Saturday, February 25, 2012

Burke and The Republican Race

By Peter Berkowitz/2,25,12/RCP

The drawn-out Republican primary season, which is almost certain to extend well beyond March's Super Tuesday round of voting, has sparked puzzlement over conservative principles and provoked consternation about the persistence of disagreement over conservative priorities.

The jockeying between the four remaining GOP contenders for the affections of the conservative base of the party commands the headlines. But at times like these, conservatives would be well-served to recall the now-forgotten causes championed by British statesman Edmund Burke in some of his greatest speeches and in his 1790 classic, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” which, it is no exaggeration to say, is one of the founding documents of modern conservatism.

Burke’s causes, and the trenchant arguments he summoned in their behalf, are instructive because they teach that liberty’s defense is the paramount political task, not perfecting man. His career is reassuring because it illustrates that quarrels, indeed bitter disputes, about the policies that advance liberty are not a function of some temporary breakdown in civility. They are endemic to self-government.

Prudent reform to meet the changing requirements of liberty was a hallmark of Burke’s long service in Parliament, stretching from his election in 1765 as member of the House of Commons to his retirement in 1794. The signature stances he took were hugely controversial, affecting weighty interests, stirring bitter passions, and roiling party politics. Although often unpopular with his constituents and rejected in the short run, his positions and principles were vindicated in the long term and honorably reflected his conviction that beyond unflagging devotion to their interests, a legislator owed constituents his reasoned and independent judgment.

Burke delivered his “Speech on Conciliation With the Colonies” in the House of Commons on March 22, 1775 -- the same day Parliament passed the Stamp Act, substantially increasing taxes on the colonists while ignoring their demands for representation, and less than a month before the battles of Lexington and Concord would ignite the Revolutionary War. In that speech, Burke counseled Britain against armed conflict with America and advised how to reestablish relations with the colonists on a solid footing. The key, he argued, was to recognize their shared love of freedom.

In appreciation of America’s “fierce spirit of liberty,” Burke favored granting the colonists limited representation in Parliament on questions of taxation, though not as a matter of right. Under British law, he stressed, the colonists had none.

Statesmanship, however, required a further consideration: “The question with me is not whether you have a right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not your interest to make them happy.” Statesmanship also called for more than crude calculations of utility: “I am not determining a point of law,” he said. “ I am restoring tranquility; and the general character and situation of a people must determine what sort of government is fitted for them.”

While conciliation, “the ancient constitutional policy of the kingdom,” involved a concession to the Americans, its propriety was rooted in the very nature of politics: “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.”

Conciliation was specifically warranted in the case of America because it advanced Britain’s material and moral interests. By allowing English liberties to flourish in the colonies, Britain would encourage the spirit that made America prosperous, reinforce liberty at home, and conserve English dominion on the most favorable long-term basis.

Two hundred and 20 years before Newt Gingrich converted to Catholicism, Edmund Burke gave a speech at the Guildhall in Bristol offering his constituents a carefully crafted defense of a bill -- his support for which contributed to the loss of his Parliamentary seat that year -- that eased harsh disabilities imposed by England’s Penal Laws on Irish Catholics. Passed in 1699, the Penal Laws, among other things, required Catholics to renounce their Catholicism or forfeit their land, disqualified them from holding public office, and placed severe restriction on their professional advancement (Burke’s father almost certainly converted from Catholicism to Anglicism to practice law).

Some critics contended that Burke pushed toleration beyond what the public would bear. He replied that reform was demanded on multiple grounds: the moral teachings of Protestant Christianity, the universal claims of individual rights, and the prospects of bolstering the case for equal treatment of Protestants throughout Europe.

Yet if toleration were so important, other critics asked, why back a measure that provided only partial relief from the Penal Laws? Prudence so directed, answered Burke. Although outright repeal was politically unattainable, by incremental steps “the people would grow reconciled to toleration, when they should find by the effects, that justice was not so irreconcilable an enemy to convenience as they had imagined.”

And 228 years before Sarah Palin and Rick Perry condemned the evils of “crony capitalism,” Burke delivered his “Speech on Fox’s East India Bill” in the House of Commons. In that 1783 address, Burke bitterly denounced Warren Hastings who, he contended, as first governor general of India used the East India Company — established in 1600 by Queen Elizabeth I to promote trade — to enrich himself and his cronies while trampling on the rights of India’s indigenous inhabitants. A former shareholder in the East India Company, Burke would devote the greater part of his final decade in politics to altering its charter as a private company and increasing Parliament’s responsibility for overseeing its conduct. For this, he was accused of advocating radical measures.

The more famous Burke who polemically opposed the French Revolution does not contradict the less familiar Burke who eloquently championed liberty in America, Ireland, and India. To preserve liberty when the revolutionaries in France sought to remake society and human nature in freedom’s name, Burke gave impassioned expression to the essential role that tradition, religion, community, and virtue play in sustaining liberty. And when his countrymen failed to grasp freedom’s imperatives in connection to their interests and responsibilities in America, Ireland, and India, he passionately urged reforms that secured liberty by extending the sphere of those enjoying its blessings.

One can overdo historical lessons. There is no convenient WWEBD template advising modern conservatives what Edmund Burke would do about Obamacare, or the General Motors bailout, let alone restructuring entitlements, reining in domestic discretionary spending, and formulating a foreign policy that takes pride in American ideals and vigorously advances America’s interests. Yet Burke’s supple defense of liberty does teach that resolute reform is critical to conserving it, and depends on combining firmness and flexibility in undertaking, as circumstances dictate, conciliation, incremental change, and, in exceptional cases, fundamental alteration of established institutions.

Burke’s words and deeds clarify the stakes in the race for the Republican nomination. That candidate deserves to prevail who most convincingly demonstrates a unifying concern with the balance of interests and principles, beliefs and virtues, practices and associations that favor liberty.

Peter Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His new book, “Constitutional Conservatism," is due out at the end of the year.

L . A. Times Editorial on Affirmative Action and SCOTUS, 2,23,12

For 40 years, competitive colleges and universities in the United States have taken race into account in order to increase their enrollment of African Americans (and, to a lesser extent, other minorities). Originally justified as a way to compensate for a long legacy of racial discrimination, and later embraced as a way to provide a more diverse learning environment, affirmative action has been good for the United States. It has made it easier for minorities to enter the educational and professional mainstream without compromising the rigor of American higher education. It has promoted the broader cause of racial integration. And it has encouraged the emergence of a black and Latino middle class.

Those accomplishments may now be in jeopardy. This week the Supreme Court, which twice has upheld the constitutionality of some racial preferences in university admissions, agreed to hear a challenge to the University of Texas' use of race as one factor in a "holistic" admissions policy. This comes nine years after the court, in an opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, ruled that it was constitutional for the University of Michigan Law School to pursue a similar policy in pursuit of a "critical mass" of minority enrollment necessary to promote a wide exchange of views in the classroom. But since then O'Connor has been replaced by JusticeSamuel A. Alito Jr., who is regarded as more skeptical of racial preferences. Advocates of affirmative action fear that conservatives on the court are determined to overturn or gut the court's 2003 Michigan decision and the 1978 Bakke decision before it, which held that race could be considered as a "plus" factor in the admissions process so long as there were not fixed racial quotas.

We hope the court is not heading in that direction. But its conservative members — some more than others — have embraced a naive notion of "colorblindness" that could be used to extinguish affirmative action. That would be a tragedy.

Affirmative action has always been controversial. Several states, including California with Proposition 209, have outlawed racial preferences by government agencies, including state universities. The case against affirmative action is simple, or rather simplistic: Because it was unconstitutional to penalize African Americans on account of their race, it must also be unconstitutional to compensate for the effects of racial discrimination by giving them an advantage. But there is a world of moral and legal distance between slavery and Jim Crow laws on the one hand and efforts, by government or educational institutions, to rectify the effects of invidious discrimination on the other.

Affirmative action falls into the latter category. Despite the emergence of a black middle class, stark inequities in income and education persist, and they put minority applicants at a disadvantage with their peers in seeking acceptance to colleges and universities. Opponents of affirmative action glibly use terms like "meritocracy" and "a level playing field," but academic success often reflects a privileged upbringing, and the playing field between black and white Americans is still far from level. Redressing racial disparities that are reflected in lower grades and test scores is not racism, reverse or otherwise.

In 1997, Texas guaranteed admission to the state university for students who graduated in the top 10% of their high school classes, a race-neutral initiative that nevertheless increased racial diversity. In 2004, the state allowed consideration of race, among other factors, in filling additional places in the freshman class. The challenge now before the Supreme Court was brought by an applicant who failed to secure one of those places. Among other things, she argues that Texas' "top 10%" policy produced enough racial diversity to make additional consideration of race inappropriate.

The court could endorse that view in a narrow holding, or it could, more broadly, revisit the question of whether it is constitutional to take race into account at all in university admissions. We hope the court reaffirms the validity of affirmative action and allow public universities to continue to undo the effects of centuries of discrimination.


It strikes me that diversity is increasingly becoming a compelling rationale for what I'd rather call "diversity action" than "affirmative action." Moving beyond but including race amongst a host factors including, importantly, socio economic factors and geographic factors makes a lot of sense to me. I'd like to see "affirmative action" so framed.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Wonderful Essay on Books

Voluminous/Washington Diarist/Leon Wieseltier/February 22, 2012


The oldest book in my library was published in 1538. It is Sefer Hasidim, or The Book of the Pious, the first edition, from Bologna, of the vast trove of precepts and stories, at once severe and wild, of the Jewish pietists of Germany in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Next to it, and towering over it, which is as it should be, stands Moreh Nevuchim, or The Guide of the Perplexed, the handsome Bragadin edition from Venice in 1551. And next to Maimonides’s masterpiece stands the great 1669 edition of Thomas Browne, the Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Enquiries into very Many Received Tenents, and Commonly Presumed Truths, another sort of guide to perplexities, along with Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus and their fine engravings of the urns and the quincunx.

Nothing elevates a room more than the presence within it of objects whose significance is in no way derived from oneself. These things are not mine; I am theirs. (This can be true also of younger objects: further along the row of treasures is the exquisite first printing, in Boston in 1895, of The Black Riders and Other Lines by Stephen Crane, a small book with a black flower swirling like a vice on its front and its back, and an undistinguished copy of the Book of Job, published in Zhitomir in 1872, that I rescued from the trash in a ruined synagogue in Lvov, or more correctly Lemberg, which is the volume in the room that burns my fingers.)

But really the oldest book in my library is a beat-up copy of The Portable Nietzsche—the edition with Seymour Chwast’s woodcut-like image of the master and his unfortunate moustache, not the later one that Oliver Stone anachronistically placed in the hands of Val Kilmer in one of the most risible scenes in The Doors—because it is the book that has been with me the longest. I bought it in 1969 for $1.95 at the Eighth Street Bookshop. I was taking an evening course on the pre-Socratics—I was a monster of voracity, even at seventeen and under a yarmulke—a few blocks away at the New School, and my masterful instructor, a certain Professor Jonas, urged me to read more philosophy, including Nietzsche.

The dog-eared passages from Thus Spoke Zarathustra are embarrassing now (“Light am I; ah, that I were night!”), but then this was Nietzsche’s only book for adolescents. After some years I learned who Professor Jonas really was, and after some more years he and I enjoyed a warm laugh when I told him the story of his impact upon me in those Village evenings. But all the miles of shelves on all the walls of all the apartments and houses and offices in which I have lived and worked were erected on the foundation of that paperback, Viking Portable Library P62.

This is the other variety of significance that attaches to books, the subjective sort, which transforms them into talismans.

Many books are read but some books are lived, so that words and ideas lose their ethereality and become experiences, turning points in an insufficiently clarified existence, and thereby acquire the almost mystical (but also fallible) intimacy of memory. In this sense one’s books are one’s biography. This subjective urgency bears no relation to the quality of the book: lives have been changed by kitsch, too. What matters is that one’s pores be opened, and that the opening be true. “What is the Ninth Symphony,” Karl Kraus declared, “compared to a pop tune played by a hurdy-gurdy and a memory!”

THE LIBRARY, like the book, is under assault by the new technologies, which propose to collect and to deliver texts differently, more efficiently, outside of space and in a rush of time. If ever I might find a kind word for the coming post-bibliographical world it would be this week, when I have to pack up the thousands of volumes in my office and reassemble them a short distance away—they are so heavy, they take up so much room, and so on; but even now, with the crates piled high in the hall, what I see most plainly about the books is that they are beautiful. They take up room? Of course they do: they are an environment; atoms, not bits.

My books are not dead weight, they are live weight—matter infused by spirit, every one of them, even the silliest. They do not block the horizon; they draw it. They free me from the prison of contemporaneity: one should not live only in one’s own time. A wall of books is a wall of windows. And a book is more than a text: even if every book in my library is on Google Books, my library is not on Google Books. A library has a personality, a temperament. (Sometimes a dull one.) Its books show the scars of use and the wear of need. They are defaced—no, ornamented—by markings and notes and private symbols of assent and dissent, and these vandalisms are traces of the excitations of thought and feeling, which is why they are delightful to discover in old books: they introduce a person.

There is something inhuman about the pristinity of digital publication. It lacks fingerprints. But the copy of a book that is on my shelf is my copy. It is unlike any other copy, it has been individuated; and even those books that I have not yet opened—unread books are an essential element of a library—were acquired for the further cultivation of a particular admixture of interests and beliefs, and every one of them will have its hour. The knowledge that qualifies one to be one’s own librarian is partly self-knowledge. The richness, or the incoherence, of a library is the richness, or the incoherence, of the self.

“I HAVE ALWAYS IMAGINED that paradise will be a kind of library,” wrote Borges. I would not go so far: paradise had better be more than a tweaked version of what I already know, even if the price I pay for such a conception of it is that I never see it. And if paradise lies in the future, it will certainly not be a library. A different arrangement awaits our minds. But there is no disgrace in historical obsolescence. There is only solitude, and fewer interruptions. (Paradise is fewer interruptions!) We are regularly sustained by what is gone.

So into the movers’ boxes again the books go—this morning, for example, an abraded copy of the 1946 printing by Schocken of The Great Wall of China: Stories and Reflections, which I cherish for the Hebrew stamp on the title page, which reads “Cultural Service/Central Library/34-516/Israel Defense Forces,” and for the English stamp below it, which reads, “Presented by the Women’s International Zionist Organization ‘WIZO’ to men and women serving in the Israel Defense Army.” They gave Kafka to the troops.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 15, 2012 issue of the magazine.


...Many books are read but some books are lived, so that words and ideas lose their ethereality and become experiences, turning points in an insufficiently clarified existence, and thereby acquire the almost mystical (but also fallible) intimacy of memory. In this sense one’s books are one’s biography. This subjective urgency bears no relation to the quality of the book: lives have been changed by kitsch, too. What matters is that one’s pores be opened, and that the opening be true. “What is the Ninth Symphony,” Karl Kraus declared, “compared to a pop tune played by a hurdy-gurdy and a memory!"...

At the risk of being rhapsodic, this cite is wonderful, and is of a piece with this wonderful diarist piece, maybe the best words I've ever read on the experience of a life made by books in their way, as much as by anything else.

The movement in the essay from the sheer physical at hand task of boxing up and moving the beloved volumes as the springboard to a series of lovely memories and descriptions of the books owned and lived with to the human experiences connected to some of them to the meditation on the varieties of his books' subjective meanings to Wieseltier is incredibly artful and without a false or preening note.

Too, one can't help being moved by Wieseltier's words to day dreaming about one's own experience with particular books as his cited words capture better than I could imagine being expressed those certain times in ones's life, typically when one is young, when exchanges with a book take on a separate meaning as a momentous part of one's life. I think back to first reading Romeo and Juliet, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, Out of the Burning, You Know Me Al, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and too, too, too many others to list that each in their own way set my young mind on fire. (I always have been, more often than is good for me, a pop tune and hurry-gurdy type.)

I do believe I will treasure and come back to this piece time and time again. I'd have to cast my mind back further and think harder than I now can to think of anything more lovely and exhilarating written by Wieseltier in these cyber pages, which is slightly paradoxical, given his theme so greatly pronounced upon by him here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Declaration Of Independene

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

My Question of the Rabbi: Faith and the Holocaust

So I saw a discussion between the great Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor and an extremely learned and distinguished British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the question of religion in a secular age. I was moved to send this note to the Rabbi, who I'm thinking will have better things to do than to answer me.

In any event here it is:

...Dear Rabbi Sacks:

I live in Toronto and you would think I am a "tone deaf" Jew.

I last night watched a broadcast of your Toronto colloquy with Charles Taylor as moderated nicely by the professor of Jewish Studies from York University whose name I can't recall.

You were most impressive and elucidating, even inspiring. You said there are three fundamental questions: who am I; why am I here; and, then, how shall I live. You said, in observing the place and prominence of religion in these secular times, that man is a meaning seeking animal.

The intellectual problem I have is why is God integral to you or why he should be. I understand from reading Mark Lilla that particularly during the German Enlightenment thinkers came to God from the opposite end, what Lilla calls something like "the great reversal": they started with a conception of the highest moral order for men being in the world and reasoned from it to the virtue of religion, some arguing for it as state based, as a way of institutionalizing and inculcating that highest moral order.

I have, as a tone death atheist, trouble getting with any reasoning along these lines and can see detaching (and living by) moral imperatives from such religious moorings as they may be derived from and from faith.

I am no lover of faith.

I read quite a while ago in Leon Wieseltier's Kaddish of a train car of Jews transported by the Nazis to their death and being in a state of anxiety at no one being able to say Kaddish for them and therefore improvising by, if I'm remembering correctly, saying it for themselves in advance, all as fueled by their reverence. This story was meant, I think, to exemplify the boundless depths of the ritual, its magnificent beneficence and the intensity of the belief and faith of those death bound Jews.

But I took an opposite reaction to that story. In my reaction, I granted them their God and then in my mind and heart raged against him for bringing those Jews and their brothers and sisters and wives and parents and children and and all their other family and friends, and my Uncle Chatzkel and his son Aaron and all Jews who perished and who suffered in the Holocaust to their unspeakable fate. And I could have wept for the infinite pathos of those particular death bound Jews in their anxiety over Kaddish.

So I suppose my question is how you come to faith as essential to your moral life and how in arriving at that faith you take account of the Holocaust.


Itzik Basman...

The Need For Taxes and Therfore Regulation.

Heather Mallick, April 15, 2011/ Toronto Star

Snow removal - just one of the things paid for by your taxes.

It is not a dirty word, it is a good clean honest noun for a healthy civic function in the body politic. Thanks to the current demonizing of taxes, three levels of Canadian government — municipal, provincial and federal — fight not to be openly saddled with levying the things, which is why we now pay “user fees” for fat black garbage bins that brood over our streets, and Toronto is now being run on what appears to be the proceeds of a giant bake sale.

Must it be so? Do we realize what a great deal we’re losing as we parrot the American Tea Party and demand lower taxes and the same level of services? Peace, order and good government doesn’t come cheap.

The hard-right would have us believe you can just stop paying taxes, just as you can quit drinking coffee and have better sleeps and a more restful life.

But you can stop paying taxes about as easily as you can stop going to the bathroom, the consequences being just as dire and not willingly imagined.

“Great god, this is an awful place,” Robert Falcon Scott of the Antarctic expedition wrote on the day he arrived in polar hell, and that’s where Canada would be without corporate and personal taxes. In fact, just about every mess we’re in is because we don’t pay enough of them.

Taxes pay for good things that we don’t think about until they vanish. Traffic lights, military graveyards, restaurant kitchen inspection, best-before dates on cheese, transport-truck safety, passports, immunization, filtration standards for urban cremation chimneys, crosswalk-painting, drainage, bank deposit insurance, child-support enforcement, prison guards, chiropractor regulation, bridges, tunnels, flag design, auditors-general, airwaves usage, census-taking, postal codes, organ donation, courts, clean water, weather history, alcoholism treatment, classrooms, assisted reproduction, at-risk species registration, forest-insect slaughter, fish conservation, Olympic training, vehicle registration, name change, international child abduction search and rescue.

Take a deep breath, class.

Building codes, nature trails, mental health treatment, Ontario cemetery finding, Toronto bike lockers, maps, vehicle sensors, P.A.T.H., apartment standards, First Nations statistics, land claims, bankruptcy, Polar Continental Shelf tracking, veterans, fence disputes, fraud and waste hotline, leaf pickup, snow removal, urban forestry, Hydro, pesticide regulation, Great Lakes pilotage, litter collection, committees of adjustment, army and navy, autism assessment, behavioural therapy, border guards, serial-killer tracking, copyright, Supreme Court appointments, governors-general, access to information, adoption records, critical infrastructure protection.

And another breath.

Air-bag safety, student loans, agricultural income stabilization, immigration, embassies and consulates, parole, postage stamps, streamlined customs clearance, the national do-not-call list, forest-fire mapping, petroleum and natural gas lands administration, canola dealer licensing, hunting and snaring licences, fisheries, elections, pensions, money-minting, aviation museums, polar ice-watching, police college, social assistance, unemployment insurance.

And that was just a taste, a smattering, of what Canadians do and have done for them, the stuff that makes you want to kiss the sweet Pearson tarmac when you get home from the bloody dust of Afghanistan and never leave this good-natured civilized paved place until whatever-awaits-us extends its bony hand and says “Follow me.”

Government is a restaurant and the menu is long. Side dishes include autopsies, notary publics, ferries and bingo permits, more stuff that Canadians take for granted.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Over Regulated America

Over-regulated America
The home of laissez-faire is being suffocated by excessive and badly written regulation
Feb 18th 2012 | from the print edition/ The Economist

AMERICANS love to laugh at ridiculous regulations. A Florida law requires vending-machine labels to urge the public to file a report if the label is not there. The Federal Railroad Administration insists that all trains must be painted with an “F” at the front, so you can tell which end is which. Bureaucratic busybodies in Bethesda, Maryland, have shut down children’s lemonade stands because the enterprising young moppets did not have trading licences. The list goes hilariously on.

But red tape in America is no laughing matter. The problem is not the rules that are self-evidently absurd. It is the ones that sound reasonable on their own but impose a huge burden collectively. America is meant to be the home of laissez-faire. Unlike Europeans, whose lives have long been circumscribed by meddling governments and diktats from Brussels, Americans are supposed to be free to choose, for better or for worse. Yet for some time America has been straying from this ideal.

Consider the Dodd-Frank law of 2010. Its aim was noble: to prevent another financial crisis. Its strategy was sensible, too: improve transparency, stop banks from taking excessive risks, prevent abusive financial practices and end “too big to fail” by authorising regulators to seize any big, tottering financial firm and wind it down. This newspaper supported these goals at the time, and we still do. But Dodd-Frank is far too complex, and becoming more so. At 848 pages, it is 23 times longer than Glass-Steagall, the reform that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929. Worse, every other page demands that regulators fill in further detail. Some of these clarifications are hundreds of pages long. Just one bit, the “Volcker rule”, which aims to curb risky proprietary trading by banks, includes 383 questions that break down into 1,420 subquestions.

Hardly anyone has actually read Dodd-Frank, besides the Chinese government and our correspondent in New York (see article). Those who have struggle to make sense of it, not least because so much detail has yet to be filled in: of the 400 rules it mandates, only 93 have been finalised. So financial firms in America must prepare to comply with a law that is partly unintelligible and partly unknowable.

Flaming water-skis

Dodd-Frank is part of a wider trend. Governments of both parties keep adding stacks of rules, few of which are ever rescinded. Republicans write rules to thwart terrorists, which make flying in America an ordeal and prompt legions of brainy migrants to move to Canada instead. Democrats write rules to expand the welfare state. Barack Obama’s health-care reform of 2010 had many virtues, especially its attempt to make health insurance universal. But it does little to reduce the system’s staggering and increasing complexity. Every hour spent treating a patient in America creates at least 30 minutes of paperwork, and often a whole hour. Next year the number of federally mandated categories of illness and injury for which hospitals may claim reimbursement will rise from 18,000 to 140,000. There are nine codes relating to injuries caused by parrots, and three relating to burns from flaming water-skis.

Two forces make American laws too complex. One is hubris. Many lawmakers seem to believe that they can lay down rules to govern every eventuality. Examples range from the merely annoying (eg, a proposed code for nurseries in Colorado that specifies how many crayons each box must contain) to the delusional (eg, the conceit of Dodd-Frank that you can anticipate and ban every nasty trick financiers will dream up in the future). Far from preventing abuses, complexity creates loopholes that the shrewd can abuse with impunity.

The other force that makes American laws complex is lobbying. The government’s drive to micromanage so many activities creates a huge incentive for interest groups to push for special favours. When a bill is hundreds of pages long, it is not hard for congressmen to slip in clauses that benefit their chums and campaign donors. The health-care bill included tons of favours for the pushy. Congress’s last, failed attempt to regulate greenhouse gases was even worse.

Complexity costs money. Sarbanes-Oxley, a law aimed at preventing Enron-style frauds, has made it so difficult to list shares on an American stockmarket that firms increasingly look elsewhere or stay private. America’s share of initial public offerings fell from 67% in 2002 (when Sarbox passed) to 16% last year, despite some benign tweaks to the law. A study for the Small Business Administration, a government body, found that regulations in general add $10,585 in costs per employee. It’s a wonder the jobless rate isn’t even higher than it is.

A plea for simplicity

Democrats pay lip service to the need to slim the rulebook—Mr Obama’s regulations tsar is supposed to ensure that new rules are cost-effective. But the administration has a bias towards overstating benefits and underestimating costs (see article). Republicans bluster that they will repeal Obamacare and Dodd-Frank and abolish whole government agencies, but give only a sketchy idea of what should replace them.

America needs a smarter approach to regulation. First, all important rules should be subjected to cost-benefit analysis by an independent watchdog. The results should be made public before the rule is enacted. All big regulations should also come with sunset clauses, so that they expire after, say, ten years unless Congress explicitly re-authorises them.

More important, rules need to be much simpler. When regulators try to write an all-purpose instruction manual, the truly important dos and don’ts are lost in an ocean of verbiage. Far better to lay down broad goals and prescribe only what is strictly necessary to achieve them. Legislators should pass simple rules, and leave regulators to enforce them.

Would this hand too much power to unelected bureaucrats? Not if they are made more accountable. Unreasonable judgments should be subject to swift appeal. Regulators who make bad decisions should be easily sackable. None of this will resolve the inevitable difficulties of regulating a complex modern society. But it would mitigate a real danger: that regulation may crush the life out of America’s economy.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Immorality of Free Verse?

Is Free Verse Immoral?

Micah Mattix/February 10, 2012/Public. Discourse

Free verse does not simply express a “debased” yearning for freedom from tradition. Like earlier forms of metered poetry, it too expresses the trials of confining human thought to written language.
Is it “incongruous” or immoral, as Mark Signorelli argues in his intriguing pair of essays, to write or read free verse? I don’t think so, but let me start with what I think Signorelli gets right.

In the first essay, Signorelli argues that the free verse and fragmentation found in modern poetry embody a “debased” yearning for an individual freedom “severed from all obligation to tradition, nature, or rationality.” Free verse expresses the dream of an individual will free of the “essential ends” of the art of poetry, even if this means the death of poetry. In the case of fragmentation, it is the dream of an individual will free from rational coherence, even if, ironically, this means the death of the subject. “That is why,” Signorelli states, it is incongruous, and perhaps even immoral, for poets to fill “journals with free-verse modernist-style creations.” In the second essay, he argues that poets must return to the “essential ends” of the art—teaching and delighting.

I think Signorelli hits a number of right notes. First, there is no question that all forms of art and poetry embody “some identifiable ethical or cosmological perspective,” though, as I will argue shortly, they cannot easily be reduced to one perspective. Second, Signorelli is right that free verse is rooted in part in a longing for autonomy. Third, I share what I sense to be Signorelli’s frustration with what passes for poetry today. Many poems lack craft and intellectual rigor, and turn to shock value or the political screed to garner some attention. I agree that the use of meter and rhyme would do much to reinvigorate contemporary poetry. Fourth, I share Signorelli’s concern for a lack of critical spirit when it comes to poetry and the arts, especially among American evangelicals. Too often we reject unthinkingly or love indiscriminately.

Signorelli’s argument rests on the premise that all artifacts embody the spirit of the age in which they are produced. The spirit of the modern age is relativism; therefore, Signorelli concludes, free verse can be rightly understood as embodying this relativism. Although this is true to an extent, it is overly reductive. Works of art—particularly great ones—embody, yes, but also transcend their ages. This is what makes them great. They are not merely reflective of the ideas or preoccupations of a certain people from a certain time in a certain place, but of the unchanging human heart as well. This is why people from other times and other places find them compelling. If the ideas of a particular age are particularly bad, this makes transcendence more difficult but not impossible.

While we can lament the poverty of our modern age and attest, as Signorelli does, that the art of our age expresses this poverty, it is an error to reject particular formal inventions on the evidence of this rational link alone. The question is, then, does free verse only embody this “decadent” yearning for a personal freedom “severed from all obligation to tradition, nature, or rationality”? And if not, is what it does embody or allow to be expressed of any value?

I would argue that poets turned to free verse (or a precursor of free verse) for other reasons than a simple longing for individual freedom. Wordsworth’s attempt to use a selection of “common” diction in Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude is clearly a precursor of free verse. Reacting against Alexander Pope’s claim for a universal diction present in neo-classical poetry, Wordsworth incorporated elements of low diction in an effort to provide a more accurate representation of human nature. There is a higher and lower element to man, Wordsworth argued. We are both ethereal and earthy. And so he turned to lower diction, among other reasons, to balance what he understood to be the untruth of an overly stylized, ornate diction that ignored man’s fleshly nature and common diction.

We find a similar motive, surprisingly enough, in French surrealism. While there is a fair share of yearning for a “debased” autonomy in surrealism, the use of fractured syntax and absurd images was also motivated by a rejection of nineteenth-century positivism that tacitly reduced man to pure rationality—a point Marcel Raymond makes in his classic study De Baudelaire au surréalisme. The partial goal of both Wordsworth’s common diction and the surrealists’ free verse fragments is a more accurate representation of human experience as it is actually lived, not as it should be.

An example of the value of a free verse poem is helpful here. Yves Bonnefoy’s first book of poems was published in 1953. He was originally associated with the surrealists, but broke with Breton when he refused to sign “Rupture inaugurale.” While his earliest poems are marked by a certain ideological “militantism,” his work has been almost universally lauded since that first volume. This poem is entitled “A Bit of Water”:

I long to grant eternity
To this flake
That alights on my hand,
By making my life, my warmth,
My past, my present days
Into a moment: the boundless
Moment of now

But already it’s no more
Than a bit of water, lost in the fog
Of bodies moving through snow.

I have chosen this poem because, on the surface, it seems to illustrate Signorelli’s thesis. Here the poet longs “to grant eternity” to the snowflake on his hand by making it the subject of a poem. Bonnefoy, who is an indefatigable translator of Shakespeare, is no doubt alluding to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (and the many classical precedents) in which he proposes to grant his subject life after death in his “eternal lines.” In writing about the snowflake, however, the poet also hopes to grant himself eternity. After all, the snowflake is observed from his perspective. Thus, something of his own life attaches itself to the snowflake—which is wonderfully illustrated in the flake alighting on the poet’s hand—and passes with the snowflake in the poem into a “boundless / Moment of now.” The free verse embodies, as Signorelli would say, this longing for a boundless present, and the enjambment in line six and seven neatly captures this longing for boundlessness.

But here’s the rub: the snowflake melts before the poet can grant it and himself eternity. It has become “no more / Than a bit of water,” which, ironically, becomes the title of the poem. Here we have an acknowledgment that poetry—even free verse poetry—cannot save the flake from melting or the poet from the constraints of finitude. This is a fact that Shakespeare only acknowledges grudgingly in Sonnet 18. In the end, this is not a poem that misleads us into believing that we are autonomous individuals free from all constraints. Rather, it shows how we all long for such freedom, and how we can never possess it through our own power. The tension between the free verse and the repetition and closure (as well as the dichotomy of past and present, snow and “warmth”) of this poem expresses this twofold truth of human existence. Nor does this poem end in relativism, but in agnosticism. The poet knows these two things, but he leaves the question of what we are to do in light of them unanswered.

Does the structure of this poem embody a depraved desire to free the self from all constraints? Does it express an epistemological relativism? Is it marked by a paucity of truth? Is it an attack on the reader’s sensibilities and the “essential elements” of poetry? Is it marked by “a perfect indifference toward the telos of his art”? In other words, does it fail to teach and please?

The answer to all of these questions, I think, is clearly no. In fact, one could even argue that his poem is distinctly “incarnational,” embodying the meaning of the particular piece (the desire for an eternal present coupled with the recognition that such an eternal present cannot be brought about through poetry) in the flesh of the form.

All poetry is constrained in some way or another, and almost all so-called “modernist” poets recognized this. In 1942, T.S. Eliot stated famously that “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.” William Carlos Williams wrote that “Being an art form, verse cannot be free in the sense of having no limitations or guiding principles.” Williams himself experimented with what he called a “triadic line.” Even the staunchest of anti-formalists, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, cannot shake all formal constraints, as Paul Lake shows in his essay “The Enchanted Loom.” Internal rhymes, repetition, syntactic hierarchies, self-similarity, fractal scaling, and so forth assert themselves again and again. In fact, the impossibility of freedom from formal constraints is now so widely accepted it has become a truism—a fact Signorelli fails to mention.

In the end, Signorelli’s hasty rejection of free verse and idealization of traditional poetic forms oversimplifies how poetic forms develop and work. All forms are invented. Chaucer’s heroic couplet, Dante’s terza rima, Petrarch’s sonnet did not fall from the sky. They were created as these poets explored human experience in language, informed by their respective understandings of who we are and what there is. The development of traditional forms and free verse in English, as H.T. Kirby Smith has pointed out in The Origins of Free Verse, is much messier than is often acknowledged, by “organicists” and formalists alike.

Furthermore, in simply returning to traditional forms—which is what Signorelli seems to have in mind when he calls us to return to “formally structured, consecutively ordered verse”—without exploring current human experience in language, the poet runs the risk of becoming a grammarian, skilled in the technē of poetic forms but lacking in virtuous insight.

I, too, believe that contemporary poetry can be reinvigorated by an incorporation of meter and rhyme, but rather than simply rejecting free verse as immoral, a better solution would be for poets to open themselves up to the possibility of rhyme and meter, using it when appropriate as they explore language in search of new forms that communicate the truth of who we are and what there is to living individuals. After all, art is a communal act, and the artist must write poems that meet his own satisfaction but also serve his audience.

Micah Mattix is Assistant Professor of Literature at Houston Baptist University and the Book Review Editor for The City.


Sounds right to me, pretty well. Though the idea of this being a time of relativism is too facile by half.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

I Will Always Love You

Krauthammer on Obama's Political Use of Religion


At the National Prayer Breakfast last week, seeking theological underpinning for his drive to raise taxes on the rich, President Obama invoked the highest possible authority. His policy, he testified “as a Christian,” “coincides with Jesus’ teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’

Now, I’m no theologian, but I’m fairly certain that neither Jesus nor his rabbinic forebears, when speaking of giving, meant some obligation to the state. You tithe the priest, not the tax man. The Judeo-Christian tradition commands personal generosity.

But no matter. Let’s assume that Obama has biblical authority for hiking the marginal tax rate exactly 4.6 points for couples making more than $250,000 (depending, of course, on the prevailing shekel-to-dollar exchange rate). Let’s stipulate that Obama’s prayer-breakfast invocation of religion as vindicating his politics was not, God forbid, crass, hypocritical, self-serving electioneering, but a sincere expression of a social-gospel Christianity that sees good works as central to the very concept of religiosity.

Fine. But this Gospel according to Obama has a rival — the newly revealed Gospel according to Sebelius, over which has erupted quite a contretemps. By some peculiar logic, it falls to the health and human services secretary to promulgate the definition of “religious” — for the purposes, for example, of exempting religious institutions from certain regulatory dictates.

Such exemptions are granted in grudging recognition that, whereas the rest of civil society may be broken to the will of the state’s regulators, our quaint Constitution grants special autonomy to religious institutions.

Accordingly, it would be a mockery of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment if, for example, the Catholic Church were required by law to freely provide such “health care services” (in secularist parlance) as contraception, sterilization and pharmacological abortion — to which Catholicism is doctrinally opposed as a grave contravention of its teachings about the sanctity of life.

Ah. But there would be no such Free Exercise violation if the institutions so mandated are deemed, by regulatory fiat, not religious.

And thus, the word came forth from Sebelius decreeing the exact criteria required (a) to meet her definition of “religious” and thus (b) to qualify for a modicum of independence from newly enacted state control of American health care, under which the aforementioned Sebelius and her phalanx of experts determine everything — from who is to be covered, to which treatments are to be guaranteed free-of-charge.

Criterion 1: A “religious institution” must have “the inculcation of religious values as its purpose.” But that’s not the purpose of Catholic charities; it’s to give succor to the poor. That’s not the purpose of Catholic hospitals; it’s to give succor to the sick. Therefore, they don’t qualify as “religious” — and therefore can be required, among other things, to provide free morning-after abortifacients.

Criterion 2: Any exempt institution must be one that “primarily employs” and “primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets.” Catholic soup kitchens do not demand religious IDs from either the hungry they feed or the custodians they employ. Catholic charities and hospitals — even Catholic schools — do not turn away Hindu or Jew.

Their vocation is universal, precisely the kind of universal love-thy-neighbor vocation that is the very definition of religiosity as celebrated by the Gospel of Obama. Yet according to the Gospel of Sebelius, these very same Catholic institutions are not religious at all — under the secularist assumption that religion is what happens on Sunday under some Gothic spire, while good works are “social services” that are properly rendered up unto Caesar.

This all would be merely the story of contradictory theologies, except for this: Sebelius is Obama’s appointee. She works for him. These regulations were his call. Obama authored both gospels.

Therefore: To flatter his faith-breakfast guests and justify his tax policies, Obama declares good works to be the essence of religiosity. Yet he turns around and, through Sebelius, tells the faithful who engage in good works that what they’re doing is not religion at all. You want to do religion? Get thee to a nunnery. You want shelter from the power of the state? Get out of your soup kitchen and back to your pews. Outside, Leviathan rules.

The contradiction is glaring, the hypocrisy breathtaking. But that’s not why Obama offered a hasty compromise on Friday. It’s because the firestorm of protest was becoming a threat to his re-election. Sure, health care, good works and religion are important. But re-election is divinely ordained.


I think Krauthammer is right and that the regulation displayed a respect of respect for the guarantee of free exercise, the jurisprudence of which makes central accommodation of bona fide matters of deep conscience. But I wouldn't go as far as Krauthammer in seeing in this fiasco, which now seems to have righted itself, the "arrogant essence" of Obama or a cynicism surpassing the political calculations other presidents have made in balancing principle and politics. Not by a long shot.

I do however react badly to the gleeful opinion of some that this was an orchestrated ploy from the outset to ignite the culture wars, get the right even more excessive and extreme and then to trot out the accommodation that the administration had up its sleeve all the time. This spin reflects their refusal to see an Obama capable of such an unforced error.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

David Brooks's Three Essential Propositions

1. Consciousness is the tip of the iceberg of our minds, beneath it the lurking massive, unseen and unknown unconscious, overwhelmingly more formative in our reasoning and judgments than anything else.

2. Emotion is integral to intelligence. It allows us to weigh, assess and value the claims and factors we need to account for in reaching opinions, judgments and conclusions.

3. The gaze of others is formative in our conduct.

Monday, February 6, 2012


Poetry is the form of literature with the highest correlation between what is said and how it is said.

Fata Hamas Unity

Jonathan Tobin/Contentions/2,6,2012

In a ceremony broadcast live across the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was formally buried. The event, which formalized the unity pact between the Fatah Party and its Hamas rival, marked the formation of a new Palestinian Authority government in which both factions would share power. PA President Mahmoud Abbas will also assume the role of prime minister, ousting Salam Fayyad, the pro-peace and development technocrat who had earned the trust of the West for his efforts to build the Palestinian economy and enforce the rule of law. But Fayyad’s role in the PA is now over, as is, apparently, Abbas’s pretense that he, too, favored peace and development.

There will be those apologists for the Palestinians who will say unity was necessary for peace and even claim this means Hamas is abandoning violence. But they will be either lying or deceiving themselves. Hamas’s goal of Israel’s destruction is unchanged as is, it should be noted, that of their erstwhile Fatah enemies. By signing the pact and now making it a reality, Abbas has for all intents and purposes torn up the Oslo Peace Accords, signed with such hope on the White House Lawn in September 1993.

Oslo required the Palestinians to give up violence and dedicate themselves to peace and establishing a civil society in exchange for rule over the West Bank and Gaza and the implicit promise of independence. This PLO leader Yasir Arafat did not do. He nurtured terrorists among his own ranks even as he jealously guarded his power against rivals like Hamas. The choice for the Palestinians was clear. Their leaders could act to wipe out those who opposed peace and therefore seal a plan of coexistence with Israel or they could fail to do so and condemn both peoples to another generation or more of conflict. Arafat, who was offered an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem in 2000 and 2001, refused to accept it, and instead chose another round of conflict via the terrorist war of attrition known as the second intifada.

Abbas, his successor, turned down another such offer in 2008. Since then, he has refused to negotiate with Israel and has now preferred the embrace of the Islamists of Hamas to that of the West and Israel from whom he could have won independence and peace. While belief in the peace process has been the stuff of fantasy for many years, the consummation of the Fatah-Hamas marriage of convenience marks the formal burial of the idea that the Palestinians had any interest in peace with Israel.

The talk of Hamas changing from an Islamist terrorist group committed to Israel’s destruction and the murder of its Jewish population into a non-violent political group is as genuine as the similar rationalizations that were put forward in the 1990s for Arafat. Bringing Hamas into the PA government means an end to all pretense of hope for peace. There were, after all, never any real differences between the two on the ultimate objective of eliminating Israel. Fatah was no more capable of signing a peace deal that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders were drawn, than Hamas. The influence of the Islamists will now spread from Gaza to the West Bank, renewing the threat of terrorism from that region that Israel’s security fence had largely eliminated.

The Palestinians are counting on both the Europeans and the Obama administration to bend to their desires and keep Western aid flowing to the PA. They believe the West is so committed to its illusions about Palestinian moderation that they will flout their own laws that forbid the transfer of funds to terror groups and those governments they have infiltrated. They also hope the knee-jerk impulse to blame Israel for everything that happens in the Middle East will overwhelm common sense and create a new push for Israeli concessions to the Fatah-Hamas government.

No doubt there will be plenty of support for such a policy from so-called realists and other veteran peace processers who would compromise their own principles rather than admit they were wrong about the Palestinian desire for peace.

Obama has been the most pro-Palestinian of any American president. But his efforts to help them have been rewarded with the same contempt that more pro-Israel administrations have gotten from the PA. If Obama has a shred of common sense or dignity left, he will make it clear to the Palestinians that they have effectively cut themselves off from American aid and a path to independence. Anything else would constitute a U.S. repudiation of Oslo. If Abbas chooses peace with Hamas over peace with Israel then he must be made to understand he will pay a high price for this decision.

Friday, February 3, 2012

On Charles Murray: Coming Apart

Heather Wilhelm/RealClearBooks/February 3, 2012

Americans, the saying goes, don't like to talk about class -- but they certainly enjoy reading about it. They also love to see how they stack up against their peers.

One of the most notorious and snobby books on the topic, Paul Fussell's Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, capitalizes on this repressed American passion with its "Living Room Scale," which measures social class based on your décor. A worn Oriental rug will earn you eight points; a new one (and, by extension, new money) will lower your score. A ceiling 10 feet or higher is good; the presence of Reader's Digest, framed diplomas, or "any work of art depicting cowboys" (sorry, pardners) is not.

Charles Murray, the prominent political scientist, doesn't shy away from awkward subjects -- he's best known for The Bell Curve, which stirred up a progressive hornet's nest in the mid-1990s -- and he tackles the charged issue of class in his new and important book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. America, Murray writes, "is coming apart at the seams -- not ethnic seams, but the seams of class." Culture, not money, divides the new upper and lower classes, which live in increasingly different worlds: one rarefied, walled-off, and at the helm of the country; the other dysfunctional, adrift, and hapless when it comes to the game of life.

Tracking white Americans to avoid blurring trends with race and ethnicity, the numbers Murray presents are startling: In the new upper class, which amounts to about 20 percent of the country, out-of-wedlock births are rare: around 6-8 percent. For the more dysfunctional working class, which accounts for around 30 percent of the country, the number is mind-boggling: 42-48 percent. The numbers also turn a few stereotypes on their heads: In the lower working class, for instance, the rate of church attendance has dropped at nearly double the rate as that of the supposedly secularized elite.

America's working class, Coming Apart argues, has increasingly forsaken traditional values like marriage, religion, industriousness, and honesty -- and, as a result, it is rotting from within. Happiness levels are down; participation in the labor force is down; television watching (an average of 35 hours a week) is up.

Elites, meanwhile, have quietly embraced traditional values, segregated into upper-class residential enclaves, and largely lost touch with the realities of those who haven't. Murray sees this as ominous, particularly for public policy. "This growing isolation" of the elites, he writes, "has been accompanied by growing ignorance about the country over which they have so much power."

While he declines to rate the rug in your living room, Murray does include a quiz to determine your upper-class street cred: "How Thick Is Your Bubble?" It's rather entertaining, delving into your NASCAR knowledge, hard-knocks childhood stories, and more, but I actually think it could be shortened into one question: Do you become horrified when you enter a Wal-Mart, not just because of an alarming selection of T-shirts with dramatic white wolves howling in a lightning storm airbrushed on them (also a staple at truck stops), but because of America's raging obesity problem? Done, done, and done. (If you have never entered a Wal-Mart, well then, we're also done.)

And here we get to an odd anthropological trait of the new upper class: a rather contradictory mix of high-level snobbery and quasi-religious "nonjudgmentalism." Your typical elite enjoys saying snooty things about cultural middle America (Obama's infamous "clinging to guns and religion" comment, for instance, or David Carr of the New York Times spouting off about "low-sloping foreheads" in "the middle places" of America). But when it comes to judging things like, say, rampant divorce, or having children out of wedlock, or being on welfare while also having children out of wedlock (just writing that, by the way, feels terribly judgmental) the new upper-classers tend to bite their tongues.

"Nonjudgmentalism is one of the more baffling features of the new-upper-class culture," Murray writes. "If you are of a conspiratorial cast of mind, nonjudgmentalism looks suspiciously like the new upper class keeping the good stuff to itself. The new upper class knows the secret to maximizing the chances of leading a happy life, but it refuses to let anyone else in on the secret." Ultimately, he argues, the key to American success will be the willingness of the upper class to preach what they practice when it comes to marriage, children, religion, work, and more. But first, members of the upper class have to believe that their values actually matter -- and to understand why they do.

Coming Apart is a must-read for many reasons, but its main value comes from its insistence on drilling down beyond materialism. In a book ostensibly about class, Murray spends much of his time exploring the things that really matter in life, fighting against the presumption that we're here to merely pass our days as pleasantly as possible.

"If we ask what are the domains through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life -- achieve happiness," Murray writes, "the answer is that there are just four: Family, vocation, community, and faith." The advancement of the welfare state, he argues, results in the slow gutting of these domains, as well as personal responsibility, which are "the institutions through which people live satisfying lives." This cultural disintegration has had a disastrous human cost for the working class. It's a cost that many in the new upper class don't experience or understand.

Unfortunately, in today's political landscape, the idea that government "help" can sap human virtue is a radical concept. "Those in the new upper class who don't care about politics don't mind the drift toward the European model," Murray points out, "because paying taxes is a cheap price for a quiet conscience -- much cheaper than actually having to get involved in the lives of their fellow citizens."

Even the American political right, often caricatured as welfare-bashers, can fall into this trap: Republican front-runner and much-maligned rich guy Mitt Romney recently stepped in it by declaring he wasn't worried about the very poor, because, well, "we have a very ample safety net." Ah, then! Nothing to worry about. Everything's fine!

Murray ends his book with a bit of optimism, confident that "the more we learn about how human beings work at the deepest genetic and neural levels, the more that many age-old ways of thinking about human nature will be vindicated." A more accurate understanding of human nature, he argues, would lead to an understanding of the importance of traditional values and virtues -- for everyone, not just the new upper class -- and a restoration of the American experiment.

I hope he's right, but I'm a bit skeptical. In the pages of Coming Apart, we often find Murray bending over backward to explain obvious points, either to avoid offending his more sensitive readers (or to make sure no one thinks he's a racist). But certain facts -- say, that some people are smarter than other people, or that smart people who marry each other tend to have smart children -- tend to infuriate a certain sector of the population, polite explanation or no.

In another instance, Murray points out that children clearly do the best with two married, biological parents, but also acknowledges that "I know of no other set of important findings that are as broadly accepted by social scientists who follow the technical literature, liberal as well as conservative, and yet are so resolutely ignored by network news programs, editorial writers for major newspapers, and politicians of both major political parties."

Some of this stems from good intentions: People don't want to make struggling single moms or divorced parents feel worse than they already do. Much of this comes, as do many of the building blocks of hyper-progressive politics, from plain old wishful thinking. And some of it stems from a subtle hostility toward the idea of universal virtues existing at all.

"Discussing solutions is secondary to this book, just as understanding causes is secondary," Murray writes. "The important thing is to look unblinkingly at the problem." That task alone, it seems, is more than a big enough challenge for today.