Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Book Selection of the Month: "Natural Right and History" by Leo Strauss

Let me now unveil the first-ever Book Selection of the Month (for November 2006), namely:

Natural Right and History by Leo Strauss

That’s right, it’s the neocons’ bible (well, not counting the Bible), and what better time for me to read it than now, when, some would argue, this book has led by a circuitous, fifty-three-year route to the defeat of conservatism at the polls?

Leo Strauss was a mid-century intellectual historian and philosopher who stressed the idea that intellectuals have a duty to shore up public morals by respecting timeless ethical principles — even when those same intellectuals, at least since Machiavelli, have been wracked by doubts about whether any rational proof can ultimately be offered for the validity of those principles. Nietzsche may have been onto something with his claims that morals are a sort of fiction that can be cast aside like other taboos, but it would be bad sociology — with decidedly non-utilitarian consequences — to go around telling people that. There might be riots in the streets, or at the very least students in our colleges who can’t see any moral reason to prefer the U.S. to totalitarian Russia or Nazi Germany.

Strauss’s admirers, sometimes called Straussians, have been described as secretive — even deceptive — in the past, since they admit the possibility of the existence of a philosophical elite who can safely discuss ideas that might be dangerous in the hands of the masses. By now, though, I think it’s safe to say that everyone who cares knows roughly what the Straussians think, so there’s no ongoing need for hushed tones or secret handshakes.

I openly admit that my own political thinking was shaped at an early stage by Straussianism, via the book The Closing of the American Mind by Strauss’s student, Allan Bloom. Condemning moral relativism on college campuses, the book seemed to me (in 1987, when it came out) like a perfect description of my experiences as a moderately conservative but fairly apolitical freshman at the Marxist/feminist/relativist morass that was Brown University, at a time when a conservative president was being raked over the coals by a Democratic Congress conducting investigations into his efforts to topple a foreign government (Nicaragua’s, to be specific, and I see that nineteen years later, Nicaraguan democracy has made Daniel Ortega president again, which does not, of course, necessarily mean it was wrong for Reagan to try toppling him when he was a communist dictator there; and if today looks just a tiny bit like 1987, it’s not a bad time for me to dip back into Straussianism, this time by reading the real deal instead of Bloom). I was a bit hesitant, though, to embrace Bloom’s condemnation of rock music as “hymns to onanism and mother-killing,” so I guess I have always been a moderate at heart (or at least a New Wave fan).

The left, in recent years, would have you believe that Strauss’s emphasis on simple moral rules, the universality and absolutism of those rules, and the appropriateness of glossing over residual doubts about those rules, led inevitably to Bush “lying us into war” in order to remake the world according to simplistic Western moral standards — neoconservatism as crusading extremism.

The truth is, as usual, much more complicated, with Strauss’s main real legacy perhaps being the introduction of sociological concerns (such as the connection between prevailing ethics and crime rates) and sociological methodology into conservative thinking, though the original batch of “neoconservatives” who promulgated these ideas in the 60s and 70s (neo because they had come to see their own former liberalism as inadequate for dealing with many moral and social issues) were also hawkish and no doubt pushed the conservative movement as a whole toward becoming a bit more comfortable with big government thinking (and social engineering schemes, albeit with a conservative flavor), something that I can only hope will now wane again. (In some ways, the early, sociological neocon writings bear less resemblance to fundamentalist or nationalist/militarist tracts than they do to pragmatic good-governance books like, say, Ted Balaker and Sam Staley’s The Road More Traveled.)

I do not mean to dismiss Strauss’s legacy as a defender of moral absolutes against the darkness and chaos of relativism, though. I love Nietzsche as much as the next guy, but — well, actually, I think one of my greatest public failures resulted in part from not loving Nietzsche as much as the next guy, one night when that next guy was author and “urban explorer” L.B. Deyo (he now runs a debate series in Austin, TX under the name the Dionysium, a name Nietzsche would appreciate). L.B. co-founded (with Lefty Leibowitz) the monthly debates I now host at Lolita Bar in Manhattan, and since L.B. loves to defend extreme positions, he never won one of the debates (according to the audience votes) until defeating me on the question of whether morality is objective or subjective. He convinced the audience it is downright unscientific to think that some mysterious, unquantifiable yet objective standard for morals can be found — even though L.B. is in many ways more conservative than I am. I argued in vain that utilitarianism, with its rootedness in real-world suffering and pleasure, is grounds for generating non-whimsical moral generalizations.

I still think L.B.’s position on this issue, if widely held, would lead to carnage in the streets (if morality is subjective whim, why not run amok when it’s convenient to do so, if you can train yourself to overcome inherited moral taboos and guilty feelings?). I will keep that fear in mind while brooding over my copy of Natural Right and History. Strauss shares my concerns, even if he isn’t America’s favorite intellectual at this point in time.

If roundabout, intellectualized moralism isn’t pure enough stuff for you, though, you could always stop listening to agnostic folk like Strauss and atheists like me and instead read the first of the two Book Selection(s) of the Month for December.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Brief Reflection on Congress

Let us hope America (like our December Lolita Bar debate crowd) is in a mood to talk about rebuilding and repairing — rather than vengeance — after the close and hard-fought midterm elections. The world doesn’t really need more combative ideologues.

As political scientists predicted decades ago, that approach seems to have brought us to approximately 50/50 deadlock, whether in places like the U.S. with two major parties or places like Germany with multi-party coalitions that still end up at parity. Regardless of ostensible philosophical differences, this is about what you would expect over time from competing political groups each trying to get just-slightly-more-than-half of available votes, shifting their issues and rhetoric as needed. Mundane, unidealistic observations like this one are going to have to be taken into account if we honestly hope to get past the impasse instead of just wallowing in the endless sparring, something only a tiny, twisted portion of the population finds truly fun.

The bright side of the ongoing deadlock — and specifically of the U.S.’s divided government — is that it may lead to less spending and fewer foolhardy ventures than a unified, one-party government. That would constitute something of a libertarian/fiscal-conservative victory by default. I hope there are some on the left who find it impressive, by the way, that so many conservative and libertarian writers (and voters), prior to the ’06 election, sounded so willing to see “their” candidates lose if it produced a more humble, gridlocked government. Preferring to give up power rather than see it abused is an admirable trait, and one that I wish the left and government generally would emulate.

So, as a person who has in the past identified as a libertarian and sympathized with the right (to the extent the right ostensibly favored libertarian, free-market goals such as budget cuts and tax cuts), do I consider the ’06 elections a disaster? I think the results were not so much a disaster as a final verdict on a disaster that started eleven years ago, when the ’94 Republican “Revolution” was only a year old and the impasse between Clinton and a Gingrich-led, budget-restraining Congress led to a partial government shutdown, then a Republican dip in the polls, and then the complete abandonment by the Republicans of any further attempt to limit spending or limit the accumulation of government power. Subsequent arrogance on military and religious issues, during the Bush presidency, just continued the trend away from conservative self-restraint.

Will conservatives learn anything from their losses in ’06? Maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it. It’s not clear that they were punished for their specific policy positions so much as for fumbling each of the major policy issues they took on. It’s not clear, as far as I can tell, that Americans have a strong position one way or the other on budget-cutting, democratizing the Middle East, using government to promulgate religious values, federalizing disaster relief, privatizing Social Security, subsidizing prescription drugs, or altering immigration — but for electoral purposes, if you take on issues that big, something decisive had better come out of it, even if it ain’t right.

On each of these issues, I fear each conservative faction can still argue that the fumble wasn’t its fault but the fault of some other faction, with few solid conclusions being drawn or lessons learned as a result. For instance, paleoconservatives were outraged at Bush’s market-oriented immigration reform plans, but given the poor performance by hardcore anti-immigrationists in the elections, it’s not clear Americans who are frustrated by immigration issues want to adopt the border-closing paleo solution. Similarly, libertarians and fiscal conservatives were so outraged over Republican spending that many didn’t vote Republican this time out — or didn’t vote at all, in the case of many stubborn/principled libertarians — but Karl Rove and others make a plausible, albeit disturbing, case that the voters want spending and that big spending usually helps Republicans win in closely-contested districts. Meanwhile, religious conservatives excoriate Republican deviations from theocratic orthodoxy, but Republicans can’t get much more religious without alienating America’s vast secularist population even further. And the prowar Republicans, even after the stinging rebuke of ’06, can argue with some plausibility that it was the U.S.’s bureaucratic (often near-socialistic) post-Saddam management of Iraq, which created time for the insurgency to gain legitimacy and kill more people, that soured Americans on the war — not the initial toppling of Saddam’s regime, nor even the vilified neoconservative philosophy ostensibly behind that effort.

Will anyone on the right (or among libertarians, to the extent they failed to get out the message on Social Security and Bush’s “Ownership Society” plans when they had the chance) actually come away from ’06 saying, “This was partly my fault, and I may need to radically rethink my whole philosophy, not just hire a better PR team?” Perhaps we deserve, at the very least, to go through the next couple years without hearing one arrogant word from any of the Bush-era conservative factions. We should see less triumphalism on the Corner, as it were, and more time standing in the corner.

How I Spent Election Night 2006

I spent the night of the ’06 elections making my way up Manhattan’s East Side, stopping by four different Republican parties — at least two that had been perfunctorily and overoptimistically billed as “victory” parties — shaking hands with losing New York state senate candidate Dan Russo, watching Jeanine Piro give her depressingly generic concession speech after her defeat in the state attorney general race by the tough and demagogic Andrew Cuomo, eating some free pasta after a nice thank-you speech to supporters by losing state senate candidate Philip Pidot (like old Justice League villains, all the partying Republican candidates that night seemed to have had names ending in an “oh” sound), and arriving at the Metropolitan Republican Club just in time to watch the last few people present react glumly to TV coverage of the election results, before finally walking a few blocks to home. It is healthy, at least, that I encountered few people engaged in the usual old Democrat-bashing boosterism and giddy praise for the home team, so I suspect the Republicans will at least be doing some serious self-examination, even if they don’t always reach the right conclusions.

One optimistic note: when I finally got home, I saw a tired and chastened-looking John McCain on CBS, quietly and forlornly repeating his conclusion that Republicans were punished in large part for straying from the reformist principles of ’94. I don’t know if that’s precisely accurate — it may have just been the public’s weariness with the war — but this comment was an early indication that McCain may run for president in 2008 on a Contract-with-America-like, budget-cutting, reformist platform. If either he or Giuliani defeat New York Sen. Hillary Clinton (or whoever it may be) in ’08 with a perceived mandate for budget-cutting, government downsizing, and tax cuts, my patience will not have been in vain. If all those issues fall by the wayside, on the other hand, it may be time to start voting party-line Libertarian in ’08, so I can at least lose with dignity in the future.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR on "What the Election Results Mean"

Wednesday, Nov. 8, join a free-for-all discussion of “What the Election Results Mean” and what happens next, featuring (Rockefeller-Republican blogger) Jonathan Funke, (Democratic activist) Dvd Avins, and anyone from any faction who’d care to join our audience — and be heard.

(NOTE: We’re not gathering the first Wednesday of the month this time but rather the day after the midterm elections.)

11/8, 8pm at Lolita Bar, 266 Broome St. at Allen St., Manhattan’s Lower East Side, one block south and three west of the Delancey St. subway stop (free admission, cash bar).

Hosted by Todd Seavey, moderated by Michel Evanchik.

AND here’s a special advance appeal for the gathering after that, on Dec. 6: we’re fissioning the Lolita Bar Debates and the Jinx Athenaeum into two separate entities, with the debates still happening once a month and covering myriad political and philosophical topics, while occasional Athenaeum gatherings will focus primarily on “urban exploration.”

BUT we’ll combine the two areas in a sort of pre-fission showdown on Dec. 6, as we hear from a panel of people who’ve explored or lived in New Orleans and people with anecdotes from, or visions for the rebuilding of, Ground Zero in NYC. If you have a NOLA or WTC story to tell, please e-mail me about being one of our speakers.

FINALLY, two items for those who can’t make it to NYC, starting (just in time for Halloween) with a brilliant rock video (pointed out to me by Boston architect David Whitney) by the guitarist Buckethead, using animated Hieronymus Bosch paintings of Hell. This proves that Satanic-looking rock videos need not be oblivious to art history (and Buckethead should know what time in Hell is like after working with Axl Rose on the infamous, perpetually-unfinished album Chinese Democracy; China may well be a democracy — and Guns N’ Roses may well have more members of Psychedelic Furs in its lineup than original G N’ R members — by the time the album comes out):

But if visions of Hell aren’t your bag (and indeed, some of the images in the Buckethead video are almost as dreamlike and bizarre as the later Narnia novels, which are themselves like a cross between Davey and Goliath and a Salvador Dali painting, I’m realizing as I reread them), here’s a far more silly, great video of wacky kittens (best experienced with the distracting soundtrack off, which some philistines might feel is also true of Buckethead):
(NOTE: The above was sent as a mass e-mail in the days prior to the debate and was posted on this blog retroactively in April 2007. Click here for other Debates at Lolita Bar.)