Friday, January 14, 2011

We Like Palaeo-Cons

... a dickens of a lot more than we will ever like neo-cons.

Today's reminder came in the form of two essays, both reflections on Obama's speech in Tucson. The first is by David Brooks, whom we have accused earlier of twerpiness, and suspect strongly of wearing bow-ties. The second is by Patrick Buchanan, whom his opponents routinely treat as though he were a fascist, when he really just loves the master race. (Really, he does.)

Brooks starts out writing what appeared to be a very fine Times op-edder, forwarded to us by Fr. William of the Beach.

It was a "wonderful" speech, Brooks says. But be warned:

Of course, even a great speech won’t usher in a period of civility. Speeches about civility will be taken to heart most by those people whose good character renders them unnecessary. Meanwhile, those who are inclined to intellectual thuggery and partisan one-sidedness will temporarily resolve to do better but then slip back to old habits the next time their pride feels threatened.

Civility is a tree with deep roots, and without the roots, it can’t last. So what are those roots? They are failure, sin, weakness and ignorance.

That this is true, few Christians -- and no Lutheran -- will deny. We are in bondage to sin, and so forth. Brooks goes deeper yet, though, when he writes that

Every sensible person involved in politics and public life knows that their work is laced with failure. ... [E]ven if you are at your best, your efforts will still be laced with failure. The truth is fragmentary and it’s impossible to capture all of it. There are competing goods that can never be fully reconciled. The world is more complicated than any human intelligence can comprehend.

Good stuff, and humbling. He began to lose us a moment later, though, when he proposed that other voices, correcting and amending your ideas, "move things gradually forward." This is both true and false, depending on how you read it.

In fact, of course, the market of ideas is as wise as any other market -- wiser, since it is more transparent. In that sense, many voices do result in better policies, laws, and so forth. But on the other hand, the idea of "moving it forward" smacks of the old (and we hope deeply discredited) notion of inevitable progress in human affairs. A guy who quotes the currently-fashionable Reinhold Niebuhr in his closing graf should know better.

Where Brooks goes completely off the rails is the second half of his piece, in which he tries to hark back to a lost golden age of humble heroes. He seems to believe that this age includes all of American history, from 1776 until "the past 40 years or so." Since then, says Brooks,

... we have gone from a culture that reminds people of their own limitations to a culture that encourages people to think highly of themselves. The nation’s founders had a modest but realistic opinion of themselves and of the voters. ... They admired George Washington because of the way he kept himself in check.

Well, maybe a little. But they also admired Napoleon because of the way he conquered Europe; in fact, several of our founders fought -- literally, with guns, in the case of Burr and Hamilton -- for the chance to become "the American Bonaparte." Hamilton seriously considered breaking the Northeast away from the Union to form a new nation on what, by the standards of Enlightenment-era revolutionaries, were "Christian conservative" principles. Burr explored the possibility of conquering Mexico to create Republic of Burr.

Continuing this ahistorical reverie, Brooks says that

... over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. ... Politics has become less about institutional restraint and more about giving voters whatever they want at that second.

Seriously, David? Let me introduce you to Huey Long. Or anybody else in the long history of pandering and patronage that make up most of politics, in America or anywhere else.

Then he goes for the sports image, usually a mistake for anyone at the Times:

Joe DiMaggio didn’t ostentatiously admire his own home runs, but now athletes routinely celebrate themselves as part of the self-branding process.

Please. Has the man never heard of Ty Cobb? Of Babe Ruth's called shot? Of Muhammad Ali? The guy is just recycling Christopher Lasch from a thirty years ago, and not very well. Anyway, a potentially fine essay self-destructs in a blaze of cheesy fake-nostalgia, sort of like Kevin Costner's career.

And then there's Buchanan.

On his website, Pat agrees that this was "one of the finer speeches of [Obama's] career," precisely because it avoids throwing blame hither and yon. Although it seems to us that blame was being thrown pretty equally by both sides, Buchanan interprets this as the president standing up to the far left of his own party. Maybe so. He goes further, and suggests that Obama is "leaving the Left behind," as witnessed by his deal-making with the republicans:

The Republicans got the Bush tax cuts. But Obama got a Social Security payroll tax cut for every worker, an estate tax raised back to 35 percent and another full year of unemployment compensation.

Obama had entered negotiations with a weak hand. But he had emerged with so impressive a deal from his own party’s standpoint that Republican deficit hawks wanted their party to walk away from it, even if it meant all the Bush tax cuts expired on Jan. 1.

After cutting that deal and breaking the logjam, Obama got votes and victories on allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military and on providing billions for the first responders of 9/11. He came close to getting a limited amnesty for illegal aliens.

In short, by shouldering Pelosi and Reid aside and taking charge of negotiations with the Republicans himself, Obama not only won a string of victories, he proved bipartisan government could work.

Buchanan concludes that "[Obama] is no true believer. This is a survivor. This is a fellow with an almost Nixonian capacity for maneuver." Maybe that's damning with faint praise, but we suspect that Pat -- a Nixon speechwriter -- is saying all this with real, if grudging, admiration.

In any case, note the difference in tone. Both men are praising the speech using the language of conciliation and cooperation. But Buchanan, who has seen partisan politics at its ugliest, actually seems to believe that compromise and bipartisan government are possible. Brooks, on the other hand, falls back on theology that he barely understands to argue that they are illusions, forever outside the reach of fallen humanity. And adds that the fall occurred about 1970.

Gee -- a practical-minded combat Marine versus and airy theoretician who gets his facts wrong. Here, in a nutshell, are the two dominant strands in American conservatism. Why on earth would anybody listen to the second one?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

By pointing out the Founders’ alleged conscious self-restraint as something so grand, Brooks does the opposite of what he intends, as far as I’m concerned. He apotheosizes these men all the more, instead of humanizing them—as he claims we should remember these people. My question remains why people today seem to think that the Founders were somehow divine beings with titanic virtue. O tempora! O mores!