables (and no, I don’t exempt myself from this caricature) discussing . . . well, whatever! At least we all get some fresh air to go along with the hot air this way.

Besides, I knew others would happily sacrifice themselves for me. Schiffren took up this cross and she tells me all I need to know about what transpired. Inane and banal. Well, I knew it would be that before it happened. I’ve never seen an episode the program that wasn’t.

But at the risk of sounding banal myself . . . may I suggest that Lisa and other commentators lay off Michelle, her sleeveless dresses, and her looks? That’s really barking up the wrong tree. The last thing I aspire to do each morning is praise Michelle Obama . . . but what’s right is right. Michelle Obama is a beautiful woman. She looks very good--and refreshingly feminine--in those dresses. Sleeveless? Well . . . it’s summer! It’s hot! And she can do it. Good for her. As my grandmother used to say, "If you’ve got it flaunt it!" Of course, there’s a limit to this (remember the flak Hillary took for showing "too much" cleavage) . . . but even then, if it were nicer cleavage she displayed, I doubt there would have been as much (negative) commentary on it. But MO hasn’t got a set of bat wings. She looks good and showing arms doesn’t reach the level of immodesty in my book. It’s not even informal. Most ball gowns are sleeveless, right? And what should she wear? A suit? I have always hated female suits--particularly pant suits. You might as well wear a habit or a berka as wear a suit. It is a uniform--and an ugly one at that. I suppose she could top it all off with a set of over-sized pearls . . . ugh. I’m sorry but if you can look pretty in a suit, you’re that special sort of woman who can look pretty in anything. That is the outfit that a younger woman can wear with impunity . . . not the dress!

I think it is wonderful and refreshing to see a woman in or around politics who strives to look pretty instead of "serious." It’s not the most important thing in the world, of course, and it can become a dangerous obsession for a women who is not, on some level, serious. But there’s no small amount of wisdom in a woman who knows that looking good is far from the least important thing in the world.

Daddy Dearest?

Kathleen Parker has a different take on Barack Obama’s recent Father’s Day remarks. She argues that his emphasis on negligent fathers (never mind his emphasis on big government "fixes" that will likely only worsen the problem) is only a half truth. Missing and necessary to any real discussion of responsible parenting is a serious confrontation with irresponsible mothering. It’s not politically correct to criticize moms for their roles in family chaos, Parker realizes. It’s more acceptable to paint them as the victims. There are good reasons for this general double standard; namely, that male abuse is more likely to be serious or fatal. But gosh . . . sometimes women seem to be getting an undeserved pass. And Parker’s main point is well taken: isn’t there one day in the year when we can speak of fathers without dissing them? Might we not learn something from the poets and praise those traits in men we most want to see displayed?

The Headscarf Head-Fake

Politico reports that two Muslim women wearing headscarves at an Obama rally with Al Gore were not permitted to sit in the section that would be televised. They are not amused.

Colorado for Shale

This is not my field, but how would promoting oil shale play in Colorado? And elsewhere? Were McCain to promote it, would it, assuming Obama did not do the same, help him secure the state? Or, on the other side, might it hurt him more with green ideologues in the state than it helps?

(For balance, here’s an argument against oil shale). The key question, regarding the usefulness of oil shale, not the politics of it, seems to be how much technology has improved since the 1970s.

Multitasking everything fashionable these days, is good for information and bad for wisdom. People who say they’re good at it are probably fooling themselves, and it’s certainly not good for them. Nobody really pays attention anymore (except Tiger Woods)!

The Symbol of Mental Willpower

That’s Tiger Woods, according to David Brooks. Well, who doesn’t admire Tiger? But I have to admit I was rooting for Rocco, who was just grateful to be there and never forgot that golf is a game for gregarious animals. Mediate’s skills (and 153 ranking!) don’t compare with Woods’, and he’s an old man to boot. But he still came roaring back on Monday and with any luck could have won. It was surely one of the greatest matches in the history of golf. (Thanks to Ivan the K.)

Philippe Beneton on Determinism

"Has anyone ever taken determinism seriously to its limit? Who ever lived as if all freedom were denied him? Certainly not the apostles of determinism, who behave as if they had been declared exempt by some official mandate. Deterministic theories are always, it seems, in the service of something else: theoretical ambition (’I am the master of meaning’), voluntarism (’workers of the world unite!’), irresponsibility (’society alone is guilty’)." [EQUALITY BY DEFAULT, ISI, p. 200, note 6]

Obama’s Father’s Day Address

E.J. Dionne writes about the importance of this speech from Barack Obama on the subject of fatherhood. Because the subject is a serious one and, of course, one that is deeply personal to Mr. Obama, it is a speech that merits study. It should be praised for what is good in it--a clear exhortation to fathers to be responsible--but we should not consider that it is beyond reproach simply because it takes up this important and much neglected theme. Dionne frets that people will dismiss this speech as a political ploy to get white working class voters overcome what he calls their "suspicions" about a black candidate.

Dionne argues that these suggestions about Barack Obama’s Fathers Day Address (press accounts called it a sermon) are cynical beyond description. Well, I don’t blame a smart liberal like Dionne for liking Barack Obama and I certainly don’t blame him for wishing to see more serious attention given to the question of parental responsibility . . . but to read Barack Obama’s speech on the subject is to stand witness to a piece of good old-fashioned political manipulation. I agree with Dionne that there is more to it than a cynical (and transparent) attempt to win white votes. Obama is too politically clever to waste his time talking for such a crude or unambitious reason. That is for lesser politicians--the likes, say, of Hillary. Obama is the man who promises to stop the rising of the oceans when he is elected. A mere ploy to "win white votes" is beneath his dignity. If that is a side-effect, he’ll take it, I’m sure. But he’s got bigger fish to multiply.

Indeed, the more I read of Obama’s speeches, the more inclined I am to say that they smack of something very old. It is an old political style--in keeping with old American liberal traditions--that of wrapping the personal around the political. Bill Clinton was quite good at this--every State of the Union Address serving as an opportunity to trot out some living testament to awesome powers of liberal political programs. But Bill is a piker (and was criticized by the left as a trimmer) by way of his ambitions; if not by way of his relative success.

Obama speaks in the grand and ambitious style of the Progressive rock stars of old. Obama doesn’t seek just to win a few white voters. He’s after all voters. He wants to remake America in his image. Observe how it is done: In this speech, for example, he moves from the "Rock" of the gospels (he was, after all, in a church) to the "rock" of family and fatherhood to the "rock" of big government programs. He makes this seamless transition by emphasizing what he sees as the central virtue of civic life: "empathy." It is "empathy" (which he distinguishes from sympathy) that demands our government should be "meeting them [fathers] halfway" if they’re doing the best they can. We have to set things up so that it is easier for people to make the right choices . . . government must be there to encourage good behavior and, what’s more, government ought to reward it (with cash, of course). Lots of carrots . . . the sticks go unmentioned. This is probably because he means to remove the natural ones from their intended targets and replace them, instead, with artificial sticks to be used on the less than empathetic.

Notice, too, the list of questions that trouble Barack Obama’s mind as a father contemplating the futures in front of his two young daughters:

But now, my life revolves around my two little girls. And what I think about is what kind of world I’m leaving them. Are they living in a county where there’s a huge gap between a few who are wealthy and a whole bunch of people who are struggling every day? Are they living in a county that is still divided by race? A country where, because they’re girls, they don’t have as much opportunity as boys do? Are they living in a country where we are hated around the world because we don’t cooperate effectively with other nations? Are they living a world that is in grave danger because of what we’ve done to its climate?
That looks like a rather old list of worries too . . . if you’re a leftist. And it’s a weird list for a father, isn’t it? Are these the questions that really ought to take a front and center place in the minds of the absent and negligent fathers Obama means to address? If he really believes they are, then the only thing of real value in this speech was his (too true) criticism of 8th grade graduation ceremonies.

Al Gore, The Opera

I haven’t had time to comment on the truly absurd news that the La Scala opera company is going to write and produce an opera based on Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth," a story that sounds like it had to come from The Onion, but in fact it’s true. Reminds me of why Malcom Muggeridge said that he had to give up satire when real news made it impossible.

John Tierney imagines some of the difficulties the composers will face.

The Twin Legacies of the Sixties

...according to Alan Wolfe. This article, which can’t be confused with real cultural analysis, does make some good points. The Sixties gave us cultural liberalism and political conservatism--two forms of anti-authoritarianism or anti-elitism or anti-establishmentarianism. The Sixties also set the stage for genuine counterculturalism--such as the anti-bourgeois home-schooling movement and the anti-technological crunchy cons. Because of the gains for justice, Wolfe adds, we have to conclude that the Sixties were more good than not. Apparently Wolfe yearns for the party establishments of the early Sixties--the Kennedys, Harriman, Rockefeller, and so forth. Neither real liberals nor real conservatives today would admit that they were, on balance, better than what followed them. Goldwater and Reagan, for example, were, each in his own way, men of the Sixties. So was Nixon, who can’t be reduced to either good or evil.

Hitchens on Hillary

No doubt this Christopher Hitchens piece will offend some, but it is a must read. Title: "The First Excuse: Don’t blame sexism for Hillary Clinton’s defeat."   

The Architecture of Happiness

If you have not already devoured your hard copy of On Principle (and if you haven’t got one go here and stop being so cheap) the good news is that you can now read it online and in PDF format so as to preserve all the great illustrations. This issue is especially deserving of illustration preservation because it features a fine article by Allen Greenberg on the "Architecture of Democracy" and the pictures really bring home his points. The architecture--especially of our public buildings--says something about the purpose and the soul of a people. It reflects the regime and some structures are more befitting a people than others. Professor Greenberg shows us how.

Also in this issue is a thoughtful essay by Professor Chris Burkett (originally delivered as an address to graduating seniors at Ashland) on the things required to construct a good student--not just at a university--but throughout life.

And you cannot put this issue aside without indulging in the reflections of Peter Schramm as he steals a little leisure. Enjoy!

Fun With Orwell

Check out the lede to this piece from merry old England:

George Orwell once wrote that politics was closely related to social identity. "One sometimes gets the impression," he wrote in The Road To Wigan Pier, "that the mere words socialism and communism draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, nature-cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England."

(Hat-tip, Powerline.

Three Bad Possible McCain Choices

...for VP nominee are promoted by Fred Barnes. Fred seems most enthusiastic about Tom Ridge, who wouldn’t, in fact, win PA for Mac and would hurt him big-time with social conservatives everywhere. Again, I’m not being politically correct but only social scientific when I say that picking a boring (even if experienced) white man would be an unforced error on McCain’s part.

Social Science Strikes Again

I can’t wait to hear Julie Ponzi’s comments on this chart, which is offered as proof that "geek girls are easy."

In favor of stupid computers

I like this statement by Douglas R. Hofstadter (the rest of his interview is here):

"Am I disappointed by the amount of progress in cognitive science and artificial intelligence in the past 30 years or so? Not at all. To the contrary, I would have been extremely upset if we had come anywhere close to reaching A.I. — it would have made me fear that our minds and souls were not deep. Reaching the goal of A.I. in just a few decades would have made me dramatically lose respect for humanity, and I certainly don’t want (and never wanted) that to happen.

I am a deep admirer of humanity at its finest and deepest and most powerful — of great people such as Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Ella Fitzgerald, Albert Schweitzer, Frederic Chopin, Raoul Wallenberg, Fats Waller, and on and on. I find endless depth in such people ... and I would hate to think that all that beauty and profundity and goodness could be captured — even approximated in any way at all! — in the horribly rigid computational devices of our era.

Do I still believe it will happen someday? I can’t say for sure, but I suppose it will eventually, yes. I wouldn’t want to be around then, though. Such a world would be too alien for me. I prefer living in a world where computers are still very, very stupid. And I get a huge kick out of laughing at the hilariously unpredictable inflexibility of the computer models of mental processes that my doctoral students and I codesign. It helps remind me of the immense subtlety and elusiveness of the human mind."

EU’s political turmoil

Yesterday’s New York Times front page story on the Irish vote against the Lisbon Treaty (a slightly altered version of the failed 2005 EU constitution) was pretty clear: This puts the EU into turmoil. The details aside (how Lisbon was supposed to make the European Union more democratic and streamlined, etc.), the real point is that the EU is very popular with European politicians, but not with European folks, and that’s why most governments don’t want their people to be able to vote the way the Irish did (all others will vote in their legislatures). The elites don’t trust their own people. And when the folks vote the wrong way, the politicians accuse them of ignorance and then immediately look for a "legal arrangement" that can get them out of their fix. What the Europeans have forgotten never learned is that before choosing (never mind legal arrangements), there has to be deliberation, and that deliberation has to be both deep and broad. A kind of civic education--or public diplomacy, if you like--has to take place and this cannot be simply the elites telling folks how to vote. A broader conversation regarding the purpose of the union has to precede the how of the thing. They once had a conversation like this--a couple of generations ago--then assumed that that conversation was enough, and the rest can be a matter of nice diplomatic (read secret) arrangements making sure that every country gets something rather specific out of it. Let’s put it this way: The EU politicians should have a decent respect to the opinions of their citizens that they should declare the purposes that would be fulfilled which impel them to the union. If they cannot do this over time, and be persuasive over time, the EU will remain nothing but this amazing confusion of accords, headed by an arrogant elite in Brussels. A constitution without purpose is not a constitution. There is no European constitution.

What to Make of It All

I start off nearly every morning thinking that John McCain has little chance of winning the election, for all of the conventional reasons summarized today by The Politico. But if Noemie Emery is right, the long-running split in the American electorate works against Obama nonetheless. We’ll see: I’m more inclined to think the perfect storm of problems facing the GOP are sufficient to overwhelm the advantages the party has enjoyed for the last several presidential election.