Thursday, May 31, 2007

Republicans for Obama?

Barack Obama isn’t a conservative. He isn’t a traditional liberal either. He’s a political pragmatist and this is why younger people identify with him. There is a very real and a very aggressive campaign being waged, currently, under the radar of the major pundits that will become a major theme in 2008. It is the rise of the young/old voter – the young voter who isn’t that young anymore.

For years we have heard the statistics that the worst voting group in the nation is 18-24 year old demographic. There is no evidence that this will change in 2008. However, there is significance in the fact that the much-maligned 18-24 years olds in 2000 and 2004 are now approaching, or even have now surpassed, the adult milestone of turning 30. What these people represent is a new voting demographic – those who came into their political adulthood in the Clinton years, the grunge generation, those of us who grew up with a handful of flannel shirts and an earful of Pearl Jam now suddenly have a degree of quasi-maturity on account of our age and will likely vote en-masse for the first time.

The grunge generation, to blatantly generalize, is cynical and anti-ideological. Our parents, the boomers, were caught up in the rhetoric of the “change” generation and were consumed with a gluttony of self-righteousness and self-indulgent sense of purpose that failed miserably to change the world, instead leaving us with impractical politics and, unforgivably, with the Clintons. If anyone defines the lost cause of the Boomer mythology it is Bill and Hillary and their delusional self-aggrandizement. We are culturally beyond the Clintons – they are the past – there is a very real movement for a candidate that represents us.

We see through the Boomers - we saw through it then just as we saw through the ex-hippie hypocrisy of our parents. The decisions made in the 90’s and in this disastrously bloody decade, have been grotesque follies exposing the very need for pragmatism and caution in politics, instead of dangerous ideology. Though I cannot speak for my generation as a whole, it is safe to say that we feel as though we are another lost generation of men and women, viewing politics with the same cynicism we have developed out of contempt for “message based” politics, ad campaigns, and abuses of power in the form of wedge issues and in the name of domestic security. We have moved on into a new world of the post-ideological and we need a candidate.

Enter Barack Obama. Though he probably never jammed to Smells Like Teen Spirit, he has the right message for ears that have been waiting to hear it for a long time. He wants solutions and not just rhetoric and he’s about leadership and not just about straw polling and image. For young Republicans as well as young Democrats alike, he has the momentum as the first candidate from “our” generation, even though he isn’t actual a part of it. His message is and it is resonating with people who are tired of party politics. It is resonating, even with disenchanted Republicans.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

I have every intention of reading the new book God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. This may seem odd to some since I am a both a Christian and a traditionally conservative man, but it needn't be so. I have long been an admirer of Hitchens as a writer and as a "public intellectual", though I loathe that term. I think he is one of the more unique voices out there and he is consistantly compelling.

He is controversial - a fact he no doubt admires - and he comes across as the type of person who is not just content with dealing a fatal blow in debate, but instead, likes to torture the subject first. He has the public image of a man who likes push needles into people just to see how they react and then uncomfortably continue to push, even though the initial joke has gotten old. He is the ultimate contrarian.

His new subject isn't really a new one at all for fans of his work: the existence of God and the practice of His worship. This is a lofty subject. He is right to pick at religion and I have no doubt that the rave reviews of the book are justified. If you are going to pick a fight with an ethos, there are few better targets than Christianity. It is a religion muddled with outright contradiction and downright questionable details. Christians are insufferably self-righteous and have done (and still do) some ethically atrocious things in the name of God. Miracles, Virgin Birth, naughty popes, inquisitions, crusades, and a countless number of lives ruined because of the psychological torture of Divine Guilt - all easy fodder for a book intent on criticizing the role of religion in our society.

We don't need religion to be a moral society - a fact I have long been willing to concede after befriending a fair share of very ethical non-believers. As a society, we don't need fear of a literal Hell to keep us in line to do the right thing. We have prison and the Patriot Act for that sort of thing. On this I am certain Hitchens is correct. It is not only his argument but also the plea of non-believers the world over, that the world is often better off without religion because religious people do horrible things in the name of their gods.

Yet there is a need in some people, in me in particular, that leads to faith in God regardless of this. Hitchens likely would say that it is a psychological type of God complex, following the famous theme of Freud's History of an Illusion, but this is a stagnant condescension. Faith isn't necessarily something that I want, for life would possibly be easier without it, but it is something I need to have. It is a begrudgingly Calvinistic faith - one that has never been "tambourine in the choir loft" enthusiastic or evangelical - but faith nonetheless. I may not be the most divine person, I still, for lack of a better term, buy the whole God thing.

This is why I want to read his book. Not to be converted to his religion of athiesm, but to go through a splendid intellectual exercise. His book is no threat to my faith because I am sure I have read a lot worse that has been said, possibly accurately, about my beliefs. I look forward to it because I love his writing, his logic, and his venom.

So why read the works of someone who hates your God? Because I respect his worldview even if he doesn't respect the foundational core of my belief in the Divine. I respect him because he's a boomer leftist who, unlike most of his generation, hasn't a relativist notion is his marrow. He is a moral person, intensely if you read his work and see him speak, and he doesn't accept the usual relativist garbage of "to each their own". There are many very intelligent people who play with the truth, banging it around a bit, and analyzing its semantics to death, without actually ever believing or affirming anything about it. Hitchens, like his hero George Orwell, is a man who passionately believes in notions of right and wrong even though those definitive judgments are extremely unpopular among lefties and in the academy. He actually believes in something - just not God.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Bigger Fiasco Than Imagined

The book Fiasco by Thomas Ricks has been a fascinating read: It is a book that I am comfortable discussing having not finished. This is, of course, a rarity. I feel as though I know the ending already for we are living with it now. The ending is uncertainty and pessimism in Iraq – a country whose indigenous problems were made far worse by our occupation

If you haven’t read it you should. It’s an extremely well researched narrative account of the Iraq War. His use of evidence is thorough and impressive. Ricks gives us first hand accounts from grunts sitting in Bradley fighting vehicles in the same paragraph as high-minded war theory from historians and generals. He shows, through lurid detail, the political infighting of the Bush administration and how it directly affected what would become the quagmire in Iraq. It is an anti-war book written, it feels, reluctantly by someone who is a veteran war correspondent and one of the few people who “gets” the difference between a worthwhile strategic campaign and a campaign of folly. It is also a deeply patriotic text in the best sense of the word – here is an author that cares for the soldiers going through hell. He cares so much he’s trying to explain the inexplicable.

There are three things in this book that have struck me the most. First, after September 11, the invasion of Iraq was inevitable. The administration’s war caucus was dead set on it and congress was too self-centered to stop them. Second, that the War as reported by the media, is now and has been for three years, far worse than has been reported, not better, as claimed by the administration. Third, the President has been completely removed from the major decisions of the war, and according to Ricks, hasn’t been “in the loop” from the beginning.

First, the lead up to war: Officials at the DOD were intent on making this war a reality and were able to convince the SECDEF and the President of its inevitability with relative ease and without the intelligence to back it up. This is not new information, but it is absolutely astonishing how the worst-case scenario, that there was a conspiracy within the administration to mislead the public, actually worked with complete ease and without resistance. Congress was negligent, the president uncurious, and the nation full of wrath from 9-11, enough to buy the cock-and-bull story being pitched.

Second, the situation in Iraq is far more brutal and far more of a “hot” combat zone than the media has portrayed. Troops have been engaging in daily combat operations against a guerrilla force there since May 2003. That’s three years of constant combat operations against an insurgent force made up of humiliated and disenchanted young men who are nationalists, not just religious fundamentalists. It has long been the insistence of the Bush administration that the media was only portraying the bad things that happen in Iraq, never the good. This is a fallacy. The media is only giving us a small slice of what is, and has been for years, a hot combat zone and an actual War – not just isolated skirmishing and random attacks. Had the American people seen exactly what was going on over there in the summer of 2004, as well as been shown the repeated mistakes of this administration’s war policy, I suspect Bush wouldn’t be in office today.

This brings me to the third revelation – that of executive distance to the point of incompetence. When a nation goes to war we expect the Commander in Chief to be personally engaged with the cause, strategy, and eventually, the implementation of that strategy on the battlefield. In Fiasco, we don’ see much of the president at all. Unlike Lincoln or FDR, this president is comfortable taking the information he is being given and the recommendations of flawed men at face value. This is simply astonishing especially from a man who claims to care so much about what these men are going through.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

- Wilfred Owen

In The Pink

So Davies wrote: "This leaves me in the pink."
Then scrawled his name: "Your loving sweetheart, Willie."
With crosses for a hug. He'd had a drink
Of rum and tea; and, though the barn was chilly,
For once his blood ran warm; he had pay to spend.
Winter was passing; soon the year would mend.

But he couldn't sleep that night; stiff in the dark
He groaned and thought of Sundays at the farm,
And how he'd go as cheerful as a lark
In his best suit, to wander arm in arm
With brown-eyed Gwen, and whisper in her ear
The simple silly things she liked to hear.

And then he thought: to-morrow night we trudge
Up to the trenches, and my boots are rotten.
Five miles of stodgy clay and freezing sludge,
And everything but wretchedness forgotten.
To-night he's in the pink; but soon he'll die.
And still the war goes on - he don't know why.

- Siegfried Sassoon

Friday, May 25, 2007

I asked myself last night to clarify my position on the war for my readers. Here is what I came up with, more as a mental exercise I think, than anything profound. I think many of you share some of these frustrations.

Nearly ten years ago I was a student sitting in a lecture hall in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. As a young American romping around England for a college year abroad, I soaked up plenty of the culture. I even managed to take in a few lessons from the esteemed faculty of that institution, many who are still world-class scholars in the history, conduct, and theory of warfare.

One of those lessons, one that struck me later, in 2003, was the notion that there is no mono-causality in warfare. The Bush Administration was then selling a war in Iraq to a reluctant international community. This concept is simple enough for students to grasp and it means, in plain language, that all Wars are bigger than the matches that ignite their fodder, and that when studying warfare, particularly the history of conflict, you must the causes of war to understand the roots of the conflict. There is no single cause to any war but instead long cultural, political, economic, and often-diplomatic reasons for armed hostilities to begin.

When we went to war in Iraq, the Administration, as it was apt to do, was intent on simplification. It was mono-causality at its finest. To the Bush Administration, Saddam Hussein was an aggressive threat to his neighbors, a supporter of terror, and a proliferator of Weapons of Mass Destruction. He was an immediate threat and had to be stopped as all fascist dictators must be stopped, in order to make the world a safer place. Over time this simplification has been dissected and exposed as a poor attempt at public deception. A mono-cause is a simplification and it meant that the public was not fully prepared for the ramifications of this war, and now, the public wants out of Iraq.

This initial and continued simplification has destroyed the President’s credibility with the majority of Americans, say except for a slim part of the base, and it has severely harmed the Republican elected officials who have ridden on his coattails since. To be identified with this flawed path to war is to be identified as a conspirator in the mono-causality racket, this tragic simplification of the reasons to wage war.

What is a part of this, of course, is the public’s general feeling that they have been deceived. The initial cause of this war was plain enough in 2002-2003. When you make something so complex, so plain, there is the risk of losing content, and in this case, the public was never prepared for this to be a guerrilla war of indefinite length. Since the conflict has begun, there has been a growing perception that the initial cause of waging war was a sham and that the continued logic behind waging this war of choice, is another deception.

The reliance on single messages doesn’t just apply to the causes of the war either. The Bush administration seems to despise nuance. The President likes to appear resolute rather than intellectual. This is a shame because the public craves, more than anything, a reason to justify the lives lost and the limbs mangled. This is not to mention the civilians killed and the incalculable destruction of Iraqi villages and neighborhoods. Strength is all fine and good when a national capital is under attack, but even the strongest leaders of history, one thinks naturally of Churchill, Lincoln, and Pericles, were men of words as well. These men were facing horrible tests to their leadership and they felt the need to articulate their case for war to the public in a way that is now refreshing in its complexity.

President Bush has made no effective case for the continuation of this war other than the lame logic that we can’t leave just yet. If we do, then what little we have created in Iraq will fall apart. This is not enough substance for us to buy. Nor is it enough for Republican Presidential hopefuls to run on.

As Republicans, whether conservative, moderate, or libertarian, look to their leaders in the next year, as a party we should seek a candidate who is able to provide an alternative model of leadership than the one that hasn’t worked - President Bush. Bush may seem resolute to many, but he seems simplistic to many more, and his poor ability to communicate with the people has cost him moderate support for this war from within Republican ranks as well as with the public in general. His mono-track approach, the with us or against us foreign policy that led to Iraq, is insufficient to explain the continued loss of life once the initial cause of the war proved to be a fallacy and dissipated like smoke in the wind.

The next Republican presidential candidate has to, in order to be competitive, be a person of nuance and a person of communicative ability so that the public can hear from a person of authority (and authority doesn’t just come from the seal of the President on the podium) why we are continuing to wage war in Iraq beyond the usual rhetoric, which we are frankly tired of hearing. The Bush model is not enough to sustain this conflict and it is high time that Republicans showed some intellectual fortitude and complexity on the multifaceted issues of foreign policy, diplomacy, and the case for continued war

Thursday, May 24, 2007

I have no idea what I signed the other day at the liquor store, but I may have signed over my life, liberty, or happiness to the PLCB. I can’t say exactly what this document was that they required me to sign – the print was too fine and, after all, there was a line of about twenty other people waiting behind me, so I chose to sign whatever it was that I had to sign in order to get my bottle of booze and clear up the line of angry customers behind me.

There in my blue coat, my boyish face adorned with a certain scowl at having to wait fifteen whole unexaggerated minutes in line at the liquor store, the clerk studied my license before entering its contents into his computer, slowly with his two index fingers. Where this information was sent was unspecified – it was just entered into the computer. Why the government needs my information is unknown, as is what they will do with it, but the fact remains that to get alcohol they entered my information into a computer.

After this unnecessary act, the clerk handed me with his “I’ve got you” smugness, some sort of affidavit to sign verifying my details. At least I think that is what it is. It might as well been a search warrant or confession because I left the liquor store as worried as a teenager in a bar and I was thoroughly convinced that I did something wrong by buying a bottle of scotch. It was my fervent belief that the state police would be waiting for me at home, helicopters circling, and all because I legally bought a bottle of hooch and had every intention of having a drink sometime that Friday evening.

I know I look young. This is why I usually volunteer my license rather than wait to be asked for it, a trait, which I thought, showed some honesty and genuine earnestness before I was passive aggressively had my liberty insulted by the state. I am seven years past my twenty-first year milestone, married, a dog owner, college teacher, and am in debt, all things that are adult by most standards. But I do look very young so I certainly understand getting carded at the liquor store.

However, I don’t understand why the PLCB needs to enter my information into their computer and then ask me to sign something when I have willingly volunteered my license. This seems not only to be a heavy handed approach, but it smacks of paperwork and bureaucracy, and like most of the PLCB, seems to be a lingering puritanical remnant of the good old days, you know, of prohibition. Not only was my scotch carrying a hefty eighteen percent state liquor tax – but their actions proved to be rather taxing on my patience and sense of dignity as well. Points to them for not every government can both take your money and your pride.

I love Pennsylvania. I grew up here and I even named my beloved terrier after the state of my birth and rearing. However, unlike PennDot, I have never heard a positive said thing by anyone about the PLCB, its archaic laws, and the heavy hand of the self important and expensive state bureaucracy. I believe that Tom Paine was actually describing the PLCB when he wrote from Philadelphia in 1776 that bit about government being intolerable. Though I will make no moral judgment on the evilness of the PLCB, I will say that intolerable pretty much sums up the liquor laws of this state.

If you have ever lived in another state, one with more liberal laws concerning the regulation of “controlled substances” meaning booze, the difference is startling. My wife and I just came back from a two year exile in New Hampshire where I never once had to sign an affidavit for my out of state license nor have my information entered into a computer. They checked the license and trusted that I was who I said I was (and coincidently, I was), sold to me and moved on to the next eager customer. Additionally, you could buy beer and wine at the supermarket, but I won’t get into that.

The point is that I felt violated having my information entered into a computer and relatively insulted that the state government, represented through their clerks, assumed that I was trying to pull one over on them because I look young, and evidently, because I acted in good faith and offered my license in the first place. Good one Pennsylvania – after all that rigmarole, I certainly needed the drink.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

No Timeline for the Iraqis

The House Democrats withdrew the timeline provision from the wartime supplemental funding bill and are going to send the bill to the White House without this constraint. They will reexamine the bill in four months when supposedly, the real fight for war funding will happen. Hopefully it will be a legitimate and honest debate in September, but based on the past performance of this new congress, the chances of that happening are slim to none. I am glad that there is no timetable though I am opposed to our involvement in Iraq. I am also, practically speaking, interested in the situation not escalating beyond the borders. That is why we can’t leave – not just yet and not for a while.

Cutting off funding to the troops isn’t, and has never been, an effective alternative strategy. It sends a bad message. By doing so we are severely undercutting the ability of our army to function in the field. By setting a timeline for withdrawal, you might as well just send a greeting card to each soldier, using the Congressional frank of course, telling them you don’t give a shit about what they’re doing.

Congressmen in favor of a timeline patronizingly tell soldiers that they are doing this as an attempt to save lives. A timeline doesn’t save anybodies life – it emboldens the enemy. In addition to the lip service about saving soldiers, there is also a very real political debt owed to the anti-war base of the Democratic Party. There are better ways to save lives than a timetable provision to a wartime funding bill like, say, a stabilization strategy for a nation that has erupted into ruin and chaos.

By setting a timeline you are conceding defeat in Iraq and writing it off the daily actions of our soldiers on patrol as futile. A phased withdrawal is a lost cause. The theory is that we will bolster the Iraqis to become more accountable but instead, my suspicion is that we’ll be inviting more chaos. What is imperative in warfare is to allow the commanders in the field the ability to directly assess their own situations and for civilians to offer them flexibility in the implementation of their strategy. Setting a timetable is like asking a one armed general to play wide receiver.

If congress wants to do something productive, there are other things it can do. Unfortunately, they take guts and not just political posturing. The two issues of the war that congress has repeatedly failed to address through proper oversight are: First, the causes of this war and the responsibility for the anarchy in Iraq in 2003-2004: Second, the repeated reinforcement of a failed strategy for three years before the surge of February 2007. If the people are mad at the administration for getting us into a situation where we now have to fight it out, then punish the administration for causing the war and don’t, instead, punish the troops oversees. Have some guts and go after the people responsible for this debacle.

Congress should investigate the causes of this war and expose through official report how the administration got us into this war, aided by their own failure to effectively check executive power, and censure those responsible. They need to stop talking about how they were misled and start taking some responsibility for themselves since they are all implicated in this war as well. Standing by and doing nothing in the face of injustice is sometimes just as immoral as committing the act itself.

We were not just unjustly taken into war – the war has been a colossal military blunder from the start too. Congress should hold hearings with current and former soldiers, from senior commanders down through platoon grade officers, to properly assess where we have been and where we need to go and show the public the real situation in Iraq. We need to know if there is a future in Iraq that is winnable and what exactly winning can (and will) look like. Based on the administration’s rhetoric, we have no idea of either of these, and presumably, neither do they.

We need an accurate picture so that the American people can make their own decision next year in the leadership we deserve. Although congress has repeatedly failed in their oversight of this administration for six years, now there is an opportunity for a real examination of the administration. It’s a lot easier to posture or to protest – but it takes real courage to pick a real fight and hold your ground against a goliath. This is what voters asked for last fall – and its what we expect.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Today Show Needs to Get Real

The lead political story today on the Today Show (NBC) was about Rudy Giuliani’s prospects of winning the Republican nomination for president. Although certainly worthy of political speculation, the race for the presidency is not the most pressing issue at present for their viewing public. It is, however, an easy substantive issue for people to grasp. People understand elections and political personalities. This is why these subjects have, for lack of a better term, legs. However what is substantially more difficult to grasp are where any of these people stand on anything – a hurdle we may never jump. Bush did a good job showing what kind of candidate he was in 2000 only to reverse his entire profile as an isolationist and compassionate conservative a year after inauguration.

I can’t blame the public for wanting to focus on someone other than President Bush. To do so gives one hope that there may be better days ahead. Likewise, the media longs to cover the campaign because, well, it gives them something to report other than the very complicated state of domestic and international politics. It’s a lot easier and a lot more fun to follow candidates and report on the thrusts and parries of the campaign stomp. You can report on these subjects with a smirk. There is nothing to smirk about when reporting yet another multiple car bombing just outside of the Green Zone.

So this morning they reported on Giuliani’s status with the evangelicals. Its a much easier topic for a morning show's roundtable than the growing and escalating problems in the Middle East. But this is precisely what they should be reporting instead of hyping the race for the White House a full year before the political conventions next summer. Although the Today Show is not exactly where we turn for hard news, it is about time that these fluff shows got serious about the war and the sacrifices being made in Baghdad and Afghanistan.

Contrary to the official line, wars aren’t won by tax cuts, shopping trips, and Disneyland. After 9-11 the President told us to go on with our daily lives in the face of something that was culturally and historically transformative. Thus was the beginning of our paradox – remember 9-11 and the fallen but don’t let the war get too close for comfort. Since that time, the burden of this conflict has been only felt by the families of the deployed or fallen – the military husbands, wives, friends, fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, and children. For the rest of us, we understand the sacrifice only in terms of sporadic casualty reports on the local news, mostly a distant name, or occasionally, a face back dropped in an official US Army flag.

But instead of the Today Show devoting time for a daily segment memorializing a dead soldier, we get more coverage on politicians and their race for office. Instead of a segment on the struggle to walk again by an amputee, we have the political analysis of Giuliani’s multiple wives and Obama’s smoking. There are real issues at present that are more worthy of our focus.

We have nineteen months left of the Bush Presidency. If recent casualty estimates remain consistent, that will be at least another thousand troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan before the president goes back to Midland. Before we begin trumpeting candidates, it is the obligation of the media to show the public exactly what is at risk in the next election, and not just in terms of the personalities of the candidates. We need to understand the full scope of this world crisis so that the next person we chose, we can do so based on leadership and policy and not just in terms of posturing and personality.

Monday, May 21, 2007

I am reading Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday. I am not finished with it, so please don’t spoil the ending. However I am a little over half way through and I was surprised by a passage that I will attempt to put into some context. The novel follows one Henry Perowne, neurosurgeon, on a Saturday in February before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is the day of the largest London demonstration against the impending war in Iraq. Perowne, though concerned with the state of the world, is far more interested in making it to his weekend squash game than protesting.

Though not directly involved in the demonstration, he sees the march from the periphery. He is inconvenienced by the street closings (one of these closings leads to him getting mugged). The tension in the very air makes him consider the case for war. He summarizes the issues thus:

“The UN is predicting hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths. There could be revenge attacks on London. And still the Americans remain vague about their post-war plans. Perhaps they have none. In addition, Saddam could be overthrown at too high a cost. It’s a future no one can read. Government ministers speak up loyally, various newspapers back the war, there’s a fair degree of anxious support in the country along with the dissent, but no one really doubts that in Britain one man alone is driving the matter forward.” McEwan, Saturday (2005) p. 147

That one man was Tony Blair. McEwan, in a careful summary, shows us many of the questions that were raised in all of our minds before we got involved in the War in Iraq. This is not a work of hindsight either. These are accurate statements that summarize the issues being posed before the invasion and are a direct refutation to the ignorance defense given by politicians explaining their early support for the conflict.

As much as we are diluted by the “if we knew then what we knew now” talk by Presidential aspirants or from poll watching politicians, the fact is that there were plenty of people raising doubts about this war from the beginning. It is impossible for me to accept the ignorance excuse. Either they went along with the President because they were afraid of the political ramifications if it turned out well, or, they have horrendous judgment and absolutely no foresight. It was there job to ask the right questions and they simply didn’t do it.

There were plenty of people who didn’t buy it. Most weren’t in a position to do anything about it.

The intelligence wasn’t that convincing anyway. When Colin Powell spoke to the UN, I was sitting around with the rest of my office watching the presentation of the slam dunk case for war. We were all Republican congressional staffers and interestingly, we were all skeptical of going to war. We had been reading lots of briefing materials for our boss, talking points reiterating the official line, and there was a lot more smirking at this stuff than there was an actual belief that Saddam was a legitimate threat.

After Powell finished, we looked around each other and said, practically in unison, “that’s it?” From the Sunday morning talk shows all the way down to the editorials in local papers, the public got the feeling that this thing was inevitable, and we might as well back the right side, lest we be thought of as something less than American. If ever there was a more unpatriotic zeitgeist it was the casual and apathetic acceptance of this war from the very beginning.

McEwan’s book, published in 2005 but written during the early days of the Iraqi War but it is a reminder that there were millions of people who didn’t buy it. Moreover, it isn’t hindsight to say that some got it right, and not by accident.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Former President Clinton was on CNN this morning talking global poverty issues. I have no reason to doubt the former president’s sincerity on this issue. He has donated literally years to it and a lot of money to his initiative and I certainly applaud his efforts. It’s a shame that until the general election next year, I won’t hear his message.

The reason is simple. His wife is running for president and I can’t, for a moment, buy anything he’s pitching without a warning light going off behind my right eye, blinking annoyingly, telling me not to trust him. Its completely na├»ve to assume otherwise. When the Clinton’s get behind something I automatically suspect that they’re doing it for political gain. Now that Sen. Clinton is running and her husband is actively campaigning on her behalf, such a sentiment is confirmed. There is no separation between in the public/private lives of a campaigner.

I bet Bill is a bang up guy. He’s supposedly very impressive and personable. I can respect that. I just wish that his wife wasn’t running for president. Where he is affable she is cold. Where he is supposedly sincere she appears calculating. Whatever attributes he has in the public mind there is no sense in assuming that she has the same attributes nor that she will be the same kind of president.

Not only that, but I’m tired of the Clintons. I am “over” them much like I am “over” the TV show Friends. It was great in the nineties, when I was in high school and college, but now as an adult I want something a little more genuine. I am sure that Sen. Clinton has a lot of good qualities but appearing genuine is not one of them.

So I guess my point on this Sunday morning is not that I dislike the Clintons, but it is that I wish they would do something other than run for president. If they didn’t seem like they were crack-addicted to power and the White House, then they could actually do a lot of good for the world. Sen. Clinton would make a fantastic Senate Majority Leader and there have been many very bright columnists, left and right that have shown that her skills lie as a political dealmaker in the senate.

And Bill, well, he would have a lot more moral credibility on global poverty issues if he weren’t running for president with his wife. He would make a great Secretary General of the UN, or a great ambassador, or a great global statesman with Bono saving Africa. Instead of running I wish he’d go back to saving the world so I could admire the work of former President Clinton instead of suspecting the political motivations behind his good works.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

I was thinking today on libertarianism. If I were more pretentious and subsequently more obnoxious, I would say that I was thinking “On Liberty” today, but of course I wasn’t. Nobody who isn’t in a political thought class thinks “On Liberty” and then they only do it because they’re expecting a reading quiz. Usually we think of issues on liberty very selfishly, also, superficially. Am I able to smoke, can I buy a gun or liquor, how does your smoking/gun/liquor impede on my liberty?

I have always been very sympathetic toward the libertarian line of thinking. Thursday, I was re-reading P.J. O’Rourke’s Parliament of Whores. As a work of humor it is timeless but as a political tome, it reads like a relic. The government that O’Rourke is ridiculing is one that simply doesn’t exist anymore. The whole world may not have changed because of 9-11, such a thing is impossible for us now to measure, but our government has certainly changed and this is likely at the expense of the individual.

Parliament was written in the early nineties when libertarianism was a predominant ideology within the Republican Party. The mantra then was that government wasn’t the solution to the ills of society but that in our culture the individual must be predominant in value over the collective. O’Rourke says clearly:

"This book is written, of course, from a conservative point of view. Conservativism favors the restraint of government. A little government and a little luck are necessary in life, but only a fool trusts either of them. Also, conservativism is, at least in its American form, a philosophy that relies upon personal responsibility and promotes private liberty. It is an ideology of individuals."

This is not a conservative now. There is no mention of gays, abortion, terror or torture. Quite the opposite in fact. There is an emphasis on private liberty (right to privacy so vehemently opposed by religious fanatics) and restraint as well as the rule of law and the sanctity of the individual. It’s a weird combination of Emersonian Self-Reliance and John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism. It also reeks of the ghost of Tom Paine, “government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”

To O’Rourke, after the failure of the Great Society, where government had invested much and accomplished little, we needed to go back to basics. This new/old approach focused on the individual, gently guided by government in some cases, to improve their lot in life. In his book O’Rourke shows us the corruption in big government, the wastefulness, and how the earnest intentions of societal do-gooders from the 60’s failed. It is a political text intent on poking fun of fellow boomers and politicians while also espousing a more passive alternative of individual liberty. If government can’t solve our problems then who can? We can.

I loved this philosophy and I still do. It used to be a Republican ideology but it isn’t anymore. If you go to a Republican committee meeting you’ll hear some lip service for some of this but nobody takes it seriously. Our elected officials, who vote year after year to increase pork spending and the federal deficit, certainly don’t. Our president, who believes so strongly in the PATRIOT Act (never has there been a greater irony in acronym), torture, and federal intervention on lifestyle choices, surely doesn’t care for personal liberty. According to my exhaustive research in the parking lot of the local Sheetz, the only people left who openly toe the libertarian line are the gun nuts and chain smokers. People have a hard time listening to arguments, how effective they may be, from a person in sunglasses with a pistol on their belt and a heater in their mouth, smoking next to a propane tank outside of a gas station.

So have we reached a point where libertarianism is dead? If not dead, it is certainly archaic. As out Executive Branch of government continues its climb up the imperial ascendancy of Olympus, then we are left with a weak Congress content with expanding the role of a paternalistic and parasitic government in our society. Where is the individual in this? Our first great intellectual movement as a nation was rugged individualism. It’s a part of who we are as a collective society. Maybe its time we remembered it and got back to basics.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Paul Krugman, a decent lefty columnist for the NY Times had this to say today:

“In fact, rank-and-file Republicans continue to approve strongly of Mr. Bush’s policies — and the more un-American the policy, the more they support it.”

His article is a pretty scathing attack on “rank-and-file” Republicans, in spite of the fact he makes no reasonable attempt to define exactly who those people are. He makes a compelling case that there is overwhelming support within Republican ranks for the president and his “un-American” policies (like torture) and that Bush doesn’t deserve full credit for the ruinous state of our current politic, but that this burden should be shared by all who checked “R” in the registration box.

There are some obvious problems with Mr. Krugman’s logic. First, his opinion is bigoted in the worst way. He is passing a moral judgment on an entire group of people, a sense of collective guilt, because of his assumptions about them. Second, and perhaps more important, he is trying rather lamely to ironically use the word “un-American”, a filthy term often used by conservatives to describe those whom they consider weak-kneed liberals, on Republicans who support the president. It is a bad example of an inflammatory column and it isn’t persuasive in the least because it doesn’t advance the argument beyond the level of a bumper sticker on the back of a Prius.

Dr. Johnson had a good phrase for those who are quick to question another’s patriotism as a way of underhandedly scoring points in a public debate. “Patriotism is the last vestige of a scoundrel,” an apt quote for Mr. Krugman who in this instance is using the problematic word un-American, to pass a moral judgment on a political party as a way to feed his base of other hungry, bigoted, lefties.

I have a lot of lefty friends. The most vehement of their ranks, the most vocal, are those who still think that I am an insensitive warmonger because of my voter registration preference. This is inspite of the fact that I am against the war and that I love puppies. It is just as stupid to say that, “all Republicans are (substitute derogatory phrase here)” as saying that “all liberals are bedwetting pinkos”. Nobody wants a political process based on this crap and its high time that those of us in the middle got over our party registrations and started listening to each other.

Not to make this personal, which of course means that I am going to, but please don’t try to blame me for the fact that the Bush Presidency turned out to be awful. Its not like when I voted for the guy I thought “gee, who can I elect who’ll fuck up America.” Don’t blame me because I voted for the guy – there are bigger people to blame for our situation. You know, like Congressmen and Generals. Picking on someone because of their voter registration is shooting way low of who you should be aiming at.

As long as columnists like Mr. Krugman keep the public debate so low, that of the insult however sophisticated his may be, then there is little hope that we can reach a cultural moment of reconciliation so needed in American politics between the left, right, and center.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Perhaps the biggest issue facing Republicans, that is, as we move away from this awful and suicidal administration, is the very real issue of public credibility. Has the Bush presidency tarnished our collective credibility? Will people associate being a Republican with being a warmongering, evangelical, and social irresponsible imperial demagogue? Credibility is something that it takes a long time to earn and sometimes a single moment to completely destroy. Where will we stand in the public image after this long eight years is over?

The good news, perhaps, is that the Bush Administration has been so destructive to conservatives and evangelical Christianity that it is almost impossible for either a faith based candidate or a religio-conservative in the Bush mode to get elected in 2008. The bad news, well, is that without the religio-conservative party base, it the rest of the Republican Party is a strange combination of fringe ideologies. Without the vociferous and bloodthirsty base, we are left with a large, but unfortunately quiet minority of reasonable people.

There are the old school libertarians and the even older school liberal republicans of my grandfather’s vintage. Most of the latter are dead. More than one cynic I know cherishes their memory.

Most of us under fifty are a strange modern hybrid who like tradition but who can do without the nasty bits associated with it. We hybrids are a bit green in our social values, but also, we have a lot more to contribute to the ideas factory than just the typical tax cuts and abortion message which has intellectually retarded our political party for too long.

The problem with being a hybrid is that we are too nuanced. I don’t mean to sound elitist (for it is an apt critique), but in this case I believe it is true of the non-Bush crowd in the party. We are people who are multifaceted thinkers and it gets us into trouble.

Anywhere outside of politics, nuance is a good thing. In term papers we applaud the student who triangulates their evidence, who thinks of issues from multiple perspectives and offers a reasoned conclusion to round out the argument. In politics, this type of balance is a death sentence. The base wants emotional rhetoric like the famous “smoking gun might become a mushroom cloud”. Phrases like these are lazy; they require very little intellectual effort to understand. Unfortunately, they have devastating results in their simplification. Applied to another issue, healthcare, it is also true. The “I don’t want government telling me which doctor I can see” school is about scaring people to oppose something outright, rather than to discuss the issue in any depth and offer a reasoned solution.

And this is precisely why my contemporaries, those of us inching toward thirty, are full of political malaise. Any person with any moniker of education, no any person simply with the ability to reason, can see the fault in simplifying issues that are by their very nature, meant to be complex. We hybrids want our leaders to be deep thinkers, but for some reason, conservative Republicans have a complete opposition to nuanced thinking dismissing it outright as either soft or liberal.

However, I know for a fact that there are more hybrids out there than most pundits think. Most of us either voted Democratic in the last Congressional election or stayed home. We are people who come from Republican families (like me) or who were attracted to the reform movement in the 90’s that wanted to clean up government, make it streamlined and sensible, and were opposed to the very nature of Clintonian focus group politics. In short, we are intellectual, but not to a fault. We are not relativists but realists. We are moral, but not to an unpleasant extreme. Some of us are religious, though on the more liberal side of the theological coin. We are practical, without being simpletons. Our natural instinct is caution but we can and will act, especially on issues of fundamental human decency.

We are precisely the people who walked away from this horrid administration after Hurricane Katrina. If ever there was a time to lose hope in one’s party it was in that pitiful display of incompetence. The information that has been published since has brought to light the simple fact that all of our suspicions about the Iraq War have been true, and some, far worse than we thought.

So why do we hybrids have so little clout? Because the base of the party hates us. They think that we’re not Republican enough to matter, that we are fickle and flighty, and that we lack conviction. Of course, none of these things are true but it is that type of outright dismissal that is going to reaffirm the Republican minority in Congress in 2008. This is not a bad thing either, since we as a party need to do some soul searching, and there is no better place for that than in opposition.

The question going forward is what type of party will emerge? Will the hybrids transform their party or will they continue to be overshadowed by the base? Will the hybrids leave the party and go over to the democrats or, more likely, become independents? These are the questions that should be asked at party meetings. I wouldn’t know, for we hybrids aren’t invited. They’re afraid will ask for a vegetarian option.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jerry Falwell is dead. I don’t believe he deserved the hype he got in life and I don’t believe his death deserves the hype it’s getting now. Rather than donate any more cyber space to a second rate politico and third rate preacher, I will comment on an issue near and dear to his heart – the Pro-Life stand.

The Other Pro-Life

It is resolved then, that it is a simple fact of existence backed up by the bumper stickeritis that infects central Pennsylvania, that in order to be a good Republican, you need to be pro-life. From the base on up the legislative food chain, the pro-choice Republican went the way of the three-martini lunch. Rudy is one, but barely, and the other panderers in the Republican primary for President are strictly toeing the line either out of legitimate principal, or because they are scared of the fundamentalists.

Although I truly believe the abortion issue to be a legislative ruse de guerre of modern politics, I think there is a basic inconsistency in the way that conservatives view the pro-life issue. No, I am not talking about the logical conundrum of being against abortion and for the death penalty. What I mean is that conservatives should consider taking the very basic moral stance of being pro-life and apply it to actual life, and not just pre-natal politics. If we were legitimately pro-life as a party, we would be advocating programs to benefit those outside of the womb as well.

Being pro-life means taking care of the living as well as those unborn. If conservatives are to be consistent and convincing on this issue, then they should be advocate better child healthcare and better public education. Life is a continual cycle that begins before conception (sperm and egg are both ‘live’ cells before being united in groovy-ness) and if we are to be a society that advocates life, then that should be advocating in the strongest sense of the word, improving the quality of our society as a whole.

It doesn’t stop with children. Being pro-life means advocating a reformed healthcare system that improved public health universally and throughout life. Advocating a public-private compromise to make access to healthcare affordable and mandatory of all citizens is a good way to go and one that still enables choice for the consumer, but prevents insurance companies from charging unaffordable premiums. Being pro-life is about taking care of the living, the uninsured, the poor, and the elderly throughout life and not letting the uninsured and the underinsured, live without access to doctors and medication.

Being pro-life also means also taking care of our natural environment to ensure that we have a world worth living in for our grandchildren. It means clean water and protecting our environment. It means conservation, tree planting, hiking trails, and the development of alternative fuels.

Being pro-life doesn’t stop with humans. If we require the death of animals to sustain our appetite for poultry and meat, we can make sure that these animals have dignity when they are alive and are raised and kept in clean and humane environments. It should be mandatory that animals be treated in a humane and dignified way, even if they’ll be slaughtered, it is morally outrageous the way the poultry and pork industries treat the animals under their care.

Unfortunately many conservatives see these things as liberal or as I have often heard “crunchy” values. If this is so, then conservatives are conceding that the left has a greater concern for public morality than the right, which is certainly not the case.

So why is the right often on the wrong side of these issues? Well, it has to do mostly with money. The Republican Party has often been criticized for being in bed with big industry and with the Industry of Faith. There is a reason for some stereotypes. There is a reason for this one as well. Republicans are reluctant to pass laws that govern industry because being in bed with industry is a conservative legacy that had been a detriment to the party. Likewise, Republican politicians are afraid to lose the religious demographic that is crucial to their get out to vote effort, and also indirectly, part of their fundraising strategy.

The market is governed by a lot of things, but it is not governed by morality. If we are to be a moral party, then we need to consider all issues of public morality our issues, part of our duty to make a better society. It amazes me that many mainstream Christians seem to care more about abortion than they do about the enormous social issues that we can actually do something about, right now. If we are to advocate being pro-life, then we need to reconsider how people are treated outside of the womb as well as within.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

David Brooks - You Rock!

David Brooks is a really smart guy. I wanted to come up with a lead that was a little more sophisticated, but I failed to come up with anything that didn’t sound pretentious. Brooks is just a smart guy – the kind of guy who if you were in a meeting with him, you’d walk away saying “wow, he’s smart.” This is opposed to most conservative columnists. You’d walk away from meeting them saying, “wow, he’s an arrogant blowbag.” Sorry Robert Novak – Crossfire didn't help your image.

Brooks isn’t a blowbag and there lies his charm. Where other conservatives are dower, he is optimistic. Where some are dark and insulting he is forward-looking and even, rosy. He is the original item, the real deal, and a person with a completely unique outlook. The irony is that he comes from a side that sneers at originality because its suspect and strongly dislikes creativity, because it is soft.

Brooks isn’t taken seriously by conservatives or by the Republican base. They see him as too liberal. When I said to my students this past term that Brooks was the conservative columnist for the New York Times, they scoffed. Anyone who was conservative for the Times must be too liberal to be mainstream, so went their thinking. Likewise, when I have sent his articles to some of my more conservative friends, they think he’s too liberal. Crunchy is the word that they use; he’s a crunchy Republican. He’s soft and fluffy, not meaty and mean, like Cheney.

He’s not liberal; he just he isn’t their kind of conservative. Their kind is what the party has become in recent years. It is largely an ironic blend of evangelism and reaction. Like a spider retreating into a crevice from the beam of a flashlight, reactionary conservatives retreat from new ideas into their comfortable, but dank, corner.

The Republican Party has become what John Stuart Mill called “the stupid party”. Allegedly (though there is some dispute) he was describing backwater conservatives who were enslaved to the status quo and refused to believe in progressive ideas, like science or social reform in mid-nineteenth century England. The conservatives, or Tories, were so reactionary that they refused to open up their eyes to either the injustice around them or the ideas blossoming to correct it – ideas from science, technology, or social philosophy. Sound familiar?

Brooks is the human antithesis of “the stupid party” for he is a vibrant and refreshing mind and he comes from an intellectual side, or Party, seriously lacking in both qualities. The fact that he isn’t accepted by the stupider elements of the Republican Party is no surprise. They like their columnists like they like their preachers – all rant and no substance beyond the skin of the onion. Think of Sean Hannity and David Brooks taking an essay exam in political science class – who would you put money on?

Today David Brooks outlined the first in a series of columns he is calling the “Human Capital Agenda” an agenda he thinks can save a Republican candidate for President from being out-thought by the Democrats. It is a big agenda, a bold new strategy for opportunity and social growth, and one that I fear at the outset is doomed for the intellectual graveyard. As long as the Republican candidates continue to pander to the stupid party within their party, they will forfeit the ideas race because they will lose their credibility to moderate voters.

Why would I want to vote for someone who was only a month ago a toady to the crazy wing of my party? Why would I trust that person with my future? What does that say about their sense of conviction? What does it say about mine if I vote for them?

These are real questions that get to the heart of the Republican candidate’s credibility with those of us in the middle. We want a person with the ideas of Brooks, the big thinking vision that can transform the political, but that sort of conviction is not found in panderers. Ironically, that sort of statesmanship is found in a visionary columnist from the New York Times.

Monday, May 14, 2007

My Sad Little Identity Crisis

What do dorky insomniacs do in the middle of the night? We think about our political ideology.

So sometime this morning, say around four o’clock (a time I call my “witching hour” for its when my thoughts are at their most devilish) I was lying in bed with my eyes closed, wishing I was asleep, and thinking of my political ideology. This is not a good way to start my week and my summer, but hey, it’s a lot better than some of the things I’ve worried about in the middle of the night.

There I was trying to classify my political beliefs into some concrete ideology. What do political parties do? They make your life easier. For the most part, the party tells you what to believe, and it makes voting easier. If you are so inclined, you just have to pull one handle instead of diligently sift through a bunch of names. Since I am not an idiot, my party is no help to me.

Did I reach a conclusion? Nothing concrete. I realized that the one thing that has remained constant in my life since childhood has been a healthy mixture of moral idealism and constant cynicism. The former is there because I like the idea of ideals more than I like to hear people talk about them. The latter is brought upon by my constant disappointment in politics and politicians. Someone once told me “I was way too young to be this cynical.” I thought, “This guy is way too old to be this big of an idiot.” How could a person living the way we do now not be cynical.

But like most humans, I am political being. I love following politics because I love the disappointment, the manic awfulness that we see weekly in national debate, by the bad behavior of terrible and spineless politicians, and through the constant reminder that Hobbes was right after all. Let the world be brutish, I am content being nasty and short.

I was up thinking (mostly) about whether I was a Republican or not. This is my true dilemma. I loathe the President and his policies. I am in favor of fair shakes and decency for all people, especially those who really need it. I am against the Iraq War. I believe in preserving and protecting our natural world. I have no respect for religious fundamentalism because it is narrow-minded and for lack of a better term, stupid. I run from wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage because I believe both should be legal and left up to the individual as a matter of conscious. I am a man of nuance in a party that punishes people who like to think about things.

So how can I be a Republican? Well, as much as I sound very much like a lefty on the major issues, my natural reaction to everything, whether its dinner or a bill before the state house, is usually reserved. Although I am not a conservative in the modern sense, I believe in that very conservative principal of caution. I believe in responsibility and moderation as life mantras. I am super square. I love button down shirts and cocktails before dinner. I am a cautious man in every way.

This is, I think, the same type of caution that reacted against the French Revolution. It’s Burkeian legacy of not reinventing the world solely to watch the old order burn, for there is some wisdom in traditional things we take for granted. There is an institutional memory that is just as alive as the spirit of radicalism, though never as vocal, and seldom as cool.

I suppose my dilemma is that my party has taken Conservativism and radicalized it as a reaction to the supposed “cultural” threats that are really no threat at all to our society. This is nothing historically new for the Republican Party, a party, which was born as a radical anti-slavery party, back when we were the good guys on race issues. You know before people like Karl Rove placated racists and handed over the moral credibility of Lincoln’s Grand Old Party to Confederate Flag waving racist yahoos.

And this just sucks because the moral credibility of my party has been sold out by this Administration’s corruption, wars, and societal deceptions. It has left those of us in the center-left (I am using these terms of categorization as a convenience not because of their supposed accuracy) of the Republican Party, people who believe in progress AND prior wisdom, cast out into the wilderness and pining for a solution. We are an embarrassed lot at this moment of history. Most of us voted for Bush, at least once, and we are stuck now with I Told You So’s in front of us and the Radical and Crazed Republican Base with a knife to our backs and calling us soft. There is no place for the progressive Republican because we have been marginalized by the venomous polarization of our political culture.

I blame the President. Well, it probably isn’t directly his fault, but that doesn’t stop anyone else from blaming him so why should it stop me? The people who we should be really blaming are the toady Republican Congressmen who have given the Administration a license to destroy the credibility of the party and create a political machine in Washington that is more interested in self-preservation than in creating a better world. These guys believed everything the administration told them about the War and many are still too afraid to go against the President even in districts where Bush is as popular as herpes.

This is all just sad. Not I don’t know a lot about how “sins” are graded in heaven, but if I were keeping score up there, I think that the Iraq War is a bigger sin that a couple of dudes getting married in Massachusetts. For me, I know I was sold a bill of goods and I can’t help but feel tremendously cheated by President Bush and his court of imbecility. Most people are looking forward to 2008 because they want change. I suppose I should be too. But I’m not. I’ve been hopeful before. I’ll stay cynical – it’s a lot healthier in the long run. At least I can get some sleep this way.