Friday, February 29, 2008

American Conservatism, RIP?

On the occasion of the recent death of William F. Buckley, libertarian David Boaz, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, wondered if Conservatism itself has died:

In the 1994 Contract with America, conservatives declared that they would deliver "the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public's money." Then in 2000, for the first time Republicans took control of both houses of Congress and the White House. At last, conservatives believed, they would be able to deliver on the agenda they had been advancing for decades.

What happened? Republicans increased federal spending by a trillion dollars in six years. They passed the biggest expansion of entitlements since the LBJ years. They federalized education. They gave unprecedented power to the executive. They launched a massive nation-building project thousands of miles from home, to do in Iraq what conservatives would never expect government to do in the United States.

Even worse, the conservative intellectual movement abandoned its limited-government roots. The neoconservatives, who drifted over from the radical left, brought their commitment to an expansive government intimately involved in shaping the social and economic life of the nation. They transformed conservatism from rugged individualism to "national greatness." The religious right demanded that government impose their social values on the whole country.

I just ran into a sort microcosm of this phenomenon. I happen to be co-director of something called the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy, the organization that sponsored the Wendy McElroy-Harry Brighouse event the other day. Someone I know, a conservative activist prominent in the area of academic issues, called me to ask me to write a letter in support of a bill now passing through a committee in the US Senate. I had to warn him that I am not a political conservative; I'm basically an anarchist. With that understood, go ahead and make your pitch. I figured I would interrupt him if I realized that he was wasting his time on me. The bill, it turned out, would make public funds available to centers like ours. The idea seemed to be: ones that are doing things that conservatives can support. He was telling running through the names of some good people from my own state who are behind the bill when I interrupted him. I'm sorry, that's not the sort of thing I can support. "May I ask why," he said politely. Well, I'm against governments giving tax money to things like this (for several reasons, but I didn't go into that), and I'm also against the Feds getting any further into education than they already are (notice the tactful understatement!). I admitted that if such a program already existed, I might apply for funds, but that's only because, having been subjected to the injustice of being forced to pay for such things, I would want some of my money back... He interrupted me. I think he could remember hearing this line of thinking somewhere before.

After we hung up, I realized what was so odd about this: a conservative promoting what basically amounts to a welfare scheme.

Back in 1959, when Buckley wrote Up from Liberalism, American conservatism was lean and scrappy. They had some good ideas -- less government, with constitutional limits on state activity and more individual initiative -- and they took a lot of abuse for it. It was the heroic age of their movement. Over the years they forgot about self-reliance and the constitution, and morphed into one more gimmie-group, another piglet sucking at the teats of the welfare state. What the hell happened to them?

They came to power, of course. Acton, as everyone knows, said that power corrupts. I'm starting to see why it does so. It's not just because power is power. It's also because with power comes loot, and loot corrupts.

States are giant extraction devices. They enable one to consume the products of human effort without producing anything oneself, and without winning the voluntary consent of the producers. Once you start living this way, it is very hard to stop. State power is one of the most highly addictive substances known.

After 14 years with its snout in the public trough, the American conservative movement stands, hideously bloated, sadly no longer what it once was. They say that Buckley died after a long illness. Maybe it was a broken heart.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"Academic Freedom: Who Needs It?" Event on Campus

The Wisconsin Association of Scholars is bringing a speaker to campus on Thursday. That's February 28, 7:00-9:00 pm, Red Gym -- On Wisconsin C, here at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. The event is free and open to the public.

Professor Richard T. De George is speaking on a subject dear to my heart: academic freedom. When we recently asked him what position he will take in his talk, he had this to say:
Universities can and have existed without academic freedom. But academic freedom, together with freedom of speech (with which it is often confused), are important to a free, democratic, open society. Academic freedom is ultimately justified by the benefits it confers on such a society. It s compatible with accountability, and should be defended from current attacks against it both from within and without academe.
This is essentially a utilitarian defense of academic freedom. You might think that, because I am no utilitarian, I won't agree with this. But actually I think that this is far from being an unreasonable position. Different rights have different bases, and not all rights are natural rights. You have a right to free speech (according to me and John Locke) just because you are a human being. Academic freedom is not like this.

Academic freedom, very roughly, is a right to carry on teaching and research without constraints on the results I am allowed to produce. You could consider it a speech right, but unlike the right of free speech it is a right to express one's views using specific resources. My right of free speech is not a right to say what I want in your living room, or on your web site -- or in my employer's place of business.

Academic freedom is a constitutive part of a certain sort of job. It makes my job very different from other jobs. Firefighters, priests, and marketing directors do not have a right to come to work and say what they jolly well please, but (again roughly speaking) I do. As such, academic freedom sounds more like a privilege than a right. Where do I get off claiming to have such a thing? The answer must have to do with the nature of the job and its function in society.

(You can find Professor De George's book on academic freedom here.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"Don't Vote!" -- Event on Campus

An organization I am involved with -- the Wisconsin Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy -- is bringing a speaker the UW-Madison campus next week. The individualist feminist Wendy McElroy will be giving a talk titled Don't Vote! It's Immoral and It Wastes Your Time. Monday February 25, Room 5259 Law School. I don't generally bring speakers to campus because I agree with what they are going to say, but given the way the primaries have been going, this is a message I am ready to hear. Yes, she is said to be an anarchist.

What amazes me is the sheer hostility her talk has provoked already, days before the event. Posters advertising the event in the Philosophy Department have been torn down and ripped up. And a brief email announcement has provoked a flurry of hostile responses. For instance:
"Don't Vote! Why Voting Is Immoral" That's the most rediculous [sic] thing I've
ever heard. Please remove me from your email list.
Voting is one of the greatest rights given to us by our "Founding
Fathers". It is one property that makes a democracy such as the United
States a place of great freedom and opportunity. It is because of a
democracy that loopy liberals such as yourselves can have such ridiculous
beliefs and morals. If you are unhappy with a great democracy, such as
American, move to China.
Don't send me this junk and clog my e-mail, flyers for this umpopular [sic]
event on campus are enough
In addition, there's:
Please don't send me things like this. I read the entire message with hopes of finding something worthwhile.
Sadly, it was a complete waste of time. I am embarrassed for the people
giving the talk.
As well as this mysterious response:
fuck off....your [sic] telling people not to vote? i can see why that would
solve all the nations problems.
And the inevitable:
fuck that bitch
Alright, I admit quoting the last one was unnecessary, but there is a certain virtue in completeness, almost any sort of completeness, and I wanted to quote them all.

What the Hell is going on here? Is democracy itself the last surviving state religion? Is voting some kind of sacrament? Is hostility to politics the last remaining sacrilege, the only one you can still hate?

Maybe the title of the talk is just a tad inflammatory. She seems to be telling me (yes, I do vote!) that I am immoral. The title of one of Wendy's essays on the subject -- Act Reponsibly: Don't Vote -- makes the same point in a less offensive way. I guess it would have been better. Oh, well, this is our title and we're stuck with it.

Anyway, in the hope of forestalling more angry messages, let me try to be reassuring:

This is a forum -- Prof. Harry Brighouse, a distinguished political philosopher (of UW-Madison and Crooked Timber), will be there to present a contrasting view of voting. The point is to spark discussion of the ethics of participating in political processes. We aren't trying to discourage people from voting. It's the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy, after all!

As to what I think about it, let me just say that I think it is fascinating that people generally find it hard to see anything ethically problematic, ever, in their voting behavior. I have never seen anyone display a twinge of guilt over the consequences of a vote in which they participated, whether the consequences were war, inflation, recession, or the flight of employers from their jurisdiction. But when you think of it, isn't voting the one opportunity most of us have to do something really evil? How many chances does the average person ever have to participate, for instance, in the deliberate killing of hundreds of thousands of human beings? Only our participation in the state gives us such horrible opportunities. Yet such things, when they happen, are always someone else's fault. The very act of voting seems to be morally numbing. Somehow, we disconnect our thoughts about things we do to others personally from the things we do to then through the mediation of the state. The distorting effects of this moral anesthesia on the development of the human conscience must be vast and devastating.
Added later, the day after the event: Things went well in every way -- there were about 90 people in the audience, overwhelmingly students. This is a very large audience for a talk of this sort. (Over the weekend before the talk, we got some welcome free publicity when a local journalist, Catjusa Cisar, wrote an article about my little email flap for the Capital Times. Also, Harry blogged about it over at Crooked Timber.) At the event, Wendy was by turns provocative and inspiring, and Harry was witty, charming, and insightful. The Q and A was lively but civil on all sides. I was surprised to see that there were a number of principled non-voters present. Thanks again to Wendy, Harry, and everyone else who came! (Also thanks to the people who sent me "non-hate emails," as they kept calling them. I definitely appreciated that!)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

What Made Him Tick

I thought I should post something about my father that was written by someone who, unlike me, did not have any sort of love-hate relationship with him. I do have some sympathy with the old idea of de mortuis nil nisi bonum. My sister sent me a column by Chris Smith in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (Thursday Jan. 31) [thanks, Loreen!], which had this to say:

WHAT MADE HIM TICK: It's taking time for the sad news to reach all the customers of David Hunt, the lifelong watch and clock repairman who kept an endangered trade alive in a museumlike workshop in his back yard.

I, too, just heard that Hunt died early last month while working, naturally, on a clock.

Though he was 84, "he still worked for to six hours a day," said his daughter, Loreen Hunt of Santa Rosa. People far and wide knew Hunt what the man to go to if granddad's fine old Waterbury mantle clock froze up and nobody else would look at it.

Hunt worked as a watchmaker in L. A. for about 20 years [actually, that was Stockton -- he was born in L. A.] before he moved to Santa Rosa in 1963 and hired on at the Gensler Lee Diamonds store on Fourth Street.

He went independent and began repairing watches and clocks in his home workshop a long time ago, in 1971. A visitor could easily lose himself while examining and admiring Hunt's vast assembly of handmade precision tools and all manner of timepieces and pieces thereof.

Sometimes Hunt find himself one finger short of being able to perform an intricate procedure and would ask any customer present to hold this or press here.

The watchmaker was an introvert, as you might expect. He cherished also the quiet pursuits of gardening and reading history. He was proud to have served his country in the Pacific toward the end of World War II.

He was a craftsman, not a one-day-service sort of guy. His grateful customers knew he might keep the clock or watch for weeks, but they didn't mind. [Weeks? Try months. Or maybe years. "I'm waiting for a part," was what his customers were often told.]

They knew Dave Hunt was a friend of time.

In 1860, Chauncey Jerome, one of the great pioneers of the American clock industry in the Connecticut River Valley, published a History of the American Clock Business for the Past Sixty Years and Life of Chauncey Jerome, Written by Himself. It is a wonderful historical document, telling the story of an important part of the Heroic Age (as I think of it) of American capitalism. The last lines of the book could be an epitaph for my father: "The ticking of a clock is music to me, and although many of my experiences as a business man have been trying and bitter, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have lived the life of an honest man, and have been of some use to my fellow men."
Above on the left is a portrait made while Dad was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. The insets are pictures of his old Navy buddies in the Philippines. Dad himself in on the right end of the picture at the upper left (click to enlarge). In the lower right is the man I was named after, Lester Henry, later the owner of a lumber yard in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Pictures of Dad from this period often show him holding a pipe. (To make him look older? God he looks young!) On the right is a picture he took of me and my younger brother, Al, one Christmas morning long ago, 1958 or 59.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Why Some of the Worst Candidates are Moderates

If you want the US government to intervene overseas, you are a conservative. If you want it to intervene in the economy, you are a liberal. If you want it to intervene everywhere, you are ... a moderate.

Being a political moderate often has little to do with the moral virtue of moderation. A moderate in the political sense is simply someone who combines the positions of other, more consistent, people. The results of this ideological alchemy can be explosive. George W. Bush, the compassionate conservative, is a paradigm case of a Moderate (political sense) Republican. Yet he is nearly the least moderate (moral sense) of all Presidents. Not since James Madison -- another moderate (political) -- decided to declare a naval war against the greatest naval power on Earth, mainly because they had conscripted a few Americans into their navy, has any President done anything more extreme than Bush has done. Mr. Madison's war resulted in the burning of Washington, and the President fleeing in humiliation into the countryside. (Bush is not, as so often said, the worst President ever. He is the second worst.)

Yet, in the political sense of the word, Bush is a very moderate President. John McCain, who has no political ideology whatsoever (not even something as mushy as compassionate conservatism) may be even more moderate (in the same sense). Given that he might be the next President, we should be grateful that he is at least opposed to torture, for the time being at any rate. But, given that he has no principled reason to take any particular position that he does take, we don't have much assurance that he will continue to take this one in the future.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Another Election, Another Catastrophe

The catastrophe of Super Tuesday. After all these years, the republicans are aiming to nominate another imperialist warmonger. On the single most important issue of the day, they are consciously opting for the least popular position. It is also the one on which they are most clearly in the wrong. ARE THESE PEOPLE TOTALLY INSANE???

Okay, sorry. I'm getting off on the wrong foot here. [Takes a deep breath.] Let me start over.

As you may already know, my views on concrete politics can be summarized like this, roughly in order of decreasing importance: Pro-peace (the only possible justification for the horrors of war is national self-defense against an imminent attack). Pro civil liberties, even if they cost something in terms of national security (that's right, freedom isn't free, dumbass!). Low taxes (if you earned it, its yours). Economic freedom (you can sell both pot and junk bonds). In sum, as far as feasible, I try to be pro-choice about everything. Not just killing fetuses. War, the ultimate act of coercion, is anti-choice. So is excessive economic regulation.

This seems like a perfectly coherent, consistent position to me. The strange thing for me is that, after the voters have spoken, there are no surviving candidates that come close to this combination of positions. Once again, I'll have nobody I can stand to vote for, unless I go for third party candidates.

I took a very interesting survey, the Select Smart Presidential Candidate Selector. You answer twenty five questions, giving your position on all the major issues of the day. You also get to specify how important each one is (good idea, guys!).

The results were a combination of yawns and shocks. The best candidate, after Theoretical Ideal Candidate, who agrees with me 100% is Ron Paul. Well, duh. I note with interest, though, that his my rate of agreement with him, the best real candidate, is only 75%. After that, going down the list, there are no Republicans at all, until we get to Mitt Romney, at 50%. Superior to Romney are Obama, Edwards, Kucinich, and Clinton. The worst candidate of all, at place #31, is Mike Huckabee.

Here is the complete computer-generated ranking:

1. Theoretical Ideal Candidate (100%)
2. Ron Paul (75%)
3. Kent McManigal (campaign suspended) (71%)*
4. Barack Obama (70%) Information link
5. Christopher Dodd (withdrawn) (67%)
6. Bill Richardson (withdrawn) (65%)
7. Dennis Kucinich (withdrawn) (65%)
8. Wayne Allyn Root (64%)
9. Al Gore (not announced) (61%)
10. Wesley Clark (not running, endorsed Clinton) (59%)
11. John Edwards (withdrawn) (57%)
12. Michael Bloomberg (says he will not run) (56%)
13. Hillary Clinton (51%)
14. Mike Gravel (50%)
15. Mitt Romney (withdrawn) (50%) k
16. Alan Keyes (50%)
17. Joseph Biden (withdrawn) (49%)
18. Tom Tancredo (withdrawn, endorsed Romney) (47%)
19. Alan Augustson (campaign suspended) (45%)
20. Chuck Hagel (not running) (45%)
21. Rudolph Giuliani (withdrawn, endorsed McCain) (43%)
22. Fred Thompson (withdrawn) (38%)
23. John McCain (37%) Information link
24. Tommy Thompson (withdrawn, endorsed Giuliani) (36%)
25. Newt Gingrich (says he will not run) (36%)
26. Duncan Hunter (withdrawn) (32%)
27. Sam Brownback (withdrawn, endorsed McCain) (32%)
28. Jim Gilmore (withdrawn) (31%)
29. Elaine Brown (30%)
30. Stephen Colbert (campaign halted) (30%)
31. Mike Huckabee (24%)

What gives? The best candidate from my point of view, is a Republican, and the worst one is also a Republican.

Well, part of it is that others don't slice and dice the issues the way I do. They combine different ones. There are people who are for freedom and low taxes but don't think war coerces people or raises taxes. There are people who are pro-choice, but don't think driving an SUV or deciding whether to pay for health insurance is a choice. They seem inconsistent to me. But of course I seem inconsistent to them -- I guess. But truth to tell, I'm really not sure what they are thinking any more.
* I hadn't heard of this one. You can find his blog here.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Photographs: Telescopes of Time

When a loved one dies, you get all sorts of weird stuff. I just became the owner of my father's entire collection of bow ties. But what for? I wear ties all the time, that's true, but only cravats.

I also got a couple of bags of photographs.

There is a theory that seeing a photograph of a thing is an indirect way of seeing that thing. Just as I can see you by seeing an image of you in a mirror, so I can see you by seeing a photo of you. The photo image of you is formed by light rays landing on the the film, and then my retinal image is formed in more or less the same mechanical way. Just one more falling domino in the chain of causation.

So looking at a photo is completely different from looking at a painting. With a painting, I am decoding the painter's interpretation of the subject of the picture. Every painting is a comment. A photo doesn't comment. It exhibits. Dziga Vertov said that photos are time-telescopes.

I don't think I buy this as a general ontological theory of photographs, as a theory that is about the real relations between real objects, but it sure gets something right about the phenomenology of viewing photos -- about what it is like to view a photo. Every photograph is like a transparent window into a lost world.

The sepia print above (click to enlarge) is picture of dad in the inconceivably remote world of his childhood. Those wooly chaps! That pony's frightwig mane! And how did they ever afford to put him on a pony? This must have been before his father died, leaving the family of ten almost destitute.

To the right is a telescopic view into my own past. From left to right: My buddy Gerald Campbell, my oldest and best buddy Ricky Brazeau, me, my brother Al. My God, I'd forgotten that Gerald was so beautiful. Well, we were all awful cute. But kids don't notice junk like that. That's another aspect of the phenomenology of the time-telescope. You see the past, but you see it in the present. If its a picture of your past, this can make for revelations. You aren't the same person you were then. Seeing a photo of your own past involves a sort of double vision, it brings it back, but it also makes it different.

The other sort of photograph, the one that is not a window into your past, is the remote world photo. On the back of this sepia print, in Dad's unmistakable block printing: Dottie + myself/taken in May 1944/Inglewood, California. (This was before he met my mother.) Who was Dottie Dimples? I don't think she was ever mentioned in our house. Did he get as lucky that night as he obviously thought he would? Is she dead too? When I showed this to my brother and sister, they both said "Eeeew!" But it's one of my favorite pictures of Dad. Most people don't like thinking of their parents as sexual beings. [Here insert obvious comment about how if they weren't, you wouldn't exist.]

Speaking of which, here is Dad at the downstairs workbench at Gensler-Lee Jewelers, on Main Street in Stockton California, circa 1959. He's so young! And thin! And that patent-leather hair! At the time, he was having an affair with the woman you see smiling at him from the rear doorway. Mom never suspected a thing. I know because her talk was often a flood of complaints, threats, and verbal abuse, and she never complained about this. Odd that with all her complaining she never noticed the one worst thing he did. People are certainly odd, aren't they? It's like Nietzsche said, man is the insane animal.

Here is another double vision one. A ninth grade dance, with a girl named Melanie. At the far left is Page, who is now a professor of literature at the University of California. (I believe she is still on the extreme left, come to think of it.) Melanie doesn't look as glad to be with me as Gerald and Ricky do. Sigh. She sure was pretty. Now that I did notice.

Okay, one more time-telescope. Here we are, about to begin a bicycle trip from our home in Stockton to the old gold rush town (almost a ghost town) of Jenny Lind, on the banks of the Calaveras River, a distance of 29 miles. It was the adventure of a lifetime, so far. Ah youth! Ah mortality! Ortega y Gasset defined nostalgia as "the feeling of missing the nearness of the distant, ... a sorrow at being where one is not." It has the same double minded, two places at once phenomenology as the photograph. For us, photos and nostalgia are inseparable. Photos are the nostalgia-junkie's hard stuff. With photos, you can mainline that aching sense of there and not-there.

Humans have only recently acquired this sort of access to the past. Before Louis Dagerre (1787-1851) people could only remember the dead with relics, like the bow ties. Or, if you were wealthy, you had a painting, maybe a miniature, showing what the person looked like to the artist (if the artist was skilled enough to convey even that). Now we have raw, uninterpreted pastness, bags and boxes of it, enough to haunt you with ghosts, enough to shatter your preconceptions, to make you laugh, to make you cry.