Tag Archives: David Brooks

David Brooks: Better In the Original German

11 Mar

Isaac Chotiner thinks David Brooks is not making sense. That’s because Chotiner’s reading Brooks in translation. He needs to read Brooks in the original German.

Here’s Brooks in translation:

What’s happening can be more accurately described this way: Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs….American opinion is marked by an amazing sense of limitation —that there are severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do.

Today people are more likely to believe that…the liberal order is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet. The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals.

It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional.

Here’s Brooks in the original German:

A world in which the possibility of war is utterly eliminated…would be a world without the distinction of friend and enemy and hence a world without politics.  It is conceivable that such a world might contain many very interesting antithesis and contrasts, competitions and intrigues of every kind, but there would not be a meaningful antithesis whereby men could be required to sacrifice life, authorized to shed blood, and kill other human beings.

The negation of the political, which is inherent in every consistent individualism, leads necessarily to a political practice of distrust toward all conceivable political forces and forms of state and government, but never produces on its own a positive theory of state, government, and politics.

What this liberalism still admits of state, government, and politics is confined to securing the conditions for liberty and eliminating infringements on freedom. We thus arrive at an entire system of demilitarized and depoliticalized concepts.

State and politics cannot be exterminated.

American Schmittianism, alive and well.

David Brooks Says

18 Dec

Matt Yglesias has an excellent post on the most recent column of David Brooks.

David Brooks says:

We are in the middle of…a dangerous level of family breakdown.

David Brooks says:

It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites. The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids. Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.

David Brooks says:

I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families.

David Brooks says:

It’s not enough just to have economic growth policies. The country also needs to rebuild orderly communities. This requires bourgeois paternalism: Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.

David Brooks is getting divorced.

David Brooks: The Last Stalinist

11 Jun

David Brooks disapproves of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

Snowden’s actions, Brooks says, are a betrayal of virtually every commitment and connection Snowden has ever made: his oath to his country, his promise to his employer, his loyalty to his friends, and more.

But in one of those precious pirouettes of paradox that only he can perform, Brooks sees those betrayals as a symptom of a deeper pathology: Snowden’s inability to make commitments and connections.

According to The Washington Post, he has not been a regular presence around his mother’s house for years. When a neighbor in Hawaii tried to introduce himself, Snowden cut him off and made it clear he wanted no neighborly relationships. He went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton and the C.I.A., but he has separated himself from them, too.

Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.

If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme.

This is an old argument on the communitarian right and left: the loss of social bonds and connections turns men and women into the flotsam and jetsam of modern society, ready for any reckless adventure, no matter how malignant: treason, serial murder, totalitarianism.

It’s mostly bullshit, but there’s a certain logic to what Brooks is saying, albeit one he might not care to face up to.

In the long history of state tyranny, it is often those who are bound by close ties of personal connection to family and friends that are most likely to cooperate with the government: that is, not to “betray” their oaths to a repressive regime, not to oppose or challenge authoritarian rule. Precisely because those ties are levers that the regime can pull in order to engineer an individual’s collaboration and consent.

Take the Soviet Union under Stalin. Though there’s a venerable tradition in social thought that sees Soviet totalitarianism as the product of atomized individuals, one of the factors that made Stalinism possible was precisely that men and women were connected to each other, that they were in families and felt bound to protect each other. To protect each other by cooperating with rather than opposing Stalin.

Nikolai Bukharin’s confession in a 1938 show trial to an extraordinary career of counterrevolutionary crime, crimes he clearly did not commit, has long served as a touchstone of the manic self-liquidation that was supposed to be communism. It has inspired such  treatments as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror, and Godard’s La Chinoise. Yet contrary to the myth that Bukharin somehow chose to sacrifice himself for the sake of the cause, Bukharin was brutally interrogated for a year and he was repeatedly threatened with violence against his family. In the end, the possibility that a confession might save them, if not him, proved to be potent. (1)

Threats against family members were one of the most effective means for securing cooperation with the Soviet regime; in fact, many of those who refused to confess had no children. As I wrote in Fear: The History of a Political Idea:

Stalin corralled many individuals to cooperate with his tyranny by threatening their families, and had less success among those with no families. In a 1947 letter, the head of Soviet counterintelligence recommended invoking suspects’ “family and personal ties” during interrogation sessions. Soviet interrogators would put on their desks, in full view, the personal effects of suspects’ relatives as well as a copy of a decree legalizing the execution of children. (2)

It wasn’t just under Stalin that family ties could be leveraged like this. The entire history of McCarthyism, that sordid story of the blacklist and naming names, is littered with similar concerns, albeit of a less lethal variety.

Sterling Hayden—best known for his roles as General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove and the corrupt Captain McCluskey in The Godfather—named seven names (including his former lover) in part because he was worried that if he didn’t cooperate with the government he might lose custody of his children (he was in the middle of divorce proceedings.) (3)

More often, those who cooperated with the government did so because they feared they wouldn’t be able to support their families. That was certainly the case with Roy Huggins, a now forgotten screenwriter, producer, and director, who gave us television shows like The Fugitive and The Rockford Files. Huggins named 19 names to HUAC—though he refused to spell them for the committee, prompting Victor Navasky to drily comment that Huggins deemed it more principled “to give the names but not the letters.” Though Huggins daydreamed of the political theater of going to prison rather than betray his comrades—witnesses refusing to name names could be cited for contempt of Congress and then be tried, convicted, and jailed—he worried too much about his family to resist: “Who the hell is going to take care of two small children, a mother, and a wife, all of whom are totally dependent on me?” (4)

As Elia Kazan deliberated over whether to name names (he eventually did), he told the producer Kermit Bloomgarden—who was responsible for bringing such plays as Death of a Salesman, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Equus to the American stage—that “I’ve got to think of my kids.” To which Bloomgarden responded, “This too shall pass, and then you’ll be an informer in the eyes of your kids, think of that.” And while Kazan had other options that would have kept his family afloat, as did writers who could write under pseudonyms, that was not the case with well known actors like Lee J. Cobb, who declared “It’s the only face I have.” Or Zero Mostel, who said, “I am a man of thousand faces, all of them blacklisted.” (Cobb named names. Mostel did not.) (5)

But it’s not just family connections that do the enabling work of state repression. Other trusted figures in our lives—teachers and preachers, lovers and therapists, even lawyers—can be used by the state (or can make themselves useful to the state) to encourage us to cooperate, to remind us that our local obligations to family and friends, to partners and loved ones, trump our larger moral and political commitments.

Hayden’s example is again instructive. As I wrote in Fear:

The more immediate influences on Hayden’s decision, however, were Martin Gang, his lawyer, and Phil Cohen, his therapist. When Hayden first began to suspect that he was being blacklisted, he turned to Gang for advice. Gang suggested that he draft a letter to J. Edgar Hoover, explaining his past involvement in the party and expressing sincere repentance. Cooperating with the FBI, said Gang, would keep Hayden under HUAC’s radar and out of the television lights. Unconvinced, Hayden turned to Cohen, who assured him that Gang’s recommendation was reasonable. So advised, Hayden submitted the letter. But on the day he was scheduled to speak with the FBI, he had second thoughts. “Martin,” he told his lawyer,

“I still don’t feel right about –”

“Sterling, now listen to me. We’ve been over this thing time and time again. You make entirely too much of it. The time to have felt this way was before we wrote the letter.”

“Yes, I guess you’re right.”

“You know I’m right. You made the mistake. Nobody told you to join the Party. You’re not telling the F.B.I. anything they don’t already know.”

Hayden spoke with the FBI, which only made him feel worse and turned him against his therapist. “I’ll say this, too,” he told Cohen, “that if it hadn’t been for you I wouldn’t have turned into a stoolie for J. Edgar Hoover. I don’t think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing.” Not long after, HUAC issued him a subpoena. Cohen again tried to pacify him. “Now then,” said Cohen, “may I remind you there’s really not much difference, so far as you yourself are concerned, between talking to the F.B.I. in private and taking the stand in Washington. You have already informed, after all. You have excellent counsel, you know.” Again, Hayden capitulated.

And as I went onto conclude:

In recent years, scholar and writers have extolled the virtues of an independent civil society, in which private circles of intimate association are supposed to shield men and women from a repressive state. To the extent that these links are explicitly political and oppositional, this account of civil society holds true. Few of us have the inner strength or sustaining vision to opt for the lonely path of a Socrates or a Solzhenitsyn. Deprived of the solidarity of comrades, our visions seem idiosyncratic and quixotic; fortified by our political affiliations, they seem moral and viable.

But what analysts of civil society often ignore is the experience of Hayden and others like him, how our everyday connections can echo or amplify our inner counsels of fear. “Friends and family worry about me,” writes Mino Akhtar, a Pakistani American management consultant in New Jersey who has campaigned against the war in Iraq and the secret detention of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11. “They tell me to be careful, that I’m taking risks. They say that if my face and name keep coming up in public I won’t get any more consulting jobs. I think about that sometimes. You work hard to establish yourself, you have the good job, big home, these mortgage payments; it’s scary to think you can lose it all.”

It is precisely the nonpolitical, personal nature of these connections that makes them so powerful a voice for cooperation. Afraid, we think about our lives and livelihoods, loved ones and friends, and we doubt the meaning or efficacy of our politics. When comrades advise us to resist, we discard their counsel as so much political rhetoric; when trusted intimates advise us to submit, we hear the innocent, apolitical voice of natural reason. Because these counsels of submission are not seen as political recommendations, they are ideal packages of covert political transmission.

Back to David Brooks. Brooks likes to package his strictures in the gauzy wrap of an apolitical communitarianism. But Brooks is also, let us not forget, an authority- and state-minded chap, who doesn’t like punks like Snowden mucking up the work of war and the sacralized state. And it is precisely banal and familial bromides such as these—the need to honor one’s oaths, the importance of family and connection—that have underwritten popular collaboration with that work for at least a century, if not more.

Stalin understood all of this. So does David Brooks.

Notes

(1) J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin an the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 40, 48-49, 369-70, 392-399, 411, 417-419, 526; Stephen F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 375-380; The Great Purge Trial, ed. Robert C. Tucker and Stephen F. Cohen (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1965), xlii-xlviii.

(2) Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (London: Macmillan, 1968), 142, 301; Getty and Naumov, 418, 526; Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 25; Anne Applebaum Gulag: A History (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 139; Cohen, 375; Adam Hochschild, The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin (New York: Viking, 1994), 13, 21-22; Tina Rosenberg, The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism (New York: Vintage, 1995), 28-29.

(3) Sterling Hayden, Wanderer (New York: Knopf, 1963), 371-372; Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960 (Garden City: Anchor Press, 1980), 386-389; Victor Navasky, Naming Names (New York: Penguin, 1980), 100-101.

(4) Navasky, 258, 260, 281.

(5) Navasky, 178, 201-202.

Update (June 12, 8:30 pm)

I’ve now been accused of red-baiting poor old David Brooks by—wait for it—The Wall Street Journal. My life is complete. Incidentally, since so many people, including James Taranto, didn’t get it, “The Last Stalinist” is an allusion  to this famous George Will column, in which he called Alexander Cockburn “a fringe figure, interesting only as a candidate for a glass case in The Smithsonian–‘The Last Stalinist.'” If only conservatives knew their canon better.

Conservatives: Who’s Your Daddy?

20 Nov

In his column this morning, David Brooks has a roundup of young conservative voices we should be listening to. He divides them into four groups: paleoconservatives, lower-middle reformists, soft libertarians, and Burkean revivalists. I want to focus on the last, for as is so often the case with Brooks, he gets it wrong—but in revealing ways.

Burkean Revivalists. This group includes young conservatives whose intellectual roots go back to the organic vision of society described best by Edmund Burke but who are still deeply enmeshed in current policy debates.

Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs is one of the two or three most influential young writers in politics today. He argues that we are now witnessing the fiscal crisis of the entitlement state, exemplified most of all by exploding health care costs. His magazine promotes a big agenda of institutional modernization.

It just so happens that I was reading yesterday a piece by Levin from the summer 2012 issue of The New Atlantis (h/t the kind reader who sent it to me; I can’t now find who you are) on the problem of health care and entitlement spending.

After the usual heavy breathing and hortatory throat-clearing that are characteristic of such think pieces on the right—”Our weaknesses and problems, no less than our strengths and advantages, are reflections of the society we are, and so to understand them we would do well to reflect upon the question of just what sort of society that is.”—Levin sets out the boiler-plate, one part Straussianism, two parts bullshit.

The ancients sought virtue, a life of excellence lived in and through the polis; the moderns (Machiavelli, Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke) perpetrate “a lowering of aims.” The moderns see “the preservation and protection of life and of health as the primary functions of society.” Motivated by “safety and power,” they care nothing for the higher goods of religion or morality. Instead, they “assert for health a place at the very top of the heap of human goods.”

It’s the usual hash of modern political thought that you find in certain precincts of the Straussian right. What’s interesting about it is how Levin connects it to our health care debate and the market, and whom he draws inspiration from in doing so.

The health care challenge we face, insists Levin, is not merely the narrow economic problem of ballooning costs; that would be too pedestrian. It’s that we have so lost sight of other goods—excellence, justice, and so on—that we are willing to spend every last dime, and our children’s dimes, on staying alive, the world be damned. Because of “our disproportionate and even reckless elevation of health,” we have become the small people—our society the “vessel for self-absorption and decadence”—that we are.

That concern with self-absorption and decadence should tip us off to where we stand with Levin: not under the bright sun of the ancients or the Founders—or, pace Brooks, Edmund  Burke—but in the shadow of Nietzsche. (Setting aside the connection between Burke and Nietzsche, which I allude to in The Reactionary Mind.)

I’ve argued before that Nietzsche is the master theoretician of the modern right, but Levin makes it especially clear.

In understanding that liberal temptation, our best guide is not Descartes but Nietzsche, who described what could become of us in an age beyond responsibility, an age he believed was the inevitable destination of liberal societies. The degeneration of virtue in such societies, he argues, will atrophy our ability to plan for the future, our drive to work, and our interest in governing. In such a state, people will lack the noble aspiration to a virtuous life, setting their aims far lower, as Nietzsche writes. “One has one’s little pleasure for the day, and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.”

Our regard for health, it seems, can easily coexist with a society that we would not otherwise be proud of. Unbalanced and unmoored from other goods, such regard can become a vessel for self-absorption and for decadence. It can cause us to abandon our commitment to our highest principles, and to mortgage the future to avert present pain.

What makes Levin’s invocation of Nietzsche even more fascinating is that he sees the market as the antidote to this culture of decadence. Where Nietzsche loathed the culture of the market and of capitalism, modern conservatives who walk in his path have found a way around that hostility. They see the market as the proving ground of the heroic self, as the crucible from which a being of ancient excellence and moral virtue—or, if you’re jonesing for a more modern version, a tragic chooser of incommensurable goods—can arise. In Levin’s case, the market is the instrument by which our ravenous desire for health at any cost will be forced to confront the constraints of cost, leading us to prioritize our values—and creating a space, he hopes, for other values to emerge.

It’s not at first clear why Levin thinks such other values would emerge, given that he thinks we’ve lost sight of them, but at the end of his essay he draws what seems to be an unearned distinction between the people and the government, claiming that it’s not the citizenry that’s corrupt but the state. The institutions of liberal democracy can’t make hard choices, tied as they are to the base drives of politicians. But the market can.

After all, markets don’t just make expensive goods cheaper — they are also extraordinarily effective prioritizers, allowing many individual decisions to be made close to the ground. In the case of health care, that would mean having more critical decisions about spending made by patients, by families, and by doctors, and creating a strong incentive for those decisions that have to be made by insurers to be made in ways that will be perceived as fair by their customers.

Market solutions would by no means eliminate all the grave difficulties involved in prioritizing health care. There would still be rationing, there would still be times when being out of money means you are out of options, there would still be decisions made by insurance company bureaucrats that strike patients and doctors as unjust. But there would be far fewer than under a system that assigned rationing decisions to public officials and gave patients far fewer choices and far less control.

In a properly regulated but competitive insurance market, we would have a much better chance of actually prioritizing health among the goods we value. Because while liberal political institutions are unsuited to such prioritization, we liberal citizens are often up to it. Families, which after all are not liberal institutions, can make difficult choices — balancing the needs of different generations and the importance of different needs and wants — in ways that democratic political institutions often simply cannot.

Read that last paragraph carefully: “We liberal citizens are often up to it.” Why? Because we live in “families, which after all are not liberal institutions.” It’s the family, by which Levin means the anti-liberal or illiberal or non-liberal parental authority unit, that makes the difficult choices. So we have the market as the disciplining agent working with whomever controls the finances in the family (and we all know who that is) to create the conditions for a society that cares about something more than its health.

Over the last year, I’ve been working on a project that seeks to explore the elective affinities between Nietzsche and neoliberalism, the hidden dialogue between the German criticism of decadence and the Austrian School’s celebration of capitalism. In the coming months, I hope to be publishing an article about this, but I’ve already given some hints of my views on that connection in various posts on Tumblr.

In the meantime, I urge you to take a look at Levin’s essay insofar as it gives you a good sense of the Nietzschean dimensions of contemporary conservatism, especially that “Burkean” conservatism which gets praised by the likes of David Brooks.

Protocols of Machismo, Part 2: On the Hidden Connection Between Henry Kissinger and Liza Minnelli

22 Apr

Yesterday, I posted Part 1 of this excerpt from Chapter 9 of The Reactionary Mind. Today, I post Part 2.

• • • •

 Liza Minnelli
What is it about being a great power that renders the imagining of its own demise so potent? Why, despite all the strictures about the prudent and rational use of force, are those powers so quick to resort to it?

Perhaps it is because there is something deeply appealing about the idea of disaster, about manfully confronting and mastering catastrophe. For disaster and catastrophe can summon a nation, at least in theory, to plumb its deepest moral and political reserves, to have its mettle tested, on and off the battlefield. However much leaders and theorists may style themselves the cool adepts of realpolitik, war remains the great romance of the age, the proving ground of self and nation.

Henry Kissinger

Exactly why the strenuous life should be so attractive is anyone’s guess, but one reason may be that it counters what conservatives since the French Revolution have believed to be the corrosions of liberal democratic culture: the softened mores and weakened will, the subordination of passion to rationality, of fervor to rules. As an antidote to the deadening effects of contemporary life—reason, bureaucracy, routine, anomie, ennui—war is modernity’s great answer to itself. “War is inescapable,” Yitzhak Shamir declared, not because it ensures security but “because without this, the life of the individual has no purpose.” Though this sensibility seeps across the political spectrum, it is essentially an ideal of the conservative counter-Enlightenment, which found its greatest fulfillment during the years of Fascist triumph (“war is to men,” Mussolini said, “as maternity is to women”)—and is once again, it seems, prospering in our own time as well.

Nowhere in recent memory has this romanticism been more apparent than in the neoconservative arguments during the Bush years about prewar intelligence, how to prosecute the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and whether or not to use torture. Listening to the neocon complaints about U.S. intelligence during the run-up to the war, one could hear distant echoes of Carlyle’s assault on the “Mechanical Age” (“all is by rule and calculated contrivance”) and Chateaubriand’s despair that “certain eminent faculties of genius” will “be lost, and imagination, poetry and the arts perish.” Richard Perle was not alone in his impatience with what Seymour Hersh calls the intelligence community’s “susceptibility to social science notions of proof.” Before he became secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld criticized the refusal of intelligence analysts to use their imaginations, “to make estimates that extended beyond the hard evidence they had in hand.” Once in office, he mocked analysts’ desire to have “all the dots connected for us with a ribbon wrapped around it.” His staffers derided the military quest for “actionable intelligence,” for information solid enough to warrant assassinations and other preemptive acts of violence. Outside the government, David Brooks blasted the CIA’s “bloodless compilations of data by anonymous technicians” and praised those analysts who make “novelistic judgments” informed by “history, literature, philosophy and theology.”

Rumsfeld’s war on the rule-bound culture and risk aversion of the military revealed a deep antipathy to law and order—not something stereotypically associated with conservatives but familiar enough to any historian of twentieth-century Europe (and, indeed, any historian of conservative thought more generally). Issuing a secret directive that terrorists should be captured or killed, Rumsfeld went out of his way to remind his generals that the goal was “not simply to arrest them in a law-enforcement exercise.” Aides urged him to support operations by U.S. Special Forces, who could conduct lightning strikes without approval from generals. Otherwise, they warned, “the result will be decision by committee.” One of Rumsfeld’s advisers complained that the military had been “Clintonized,” which could have meant anything from becoming too legalistic to being too effeminate. (Throughout the Bush years, there was an ongoing struggle within the security establishment over the protocols of machismo.) Geoffrey Miller, the man who made “Gitmo-ize” a household word, relieved a general at Guantanamo for being too “soft—too worried about the prisoners’ well-being.”

By now it seems self-evident that the neocons were drawn into Iraq for the sake of a grand idea: not the democratization of the Middle East, though that undoubtedly had some appeal, or even the creation of an American empire, but rather an idea of themselves as a brave and undaunted army of transgression. The gaze of the neocons, like that of America’s perennially autistic ruling classes, does not look outward nearly as much as it looks inward: at their restless need to prove themselves, to demonstrate that neither their imagination nor their actions will be constrained by anyone or anything—not even by the rules and norms they believe are their country’s gift to the world.

If Torture, Sanford Levinson’s edited collection of essays, is any indication of contemporary sensibilities, neocons in the Bush White House are not the only ones in thrall to romantic notions of danger and catastrophe. Academics are too. Every scholarly discussion of torture, and the essays collected in Torture are no exception, begins with the ticking-time-bomb scenario. The story goes something like this: a bomb is set to go off in a densely populated area in the immediate future; the government doesn’t know exactly where or when, but it knows that many people will be killed; it has in captivity the person who planted the bomb, or someone who knows where it is planted; torture will yield the needed information; indeed, it is the only way to get the information in time to avert the catastrophe. What to do?

It’s an interesting question. But given that it is so often posed in the name of realism, we might consider a few facts before we rush to answer it. First, as far as we know, no one at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or any of the other prisons in America’s international archipelago has been tortured in order to defuse a ticking time bomb. Second, at the height of the war in Iraq, anywhere between 60 and 90 percent of American-held prisoners there either were in jail by mistake or posed no threat at all to society. Third, many U.S. intelligence officials opted out of torture sessions precisely because they believed torture did not produce accurate information.

These are the facts, and yet they seldom, if ever, make an appearance in these academic exercises in moral realism. The essays in Torture pose one other difficulty for those interested in reality: none of the writers who endorse the use of torture by the United States ever discusses the specific kinds of torture actually used by the United States. The closest we get is an essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain, in which she writes:

Is a shouted insult a form of torture? A slap in the face? Sleep deprivation? A beating to within an inch of one’s life? Electric prods on the male genitals, inside a woman’s vagina, or in a person’s anus? Pulling out fingernails? Cutting off an ear or a breast? All of us, surely, would place every violation on this list beginning with the beating and ending with severing a body part as forms of torture and thus forbidden. No argument there. But let’s turn to sleep deprivation and a slap in the face. Do these belong in the same torture category as bodily amputations and sexual assaults? There are even those who would add the shouted insult to the category of torture. But, surely, this makes mincemeat of the category.

Distinguishing the awful from the acceptable, Elshtain never mentions the details of Abu Ghraib or the Taguba Report, making her list of do’s and don’ts as unreal as the ticking time bomb itself. Even her list of taboos is stylized, omitting actually committed crimes for the sake of repudiating hypothetical ones. Elshtain rejects stuffing electric cattle prods up someone’s ass. What about a banana [pdf]? She rejects cutting off ears and breasts. What about “breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees”? She condemns sexual assault. What about forcing men to masturbate or wear women’s underwear on their heads? She endorses “solitary confinement and sensory deprivation.” What about the “bitch in the box,” where prisoners are stuffed in a car trunk and driven around Baghdad in 120° heat? She supports “psychological pressure,” quoting from an article that “the threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself.” What about threatening prisoners with rape? When it comes to the Islamists, Elshtain cites the beheading of Daniel Pearl. When it comes to the Americans, she muses on Laurence Olivier’s dentistry in Marathon Man. Small wonder there’s “no argument there”: there is no there there.

 

The unreality of Elshtain’s analysis is not incidental or peculiar to her. Even writers who endorse torture but remain squeamish about it can’t escape such abstractions. The more squeamish they are, in fact, the more abstractions they indulge in. Sanford Levinson, for example, tentatively discusses Alan Dershowitz’s proposal that government officials should be forced to seek warrants from judges in order to torture terrorist suspects. Hoping to make the reality of torture, and the pain of its victims, visible and concrete, Levinson insists that “the person the state proposes to torture should be in the courtroom, so that the judge can take no refuge in abstraction.” But then Levinson asks us to consider “the possibility that anyone against whom a torture warrant is issued receives a significant payment as ‘just compensation’ for the denial of his or her right not to be tortured.” Having just counseled against abstraction, Levinson resorts to the greatest abstraction of all—money—as payback for the greatest denial of rights imaginable.

If the unreality of these discussions sounds familiar, it is because they are watered by the same streams of conservative romanticism that coursed in and out of the White House during the Bush years. Notwithstanding Dershowitz’s warrants and Levinson’s addenda, the essays endorsing torture are filled with hostility to what Elshtain variously calls “moralistic code fetishism” and “rule-mania” and what we might simply call “the rule of law.” But where the Bush White House sought to be entirely free of rules and laws—and here the theoreticians depart from the practitioners—the contemplators of torture seek to make the torturers true believers in the rules.

There are two reasons. One reason, which Michael Walzer presents at great length in a famous essay from 1973, reprinted in Torture, is that the absolute ban on torture makes possible—or forces us to acknowledge the problem of “dirty hands.” Like the supreme emergency, the ticking time bomb forces a leader to choose between two evils, to wrestle with the devil of torture and the devil of innocents dying. Where other moralists would affirm the ban on torture and allow innocents to die, or adopt a utilitarian calculus and order torture to proceed, Walzer believes the absolutist and the utilitarian wash their hands too quickly; their consciences come too clean. He wishes instead “to refuse ‘absolutism’ without denying the reality of the moral dilemma,” to admit the simultaneous necessity for—and evil of torture.

Why? To make space for a moral leader, as Walzer puts it in Arguing about War, “who knows that he can’t do what he has to do—and finally does” it. It is the familiar tragedy of two evils, or two competing goods, that is at stake here, a reminder that we must “get our hands dirty by doing what we ought to do,” that “the dilemma of dirty hands is a central feature of political life.” The dilemma, rather than the solution, is what Walzer wishes to draw attention to. Should torturers be free of all rules save utility, or constrained by rights-based absolutism, there would be no dilemma, no dirty hands, no moral agon. Torturers must be denied their Kant and Bentham—and leave us to contend with the brooding spirit of the counter-Enlightenment, which insists that there could never be one moral code, one set of “eternal principles,” as Isaiah Berlin put it, “by following which alone men could become wise, happy, virtuous and free.”

But there is another reason some writers insist on a ban on torture they believe must also be violated. How else to maintain the frisson of transgression, the thrill of Promethean criminality? As Elshtain writes in her critique of Dershowitz’s proposal for torture warrants, leaders “should not seek to legalize” torture. “They should not aim to normalize it. And they should not write elaborate justifications of it . . . . The tabooed and forbidden, the extreme nature of this mode of physical coercion must be preserved so that it never becomes routinized as just the way we do things around here.” What Elshtain objects to in Dershowitz’s proposal is not the routinizing of torture; it is the routinizing of torture, the possibility of reverting to the “same moralistic-legalism” she hoped violations of the torture taboo would shatter. This argument too is redolent of the conservative counter-Enlightenment, which always suspected, again quoting Berlin, that “freedom involves breaking rules, perhaps even committing crimes.”

But if the ban on torture must be maintained, what is a nation to do with the torturers who have violated it, who have, after all, broken the law? Naturally the nation must put them on trial; “the interrogator,” in Elshtain’s words, “must, if called on, be prepared to defend what he or she has done and, depending on context, pay the penalty.” In what may be the most fantastic move of an already fantastic discussion, several of writers on torture—even Henry Shue, an otherwise steadfast voice against the practice—imagine the public trial of the torturer as similar to that of the civil disobedient, who breaks the law in the name of a higher good, and throws himself on the mercy or judgment of the court. For only through a public legal proceeding, Levinson writes, will we “reinforce the paradoxical notion that one must condemn the act even if one comes to the conclusion that it is indeed justified in a particular situation,” a notion, he acknowledges, that is little different from the comment of Admiral Mayorga, one of Argentina’s dirtiest warriors: “The day we stop condemning torture (although we tortured), the day we become insensitive to mothers who lose their guerrilla sons (although they are guerrillas) is the day we stop being human beings.”

By now it should be clear why we use the word “theater” to denote the settings of both stagecraft and statecraft. Like the theater, national security is a house of illusions. Like stage actors, political actors are prone to a diva-like obsession, gazing in the mirror, wondering what the next day’s—or century’s—reviews will bring. It might seem difficult to imagine Liza Minnelli playing Henry Kissinger, but I’m not sure the part would be such a stretch. And what of the intellectuals who advise these leaders or the philosophers who analyze their dilemmas? Are they playwrights or critics, directors or audiences? I’m not entirely sure, but the words of their greatest spiritual predecessor might give us a clue. “I love my native city more than my own soul,” cried Machiavelli, quintessential teacher of the hard ways of state. Change “native city” to “child,” replace “my own soul” with “myself,” and we have the justification of every felonious stage mother throughout history, from the Old Testament’s rule-breaking Rebecca to Gypsy’s ball-busting Rose.

The Mile-High Club: What the Right Really Thinks About Sex

13 Sep

Ross DouthatRoss Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist, and Dan Savage, the liberal sex columnist, recently had a Bloggingheads conversation about sex, lies, and videotape. It’s a fascinating discussion, mostly because of what it reveals about the conservative mind and its attitude toward sex.

Toward the end of the conversation (48:16 in the video link above), Savage poses a hypothetical to Douthat: Imagine a couple in which one partner—for the sake of simplicity, let’s say it’s the husband—is a foot fetishist. His wife is physically repulsed by his fetish—feet gross her out—but she wants him to be happy. So she sends him to a professional, who can satisfy his fetish without involving her. Savage asks Douthat: What’s so wrong with this?

I’ll get to Douthat’s response in a second, but first, let’s note the fact that this conversation is happening at all. We often think of the conservative, particularly the social conservative, as someone who puts his head in the sand or fingers in his ears, refusing to listen to or participate in the conversation around him. Watching Douthat’s body language in response to Savage’s language language—how visibly uncomfortable he is with all the dirty talk being visited upon him—only confirms that stereotype. (Though after a while, Douthat gets into the Savage swing of things, even saying at one point that he thinks the husband who goes to the professional “is doing something less impressive than than the guy who locks his dick up.” With a mouth like that, perhaps Savage should consider hiring him as a guest columnist?)

But it’s important to remember that Douthat is having this conversation at all, as have conservatives since the Sexual Revolution. In my book, I offer an early example of this conversation from the mid-70s—Beverly and Tim LaHaye’s The Act of Marriage, which Susan Faludi rightly called “the evangelical equivalent of The Joy of Sex”—when the Christian Right was forced into the fray of sexual liberation and sought to harness its tropes to the institution of traditional marriage. The result was some fairly bawdy Godly talk.

The LaHayes claimed that “women are much too passive in lovemaking.” God, the LaHayes told their female readers, “placed [your clitoris] there for your enjoyment.” They also complained that “some husbands are carryovers from the Dark Ages, like the one who told his frustrated wife, ‘Nice girls aren’t supposed to climax.’ Today’s wife knows better.”

Robbie GeorgeMore recently, Robbie George, Princeton’s arch-conservative philosopher of sex and the single gal, told the New York Times Magazine that he’s been forced by the challenge of gay marriage to engage in all sorts of naughty talk about what constitutes good sex in a marriage.  Much to the horror of his ever-so traditional Catholic mother.

His mother, the daughter of Italian immigrants, taught her children “some pretty firm ideas about sexual morality,” George told me, and then he begged me not to repeat some of his more recent arguments on the subject. “Mom, I have got to explain!” George said, raising his voice to imitate first himself and then his mother: “ ‘George’s opposition to sodomy! What are you doing talking about sodomy? You shouldn’t even know what that is! Why do people have to know your views about that?’

If my book accomplishes nothing else, I hope it disabuses us of our notion that conservatism is somehow the great Refusenik of modernity. It’s not. From its beginning, conservatism has participated in all the great conversations of modernity—often, to be sure, against its will. But even when it takes an antagonistic stance toward modern developments, conservatism is forced, by the very fact of its participation in the broader culture, to incorporate modern sensibilities and sensitivities (e.g., Beverly and Tim LaHaye instructing husbands in the ways and means of the clitoris).

There’s actually no better example of the right’s modernity than Douthat’s response to Savage’s challenge. After Savage pummels him repeatedly, asking why it’s better for the husband to repress his fetish than for the wife to grant him a reprieve outside the bedroom, Douthat says of the latter (at 51:40 in the above link):

Dan, I think it’s a sadder and more squalid and more depressing form of self-sacrifice than the guy who figures out how to live with not getting his rocks off over his foot fetish.  And there is a value judgment and I’m not going to be able to prove it to you, you’re right. [Pause and then cross talk.] And some of this comes down to a worldview…

One of the great rallying points of the modern American right has been that it stands for firm, objective, demonstrable principles of right and wrong, of good and evil, over the relativism and situational ethics, the general culture of permissive tolerance, that one finds on the left. This has been a cry not only among politicos and pundits but also among serious philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre and historians like Gertrude Himmelfarb.

David BrooksJust this morning, we got a healthy dose of it from David Brooks. Summarizing a new study that shows that young people don’t have a clear sense of morality, Brooks concludes:

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

As proof, Brooks cites some comments from a few youngsters:

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”

Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”

But now listen to Douthat, the New York Times‘s resident court philosopher of the right, and tell me if you hear anything that different. Yes, he’s saying he believes it’s better to satisfy, or repress, one’s sexual needs within the confines of a marriage, but he also acknowledges that that is  “a value judgment,” that he can’t persuade someone of a different view of the value of that judgment, and that it reflects his broader worldview, which Savage doesn’t share.

That’s a far far cry from the medieval Thomist, or even today’s neo-Thomist, who believes that reason can provide a yardstick of right and wrong, good and evil, and that it can adjudicate moral disputes between rival traditions. It’s also a far cry from Brooks’ appeal to a shared tradition, authority, and like.

When the right’s back is pushed up against the wall, it’s often forced not only to acknowledge the pluralism of modern life and intractability of moral conflict, but also to ground its claims on its own feelings and preferences, its un-argued and self-confessedly arbitrary and idiosyncratic belief system. (Douthat even admits in a later exchange with Savage, which I discuss below, that he knows he sounds “absurd.”) The right might claim that its beliefs are better, but it has no grounds, as Douthat admits, for assuming that you would agree with that or persuading you of that. (You can find a similar version of that argument in Patrick Devlin‘s classic defense of traditional morality The Enforcement of Morals, which was probably the opening salvo of the modern culture wars.)

There’s a final point I want to extract from this exchange. Toward the end, Douthat gets his mojo back and starts pressing his argument for repression. After Savage makes the case that repression is destabilizing—an interesting claim in itself that challenges our standard left-right distinction; the left is supposed to stand for liberation, while the right is supposed to stand for order, no? Well, no, as it turns out—Douthat defends repression not on the grounds that it is stabilizing but because “the nature of human excellence depends on—this, I, sound absurd—overcoming impulses for the sake of your partner, your children, the people you love.”

And here we come to Ground Zero of conservative commitment. The conservative believes in excellence, as Douthat says, but it is a vision of excellence defined as and dependent on “overcoming.” It’s a vision that abhors the easy path of acceptance, of tolerating human frailty and need, not because that path is wrong but because it is easy.  Or, to put it differently, it’s wrong precisely because it is easy. And though that vision often claims Aristotle as its inspiration, its true sources are Nietzschean.

Michel FoucaultThe conservative believes the excellent person is a kind of mountain climber, a moral athlete who is constantly overcoming or trying to overcome his limits, pushing himself ever higher and higher.  When it comes to sex, he’s not unlike the Foucauldian transgressor, that sexual athlete of novelty and experiment: but where Foucault believes that taboos against sex are all too easily reached (that’s why, if we are to attain the peaks of experience, we have to move beyond those limits), the conservative’s remain out of reach. The value of a rule lies in its difficulty and potential unattainability, the ardor of the struggle it imposes upon us. We might call this ethic the ardor of adversity.*

Liberals and leftists often miss this ardor of adversity, and it’s a critical error because it overlooks just how romantic and impassioned, how fervid and fervent, conservative morality, not just about sex but about a great many matters, actually is.  And that is part of conservatism’s appeal. Savage in fact commits that very error when he says that Douthat’s vision of marriage eliminates the element of “adventure.” Not so. Douthat’s vision is profoundly adventurous—it’s the adventure of ascent, of trying to reach a summit of moral excellence that you probably cannot reach. It’s an adventure filled with risk—the risk of failure, of shame, of the self-loathing and castigation that comes with that failure and shame—and it’s one that the conservative, no matter how terrified he might be of that risk, is loathe to give up. No matter the cost: for if he were to give up on it, all that’d be left for him is the culture of mediocrity, of complacence and compliance, which defines for the conservative the liberal worldview.

That’s what connects the neoconservative, with his vision of warrior excellence, to the libertarian, with his vision of economic excellence, to the moral traditionalist. All three elements of what has been called the conservative three-legged stool—the warrior, the capitalist, the priest—subscribe to the dictum offered by E.M. Forster in A Passage to India:

The aims of battle and the fruits of conquest are never the same. The latter have their value and only the saint rejects them, but their hint of immortality vanishes as soon as they are held in the hand.

Or, as the Supremes put it more simply:

* * * * *

*I recognize that Douthat is saying here that it is for the sake of the partner and children that we have to overcome our impulses, but the trope of overcoming appears too often in the conservative canon to put too much emphasis on that qualifier. Furthermore, the point is that the husband will demonstrate his excellence by overcoming himself for the sake of something outside himself. That, it seems to me, is the point.

Update (9:30 pm)

After I posted this, I was reminded by a friend of this excellent article on Dan Savage by Mark Oppenheimer that kicked this whole conversation off. Oppenheimer gives us a masterful exposition of Savage’s extraordinarily adroit mind, which is on sharp display in that exchange with Douthat. Check it out.

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