The Binary Worldview of Conservatives

Paul WaldmanPaul Waldman wrote a great article over at The American Prospect, Let Them Eat Dignity. He used Paul Ryan’s CPAC speech where he wept for kids getting school lunches to compare conservative attitudes toward rich and poor. When it comes to the poor, conservatives care very much about their souls and not so much about their comfort, defined in that case as having enough to eat. When it comes to the rich, conservatives aren’t at all concerned about souls; conservative do everything they can to make the lives of the rich as good as possible with special tax treatment for investment income, the mortgage interest deduction, and cuts to upper-income tax rates.

Go ahead and read the whole article, because I want to focus on just one thing that Waldman mentioned, “I suspect conservatives talk this way as much for their own benefit—for the maintenance of their souls, if you will—as for the poor people they’re ostensibly addressing.” That is broadly true. They couldn’t live with themselves otherwise. It reminds me of an old Saturday Night Live routine where Ronald Reagan was just being manipulated into thinking he was playing the part of the president. In between takes, he would say things like, “But I just don’t understand. Why would a president want to take food away from poor kids?” In reality, I’m sure that Reagan always thought that he was helping poor kids, just like Paul Ryan does today.

A month and a half ago, I wrote, Libertarian Theory and Practice. It was about how libertarian theory only worked as long as it is theoretical. As soon as people start applying it, it falls apart. And this is the reason that libertarians sound like such idiots when they call up Sam Seder. But combining this with what Waldman says, makes me realize something: conservatives (libertarian and other) couldn’t live with themselves if their political philosophy had the practical effect of doing harm.

So Paul Ryan thinks that while Ayn Rand’s philosophy may sound harsh, it will create a great society in which the hungry children are happier. And he’s not the only one. As I discussed in my article on Jamie Johnson’s documentary The One Percent, Milton Friedman makes this same claim. When presented with the fact that the rich have gotten excessively more wealthy the past several decades, Friedman counters that the poor have gotten somewhat wealthier too. Johnson, like one expects from a rich idiot, doesn’t counter him on this point. But now we know: that hasn’t happened. Had Friedman been countered on it, he would likely have admitted the truth: he doesn’t care. But Paul Ryan, as a politician, could never do that.

But the disconnect remains: conservatives think that the souls of the poor must be saved and the souls of the rich are just fine. This is a question of faith that has gone back centuries. It is also, lest we forget, and idea that no American would ever explicitly admit to harboring. It is the idea that God loves the rich more than the poor; that’s why he made them rich! This is the thinking that brought us royalty and the aristocracy. But that is what Paul Ryan believes in, regardless of what he says.

This should not be surprising. Traditionally, it is the conservatives who have protected the aristocracy: from Edmund Burke to John Adams to Milton Friedman, although certainly Adams and Friedman had a different idea of who the aristocracy ought to be. This is conservatism, folks! Don’t get caught up in the specifics of their beliefs. Dig down a little and you will see that they all believe the world is divided into two kinds of people: the right kind and the wrong kind. And the right kind are always the same: the powerful. If they weren’t powerful, they wouldn’t be the right kind of people. And you know what that makes conservatives: boot lickers.

Edie Brickell and Friends

Edie BrickellLast year on this day, I talked about Osama bin Laden. And I recommend that you click over, because I think I was rather insightful. The article was called, Entitled Rich Boy. But I don’t have any more insights into the man. Rich people are simple to understand. They can afford to be. So as a result, I am doing Edie Brickell who is 48 today. (I was off by one year last year year.)

I don’t know much about her other than the fact that she’s married to Paul Simon. Although that relationship passes the “half plus seven” test, I still think it’s creepy. Also, she’s recently been playing with Steve Martin. Unfortunately, I couldn’t bring you any of that because I find Martin annoying as a singer, even when he is backed up by Steep Canyon Rangers who are totally kick ass. In fact, screw it. Let’s listen to some Steep Canyon Rangers:

But it is Edie Brickell’s birthday, so here’s her song “Once In A Blue Moon,” which is lovely:

Happy birthday Edie Brickell!

Jonathan Turley’s Minor Complaints

Jonathan TurleyJonathan Turley is a great man and I very much admire him. He is an idealist in a world gone mad with cynicism. Even when I disagree with him, I see his point. And mostly, I do agree with him. And that brings us to his op-ed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, The President’s Power Grab.

Turley’s position is that we are at a tipping point with regard to what he calls the uber presidency. Far beyond the unitary executive, the idea of the uber presidency is that the executive branch is taking over powers that are rightly the purview of the legislative branch. In general terms, I’m right with him: the president is far more powerful than is envisioned by the Constitution. But “tipping point”? I don’t think so.

We have gotten to this point quite gradually over the last 225 years come this 30 April when George Washington became the first President of the United States of America. I was particularly aware of this happening during the presidency of George Bush the Younger. (Not because he was the first, but just because I hadn’t been paying attention before that.) And I would say to myself, “Hopefully, a Democrat will become president and reverse all of this!” And then I would laugh and laugh at my little joke. I’m far too cynical to think that this kind of stuff ever reverses itself. I know of no president who ever willingly gave up power.

It is hard to say exactly where Turley is coming from in all of this. He lists seven examples of President Obama’s executive over-reach, each one of which is entirely underwhelming. One of them is: “The administration ordered all US attorneys to stop prosecuting nonviolent drug crime defendants who would be subject to what Atty Gen Eric H Holder Jr called draconian mandatory minimum sentences.” That seems to fall completely under the authority of the executive branch, which gets to decide how it wants to utilize its prosecutorial resources. And Turley must know this because after his list, he writes, “Some of these changes are admittedly close questions, and federal agencies are given considerable discretion in crafting regulations.” Right! So what’s the problem?

In the end, Turley’s problem isn’t with Obama or Bush or any president. It is given that these men are going to abuse their powers. The problem is with Congress, who he thinks should be fighting a turf war. But there are problems. First is that these are not such great examples of executive over-reach. I’m much more concerned with the practice of slicing and dicing legislation with executive signing statements—a practice that while nothing as extreme as under Bush the Younger, is still going on. The second, and more important issue is that Republicans are a bunch of authoritarians who want some kind of dictator. So they are never going to be against the uber presidency. And as long a Democrat is in the White House, the Congressional Democrats aren’t going to fuss. The one thing that unites Democrats is their fear that a Republican will get in the White House.

Regardless of all this, the truth is that we are at no tipping point. The situation simply gets worse and worse every year. And it will continue on that way until the entire American Empire collapses under its own weight. In the end, there are far bigger things to worry about than the fact that Obama is circumventing the No Child Left Behind Act with waivers. Jonathan Turley is coming off like a pedantic schoolboy.

Kansas Wants to Close All Minds

Venus de MiloIf a public official is acting really badly, you can depend upon the fact that he is doing it, “For the kids!” It’s gotten to the point where much of the country is determined to destroy itself in the name of keeping the development of children arrested. It boggles my mind. Children are much less naive than most people think. Before puberty, no amount of access to naked people will make them interested in sex. And after puberty, no amount of naked picture depredation will keep them uninterested.

But that doesn’t stop many and sundry fools from trying. A new crop of neanderthals has decided to get upset about a state-approved sex education diagram being seen in a middle school, Kansas Senate Weighs Bill to Ease Prosecution of Teachers Over Offensive Materials. The State Senate is currently working on Senate Bill 401, which would pretty much make illegal anything that any of the fellow neanderthals are against.

The bill specifically targets “teachers, librarians or school principals.” Because the only way to stop an intellectual with “bad” facts is a conservative neanderthal with an unconstitutional law. The crux of this law is that “community standards” should rule. And so if a teacher talks about something that offends the local purveyors of intolerance: off to jail with them! Right now, it is all about sex. The “offensive” poster that caused all the ruckus was called “How Do People Express Their Sexual Feelings?” It listed things ranging from “cuddling” to “anal sex.” Personally, I think the girls need to learn about anal sex, given how many of them will be practicing it after their virginity pledges.

Regardless, after a parent complained about the poster, it was removed. What’s more, the state decided to reconsider its prior approval of the poster. That’s where it all should have ended. But instead, the conservative ideologues jumped on it and used it as an excuse to effectively criminalize the teaching of anything that they don’t like. Of course, it isn’t the actual penalties that matter, but the effect it will have on teachers. The Kansas—National Education Association wrote that, “The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that will purge literature from our schools, censor art classes, and stop field trips.” They noted, “The lead proponent of this legislation is the American Family Association in Kansas which has been leading an effort to force the removal of a sculpture of a bare-breasted woman from a public arboretum in Johnson County, going so far as to successfully petition to impanel a grand jury on the issue.”

Proponents of the bill claim it is necessary. For example, Mary Pilcher-Cook, one of the bill’s sponsors, claimed, “Right now if a teacher were to give pornography (to a student)… it is not likely at all that a prosecutor would take the case because there is such a high hurdle protecting our schools.” This is not true, of course. According to the president of United Teachers of Wichita, Randy Mousley, the law is a solution in search of a problem. “It’s just an overreach where some particular group is trying to impose their values on everybody else in society.”

What I think is very interesting is that the bill is so broad that it could include anything. And here I’m not thinking about art, but basic science. The same people who don’t want anyone’s children to know about different sex acts also don’t want them to know about evolution and that the earth is more than six thousand years old. I’ve been hearing for years that such supposedly anti-religious teaching are harmful to children. In fact, a 2003 study by the National Center for Educational Statistics found that 30% of parents home schooled for explicitly religious reasons. And another 31% did so because they did not like the school environment, which I figure is mostly religious too. A lot of those religious concerns are nothing more than fear of the teaching of natural selection.

None of this too much matters. The ACLU seems to think it is clearly unconstitutional. (Of course you never know.) But I’m more interested in it just in terms of what it says about our culture. We are extremely intolerant and closed-minded. The American Family Association is not concerned with keeping their children from seeing the breasts on the Venus de Milo. They want to stop everyone’s children, and by extension, everyone. It’s sad, but even worse, it’s dangerous.

Jack London and Socialism

Jack LondonI spent much of yesterday over at the Jack London State Historic Park. Not being much of a fan of his writing, I wasn’t that keen on it. But it turned out to be fairly interesting. It was also a good excuse to walk ten miles through the woods.

A lot is made of how the Londons (Jack and Charmian) encouraged their friends to visit them. Indeed, the whole complex seems to be set up for entertaining. But I think that the Londons had much the same experience that other rich people have when they build their dream homes in the middle of nowhere. Basically: it’s boring. So unless people are visiting there isn’t much to do. But given that they did have interesting artist friends, it sounds like it was a fairly fun place.

Of particular note is the Wolf House. This four story mansion (it might be more accurate to call it a castle) was clearly designed for entertaining. It must have been magnificent when it was completed. But it burned down before the Londons were even able to move in. But the ruins are still there, with the four story high fireplaces buttressed by steel supports.

Wolf House

What I find most interesting about London is how strong a supporter of socialism he was publicly. But you would hardly know this touring the site. In the House of Happy Walls Museum, there is one small display about London’s socialism. And most of it talks about how his socialism was somewhat theoretical, in his person he was a rugged individualist. We can’t cause the American visitors any consternation about the one true path of dog-eat-dog capitalism to the promised land of neo-feudalism!

Of course, London wasn’t what one could call an intellectual socialist. He believed in labor unions and seemed to have a practical bent in the philosophy, as he did in most things. George Orwell thought that London was more of a fascist based on his writing. In My Country Right or Left 1940-1943, he wrote, “With his love of violence and physical strength, his belief in ‘natural aristocracy,’ his animal-worship and exaltation of the primitive, he had in him what one might fairly call a Fascist strain.” I think there is a lot to be said for that view. In terms of his fiction, I see much Ayn Rand in Jack London with the romantic characters and the rugged individual against the world.

Regardless of all that, once London settled down in Glen Ellen, he lost interest in the worker struggle. It is hard not to conclude that his main interest in socialism was his desire for a bloody good fight. I’ve known a lot of young radicals who weren’t interested in social change so much as shouting and throwing rocks. London was in his late thirties when he was settled on his ranch. It isn’t that he repudiated his former beliefs so much as that he was simply bored with them.

By far the most interesting item in the whole collection was a letter from Jack London to the workers on his ranch. It is a list of rules. And some of it is kind of nice like his mention that he doesn’t care about the morality of the workers. What they do on their own time is their business. But the overall tone of the letter is that these working class stiffs were determined to do as little as possible and steal from him. In fact, the very first rule involves how “lost” tools will be charged to the employee. Hero of the working man!

Another thing that is very clear is that towards the end of his life, he’s just pumping out crap for money. He even says so—repeatedly. He’s just writing to build his ranch. In Americans and the California Dream, Kevin Starr said that there was always “a good deal of pose” to London’s socialism. And he quotes Mark Twain as saying, “It would serve this man London right to have the working class get control of things. He would have to call out the militia to collect his royalties.”

What I came away with from my visit is that London was an upper class bohemian with attitudes that were entirely typical of his class and time. It’s probably best to think of him like John Lennon who also died at the age of 40. That isn’t to say that either man was bad. I’m sure if I ever had anything even close to their success, I would be a far worse person. But great social reformers and thinkers they were not. Overall, they were on the right side of history. And they both left some art that rightly lives on. That’s not bad.