“Yet even as they celebrate freedom, Americans exempt the object of their veneration from critical examination.  In our public discourse, freedom is not so much a word or even a value as an incantation, its very mention enough to stifle doubt and terminate all debate.” — Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power, pp. 5-6.

His book is mostly diagnostic.  This is hardly a flaw; what he diagnoses would be beyond the power of a single man to solve, or propose to solve.  One also senses that the very modesty he calls for in American policy prevents him from the consideration of grand solutions to our problems.  It’s more a warning — that the Iraq War, Dick Cheney’s claim for the president’s “monarchical notions of prerogative,” debt-savings ratios and the state of the economy are symptoms, and that we should not delude ourselves into thinking that merely treating the symptoms will cure the disease.  Setting aside whatever else I may disagree with in his writing, this seems essential, and true.

The question of freedom was like a rock he’d slipped into my shoe at the very beginning.  Now, I want to think that this was intentional.  Maybe I’m a cynic, but our understanding of freedom does seem awfully like what one would expect from a lazy student; or, to borrow from my own experiences in class, what happens when you’re tired and simply grab the first definition offered in the dictionary even though it’s not the best, and sometimes not even adequate.

Freedom, he writes, “has an underside.”  It is not entirely benign.  It is not entirely understood, except insofar as freedom to consume and freedom from consequences misunderstand it.  Indeed, freedom from consequences (and now I, and not Bacevich, am talking) is antithetical to the very idea of freedom, at least in my own limited understanding of it.  (An excuse for Americans: freedom isn’t easyto examine, by any means.  Nor is it a necessarily pleasant experience.)  Freedom entails obligations; it is the freedom to commit an act and have it be one’s own: that is, to bear full responsibility for it, whatever that may entail.

I’m of the opinion (this is subject to radical revision over the course of my life) that the most important part of Paradise Lost comes when God explains the purpose of free will:

“Not free, what proof could they have given sincere
Of true allegiance, constant faith, or love,
Where only what they needs must do appear’d,
Not what they would?” (III.103-6)

It goes on for a little longer, and discusses it more at length there (and elsewhere).  For Milton, free will was essential in man because without it, there could be no love, and without love… etc.  Which is to say, freedom is not the freedom to live a more or less unchanging lifestyle, to incur debt without repayment, but freedom to choose — to be responsible.  Freedom is not freedom without obligation.

Hopefully I’m not terribly wrong and just blathering on unknowingly.  I don’t pretend that anything I’ve said would be more than a very small beginning to such an understanding  — but it’s likely an understanding that grows with experience: getting a full grasp on the meaning of freedom would be immensely difficult (hopefully I’m not just making excuses now), but the endeavour of critical examination of what it means to us now, and what the concept independent of 21st century America means are of extreme importance.  The concept is foundational to the government and the state.  Citizenship, then, would seem to require some effort be expended.


More notes from my fearless adventures at Upturned Earth.

Prop. 8 Aftermath: Religious LibertyI announce that I don’t really know what Rod Dreher’s talking about.  Others enlighten me in the comments.

Costs of War/Costs of Peace — War as a lose-lose scenario, courtesy of one of Andrew Sullivan’s Faces-of-The-Day.

Hypotheticals: Dems and Libs — I wonder out loud about a potential progressive/libertarian fusion-alliance thing.

Content and Education: or, Why Wonder-Bread Does Not Taste As Good As A Fresh Loaf of Whole-Grain — Talking about content and thought in education.

Oakeshott, Eliot, and Sullivan Walk Into A Bar — Finding meaning in a fragmented world.

A Song For Election Day

November 4, 2008

I was walking to class this morning — it’s got to be close to 70 outside and absolutely gorgeous — and it really struck me just what a wonderful event today is.  Maybe it’s because half my time is spent reading about Greek/Athenian democracy anymore (I can’t wait for Thanksgiving break).  But let’s think about it: we’re a nation of nearly 300 million, and yet today we’re engaged in a single civic act.  There’s just something about that, and the two guys on the corner of the street who’ve been waving signs for a city commissioner and reminding everyone to vote for the last three hours without a break.  So, without further ado, I present Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler singing, “If A Song Could Be President” — a scheme I could get behind.

So Freddie deBoer is off on another one of his gauntlet-throwing sprees. And he’s got a point. The conservative “movement”—whatever that means; I think it has something to do with those who are voting for the GOP come hell or high water—is nasty. Divisive. And, yeah, disgusting in its virulence.

But there’s no way I can get around the fact that I’m a conservative. I came late to the party, too (though I do have what might be an unconscious fetish for losing sides: I’m a Cubs fan by no geographical obligation, and Kentucky hasn’t been to the Final Four since I came of an age to really live and die by them). So yeah, after more or less a year of slowly realizing my views were shifting, I accepted where I was. And then I looked out and saw the shit flying through the air.

As I’ve already put it, I got to the gates of Conservative-Land, took a good look at the doorman, and told him to hold on just a little bit; I’m going to go sit on that bench over there with a drink until after the election.

I have the joyous task of not merely defending being a conservative at this time, but explaining that I have become a conservative. (At the moment, I’m in a coffeeshop—my favorite, where they start my drink when I walk in the door—but keep glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one’s reading what I’m typing and giving me nasty looks.) It’s not really easy—especially when the school paper was unaware until Thursday that there were, in fact, conservatives on this campus.

I’m easing my friends (those who haven’t been reading me ramble on, at least) into this knowledge. My Bob Barr vote was about as good a middle-step as I could get, but the response, at least a half-dozen times last night, was: “You did WHAT?” (And my Wendell Berry write-in vote for Senate would have gotten a similar response, if anyone else I was around had heard of him.)

But I’m pretty sure that John Schwenkler and Scott Payne are on target. The wild-eyed partisans may freak me out, and I may not want their company most of the time, but there’s not much I can do about their existence. The task is to make conservatism something better than what it now is. (And I’ll admit: as a political movement in this country, it’s more or less out of ideas. I’d have trouble naming a “leader” who could answer the challenges that Freddie throws down here—but seriously: aren’t gauntlets in limited supply or something? See, now, for the sake of my own self-respect, I have to try to answer him.  Just not quite yet.)

The best way to counter accusations of being a part of the “stupid party” (or ideology, or philosophy, or worldview, or whatever you want to call it) is to be an intelligent, thoughtful conservative. Not a conservative from unthinking, traditional reflex, but from reflection and intellectual rigor. If those of us who are appalled by the words and deeds of those who earn the epithet for us abandon ship, then that’s all it will be. And we’ll be floating in a nether-void while the left—the combined forces of their reflective and unthinking members, because we’ve all got both—does battle with the Dittoheads.

And there is always the possibility that it will get worse before it gets better. As Andrew Sullivan cautions:

“This is what happened to the British Tories after the Blair landslide in 1997. The rump was even more toxic after the defeat than before it. A decade later, and they still aren’t back in power, but they have managed the very difficult task of getting back to the center. It isn’t easy.”

Precisely because of the difficulty, thinking, intelligent conservatives are needed. If the only people left aboard are those peddling the “Real America/Fake America” bullshit, the ship’s going to go down, and while Scott Payne may be indulging in a touch of hyperbole, he’s got a point about what will follow:

“To simply give up on conservatism is to give up on a vital and historical element of the American psyche and identity. Without well meaning advocates, that element of the American identity will continue to rot and, whether liberals and independents like it or not, eat away at the fabric of American life as a whole.”

Or maybe I’ve just got too much affinity for Hektor than is healthy. We’ll see, I guess.

The other night, the Northwestern Political Union discussed the bailout. We touched on responsibility, and (potential) fines briefly, and toward the end I brought up economic morality again with the statement, “Profit and risk divorced from responsibility is economics divorced from morality.” The most direct retort went something like this: “You can’t tell people they have to behave more morally than the law requires them to. It won’t work.”

This was the line taken by several to justify government safety-net action for those who had, in essence, taken risks which, in retrospect, were ill-advised—they seemed, by most measures (the argument went) to have been in the actors’ best economic interests at the time, whether this was buying a house by taking out a high-interest loan, or being the lender, etc.

Ignoring (for now) the question of “best economic interests,” let’s take a step back from economics for a moment. The actors all behaved morally because they behaved within the law—the limits of morality, in this view, are defined by what is legal. This is wrong. To use legality to define the limits of morality is to make morality arbitrary and relative; it is, in essence, to destroy the concept of objective morality.

However, I don’t think anyone was arguing this, or thinking about this implication. The case being made was about what expectations legislators/theorists/etc. can reasonably hold of the people, insofar as it regards their behavior within a legal structure. Expected morality must be legislated, by this view. (Think of this as opposed to the unlegislated “preferred morality”—or being a “good” person vs. being a “better” person.)

If this is correct—and you cannot expect people to behave more morally than legally required—then the entire concept of minimal (or small, or non-massive) government has to be thrown out as non-viable; for it to work, this is precisely the expectation which must be made of the demos; there must be choice toward morality.

And while I think this equation of expected morality with legality seeks to protect individuals from being forced to follow religio-moral systems to which they do not adhere (except insofar as they must as members of a polity), one can see fairly easily the end-effect of government bodies imposing such religio-moral systems on the very individuals who are supposed to be protected. To refuse to conflate legality and morality is to protect the latter; to confuse them is to risk dangerous centralization of power.

I think my whole point is summed up very neatly here:

“The fundamental political problem, I’ve concluded, is in how we think about the state. If we look to it as arbiter of legitimacy, safety, or morality, we have already neglected the sources of real meaning in our lives. State intervention is dangerous not because it’s “coercion” (I don’t mind coercion), but because of its inhumanity.”

But back to the bailout. Because people cannot be expected to behave more morally than legally required, then the government, after leading them to expect a safety-net, has an obligation to provide that net. Future events are to be avoided by learning from this event, and adding new regulations to mitigate the consequences of previous regulations. The problem, of course, is that the rift between morality and economics is not mended by choice or consequences, but incompletely (and only potentially) by future regulation.

Here, John Schwenkler excerpts this article on why band-aid regulations might wind up being at least as bad as ripping off the band-aids altogether. And read here for how non-regulatory solutions can have the precise effect we’re looking for—a sustainable, rather than short-term profit driven, economy.

More on that last idea later.

Kashrus and Agrarianism

October 17, 2008

[From notes for a dvar torah given this past Friday, on Deut. 32:1-52.]


Moses’ “poem” to the people of Israel. It is a warning; its pessimism is marked in contrast to his final blessings. He discusses Israel’s past and future departures from God.


[on God’s benevolence to Israel and Jacob]
“He set him atop the highlands,
To feast on the yield of the earth;
He fed him honey from the crag,
And oil from the flinty rock,
Curd of kine and milk of flocks;
With the best of lambs,
And rams and he-goats;
With the very finest wheat—
And foaming grape-blood was your drink.

So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked—
You grew fat and gross and coarse—
He forsook the God who made him
And spurned the Rock of his support.
They incensed him with alien things,
Vexed him with abominations.
They sacrificed to demons, no-gods,
Gods they had never known,
New ones, who came but lately,
Who stirred not your fathers’ fears.
You neglected the Rock that begot you,
Forgot the God who brought you forth.”

[at the end of the parsha:]
Moses will not enter Israel because “you [and Aaron] both broke faith with Me among the Israelite people, at the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to uphold My sanctity among the Israelite people.” Moses and Aaron had asked, “Shall WE get water for you out of this rock?” rather than affirm that it was God’s doing; this was where they lost faith and failed.

Moses and Aaron mistreated the land; the people mistreated their food/sources of nourishment: all failed to properly acknowledge the mystery/holiness of what provided nourishment.


It is possible Wendell Berry was thinking of this passage when he wrote: “We must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.” (“A Native Hill”)

So what am I getting at? Berry’s concept of “Thinking Little”:
Picking up trash and litter. Drive cars less often, use less fuel in your home. Turn off the lights. Avoid unneeded gadgetry. Don’t waste water. “If you are fearful of the destruction of the environment, then learn to quit being an environmental parasite.” (from the essay of the same name)

Or, as Michael Pollan points out in an essay for the NY Times Magazine, pay attention to what you eat.

Indeed, this issue (topically and the “Food Issue”) is particularly Jewish—the feature, on the future of American food policy, is written by Pollan (who is Jewish) and contains another article on eco-friendly kosher foods, “Kosher Wars.” The latter article makes the astute observation that “Judaism, for all its scholarly abstraction, is a land-based religion.”

This is true. The failings in the parsha are both moral and spiritual, but the acts which display these failings—which are the failures embodied—are, immediately, failures to uphold the human duty as stewards of the land and the plants and creatures which inhabit it.

In “Kosher Wars,” Samantha Shapiro points to the following question as a controversy within the Jewish community—“Should Jews keep kosher because it is an ethical practice, or because God wants us to?”

The answer is both. If the behavior that God wants is not ethical, then we have a slew of problems which I have neither the time nor intelligence to delve into at the moment. That is to say, kashrus is a mitzvah because it is a commandment, and because—if we uphold dietary laws and non-dietary laws for ethical treatment of animals and land—we are behaving more ethically than if we did not.


So let’s think little in terms of food. I’m not demanding that you all start keeping strictly kosher, or start only eating locally-grown-organic foods, though I have nothing against either practice and am temporarily attracted to the latter. But stop and think about your food and drink before you eat it. Be aware of what you’re consuming—where it came from, how it was treated, how it was shipped, how it was packaged, what its cost is—monetarily, environmentally, and socially.

This might now be bordering a little too much on blasphemy, but I’d say that if you’re aware of your food, and let that inform your choices about your food, you do more to keep kosher than would if you ate blindly, even if you still choose shrimp cocktail or a ham sandwich.

Torah and Agrarianism

October 17, 2008

[This post is adapted and expanded from notes for a dvar torah I gave this past spring.]

In all the talk of humanity’s punishment for mistreating the land, there is the understanding that while they exiled from it, the land will be “desolate.” It cannot be complete without the presence of its stewards; though it is harmed by their maltreatment of it, it is also harmed by their absence.

(I should make clear now that this all hinges on the translation as “desolate” of a particular, unknown—at least to me—word of Hebrew in my bible. I acknowledge I’m walking on thin ice here, at least temporarily.)

That the land is desolate—that it is devoid—implies a connection of mutual dependency between the land and the people who live on it. This is not discussing the mistreatment of the land—that is why they are gone: it is desolate after their removal, after they have ceased to mistreat it.

It is desolate because of the disconnect between mankind and the land that is home: the land falls desolate, and Israel is in “the land of your enemies.” The land suffers, as is implied in the word “desolate”; Israel will suffer during the period of disconnection, not merely physically—which could happen without the disconnect from the land—but in the soul, in a way that can only happen during the disconnect: “As for those of you who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts”; there will be “heartsickness”; and, most importantly: “the land of your enemies shall consume you.”

(If you allow me the digression and analogy: the land of Israel is the Harford place in Berry’s Port William; the land of their enemies is Sutpen’s Hundred, or the mansion at Frenchman’s Bend in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha.)

There is no completeness, either of the land or of the people, when one is absented of the other. The disconnect, prolonged too long, is fatal.

This leads me to the concept of “Kentucky Environmental Conservatism,” the latter word in both the sense of conservation and of the traditional. It is a poor label, I am aware, and I intend it as nothing more than a temporary shorthand to be discarded at the conclusion of this essay. For whatever reason, it is common among Kentucky men (and women) of letters. It is an eccentric little worldview, and one that I am somewhat susceptible to. It is also at least partially responsible for my Classics major.

To attempt to distill it and unfairly flatten a varied perspective that has produced and informed a range of beautiful (and, in many cases, underappreciated) works, it views modernity as a potentially threatening force, not because it is inherently immoral or dissolute, but because it, and excessive rationalism, leads to the disintegration of a sense of wonder and awe at the world; more precisely, Nature and Life. It can lead, that is, to an embrace of unthinking disconnect with, and abandonment of, the land. In Kentucky, it essentially has; hence the underlying urgency of the last fifty years of literature to come from the commonwealth.

To give examples: There was Guy Davenport’s unyielding hatred for the automobile, which he felt allows one to travel without ever going outside—without ever encountering the world; Wendell Berry’s refusal to buy a computer. Or, as T. Crunk puts it in his poem, “On Visiting A Church My Grandfather Once Pastored”: “Years later I will remember my grandfather saying they strip away the land but all they put back is the dirt.”

It results, Davenport claimed (“The Symbol of the Archaic,” “Olson,” etc.), in cultural disintegration, cancellation of place, depletion of resources, and the transformation of the human mind into a vacuum. He was not the most optimistic man to live.

You can find traces of it elsewhere, even in the works of the likes of Saul Bellow. In his novel, Herzog, the title character’s emotional, intellectual, and moral deterioration are linked to the deterioration of his home and property in the Berkshires. His fate, ultimately, is tied to that of the land.

Herzog’s lowest point occurs in downtown Chicago, not far, I think, from the Shedd Aquarium, which leads me back to the present. Some months ago, on one of the first (and more pleasant) days of spring, I went to Millenium Park with several friends. Walking across the street, coffee in hand, I failed, for some time, to find the “park” I had been promised. There was only concrete, and a concert lawn.

I was standing in the park, I was told, and was horrified. A park is not a concrete expanse; nor is a park a glorified median with benches and sculptures, despite the insistence of the city of Evanston.

Back at Millenium Park, what was more terrifying was that no one else I was with found this troubling. We eventually found a soccer field, and spread out with our books.

I like to think I’m not yet so pessimistic as many of these “Kentucky Environmental Conservatives,” though the last several months have made me doubt how much longer I’ll be able to resist the pull. But the concept underlying this loose worldview—mutual dependence of the people and the land—is not cynical, revolutionary anti-modernism. Though Berry accepts the title of “Luddite,” he rejects the connotations of its pejorative uses. It goes back to the idea that, even recovering from harm done unto it by man, the land will suffer; that man will become something less while absent the land: that each can survive devoid of the other, but neither can flourish.

Apparently, Christopher Buckley’s endorsement of Obama has reopened debate about what it means to be an “Obamacon.”

For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to touch Larison’s comment that, “There is basically no positive case for Obama, because I don’t think a conservative can actually make one, except to say that he might do slightly less damage than another Republican” because if you aren’t already convinced that there can be, I see little that I can do to change your mind. Instead, I want to focus on what he goes on to say:

“Buckley’s remarks on McCain are interesting in what they tell us about the pervasive nature of the McCain myth: McCain used to be authentic, you see, but now he is not (not true–he has always been the same person!); he showed tremendous bravery in backing the “surge” (not true–it was enormously popular among GOP regulars and primary voters!); McCain has changed (see the first point). . . . What few seem willing to accept is that McCain has always been like this, and his past admirers have blinded themselves to his flaws because they found him useful or were swayed by his biography, and until very recently most have had no problem with McCain’s flaws.”

I touched on this briefly in a comment at Eunomia, but I want to take the time to expand on what I wrote.

For all practical purposes, it does not matter which McCain is the “real” McCain. If we’re willing to concede that McCain 2000 is different than McCain 2008, then we’re faced with the fact that at least one of these McCains must be inauthentic. Of course the existence of an inauthentic McCain narrative would seem to imply that the present incarnation is the only one plausibly authentic; McCain 2000 could not have truthfully dabbled in false narratives.

There seems to be little dispute that the two McCains are different. With most data points conceded as common, the perception of authenticity/inauthenticity is left entirely to the individual and his decision of how he will “read” the data. Thus, accepting a change from 2000, we have two common alternatives: A) the narrative in which McCain is destroyed by his campaign staff and advisors, sacrificing the “authentic” McCain 2000 for a shoot-the-moon strategy seen as their last best hope for victory; or B) the narrative in which McCain’s staffers and advisors are merely complicit in ripping off the Maverick “mask” and revealing McCain’s “true” self as McCain 2008.

I don’t pretend to know which alternative (if either) is objectively true; that would involve a gratuitous level of armchair psychoanalysis of a man I have never met. But I fall into the same trap Larison points out as fairly common among Obamacons (admittedly, I may not qualify as one; I began as an Obama supporter over two years ago, when my political views were more in line with his and my political/philosophical transformation was still potential): I want narrative A to be true, even at the risk of denying reality.

It is simply more compelling—it is tragedy. McCain becomes more than “John McCain.” He is an archetype—he suddenly begins to resemble an Oedipus, a Kreon, a Pentheus. The “fall” of McCain can teach us something; it is drama; it is in conversation with the Western conception of rise, hubris, and fall. If McCain 2008 has been forced upon McCain, it is traditional. And, no matter how far he may fall, so long as he is not ripped limb from limb, there is the possibility of Oedipal redemption.

Even Roger Kimball, holdout for McCain’s victory though he is, seems to adhere to this view of the man:

“But I have to wonder whether the real problem is that McCain refuses to play according to the Democratic “narrative” and accept that his appointed role as “maverick” is to lose gracefully and then disappear.”

Here, there is no comment on which McCain is authentic, but the opinion that our conception of McCain 2000 was written by someone other than McCain, and therefore forced upon him; because McCain 2008 is defined in terms of McCain 2000, this persona has also been forced upon him. While the Democrats, and not his advisors, are destroying him, he is being destroyed rather than destroying himself. It is entirely out of his control; it does not matter which fork in the road he takes, Fate will eventually find him.

But if narrative B is true, we learn nothing, except (possibly) that man is petty and weak. As Helen Rittelmeyer quotes Raymond Guess:

“One has failed to experience the tragedy if one sees only one’s friend and fellow actor up there on the stage parading around in an odd mask. One has also failed if one thinks that it really is Oedipus up there, that the blood dripping down from his eyes is real blood, etc.”

If all we see is a mask pulled from McCain’s face, there is no tragedy; there is no lesson; it is, if anything, farcical.

This campaign has become our national Dionysian festival. And if the audience chooses to suspend disbelief and become engrossed in the drama unfolding onstage—if only because there is more to gain in this way than not—then I have no objection.

I have a certain soft spot for the ideas of agrarianism and “Crunchiness.” I have no qualms with the importance of religion to the latter, and (in many cases) spirituality of some sort to the former. The problem I have is the same as when I read Kirk, or Burke, or even Andrew Sullivan in his more abstract moments. The religion which informs their worldviews is Christianity, but I am a Jew.

Dreher’s Crunchiness and Berry’s agrarianism, are particularly thorny. (I’m simplifying here, yes, but narrowing to two cases makes life easier.) When either’s reasoning begins to touch on religion, agreeing with them–generally on issues of the environment–presents me with the task of working my way to the same conclusion, but replacing Dreher’s Orthodoxy and Berry’s anti-establishment Protestantism with my own meandering Judaism. Even when I know the conclusions are the same, the reasoning is a pain the ass.

So, from time to time, I will be making efforts in this direction. I suppose it’s another long-term project I have.

Through the Rabbit Hole

October 17, 2008

I think John Schwenkler put it quite well: “I’m not exactly sure why I’m doing this, but here we go.” (Oh, what the hell. I’ll just claim his whole post as a defense of sorts for creating this blog, though I anticipate regretting it at some point in the future.) This will mostly entail me talking to/at myself. I apologize.