Sunday, March 22, 2009

WWMD (What Would Mencken Do?)

HL Mencken was probably one of the most disagreeable yet entertaining public critics in American history. The man was incorrigible, reactionary, misanthropic, a class snob, and opposed to just about everything that Americans then and now hold dear and sacred. Yet, he was a walking paradox. His public statements were often racist and anti-Semitic, but he spoke out against lynchings, was married to a Jewish women (and apparently conversant in Yiddish) and counted WEB DuBois as a friend.

And if Milton Friedman is the father of American libertarianism, and Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, Hayek and Mises the founding grandparents, Mencken is one of the founding great grandparents.

So WWMD? It is dangerous to try and impose modern questions on someone who live two or three generations ago. But this 1932 quote from the American Mercury (reprinted by the Mencken Society) is quite interesting and relevant :

The psychic effect of the depression, it seems to me, is generally a good one. It has made multitudes distrust such charlatans as Hoover and [Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W.] Mellon who were quite willing, three years ago, to credit them with the magic of saints and archangels. It has busted a long line of popular wizards, running from Henry Ford to [head of Bethlehem Steel] Charlie Schwab, and from [economist] Irving Fisher to [newspaper editor] Arthur Brisbane, all of them as hollow as jugs. It has taught people the difference between speculative values and real values. It has hastened the death of sick industries, and proved the vigor of sound ones. It has blown up the old delusion that the amount of money in the world is unlimited, and that every American is entitled to a police captain’s share of it.

Best of all, it has taught millions that there is really no earthly reason why there should be two cars in every garage, and a chicken in the pot every day. A few years back we were all leaping along after the pacemakers, and making shining fools of ourselves. Life in America had become an almost unanimous effort to keep up with the Joneses, and what the Joneses had to offer by way of example was chiefly no more than a puerile ostentation. So many luxuries became necessities that the line separating the one from the other almost vanished. People forgot altogether how to live well, and devoted themselves frantically to living gaudily.

It seems to me that the depression will be well worth its cost if it brings Americans back to their senses. Once they rediscover the massive fact that hard thrift and not gambler’s luck is the only true basis of national wealth, they will discover simultaneously that a perfectly civilized and contented life is possible without the old fuss and display.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Vatican and Evolution

I have been very dismissive of creationist and "intelligent design" advocacy. Personally, I think that both try to turn God from Supreme Creator into a hum-drum engineer. By requiring God to review the plans for the earthworm, I believe we reduce God.

The Vatican has gotten involved, though as usual the press tends to misunderstand it. About a 15 years ago, Pope John Paul II made some statements in support of evolution and the press acted as though this was a major change in Vatican policy. I noted to an evangelical friend that it is not really a change. The officially commentary on the Scripture had recognized evolution at least since the 1950s, and in fact the church had been OK with evolution before that.

Of course, there were some controversies, such as the Omega Point theory of Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, which argued that evolution was leading to man converging with God. But the controversy was with the endpoint so to speak, not the theory of evolution.

I saw this item on Little Green Footballs that the Vatican is having a conference on evolution and the intelligent design folks were kept out. Pope Benedict a few years ago got himself enmeshed in the intelligent design controversy, mostly because he probably did not understand how that term had become so loaded in the United States. Hopefully, this conference signals an end to the Vatican getting mixed up with intelligent design.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

I probably should have waited to read the book

I just finished the new history of the Great Depression "The Forgotten Man." Probably not the best time to read this book.

Wait until (if?) the recovery comes to read ANYTHING about the Depression

A Swiss Ski Slope as a Metaphor for Conservatism

As I was skiing, dodging snowboarders, I was reminded of something that first crossed my mind in 1996. On January 1, 1996, I was hit in the head by a snowboarder. And it hit me -- a ski slope is the perfect metaphor for the conservative movement.

Stay with me here a minute.

The skiers are like the traditional conservatives. You ski basically the same way you did in 1900, though the equipment is updated and better. Change tends to come slowly and in an evolutionary manner. And the skiers are used to being the ones for a long time to be skiing around.

The snowboarders represent the libertarians. Brash, not really into the old rules but like to make them up as they go along.

The problem is that both groups have to share the same ski slope. And they both are looking to get to the same place. But they have a tendency to get on each other's nerves and each other's way.

Granted, this breaks down a bit. I cannot fit the social conservatives into the mix. As for the neoconservatives, I figure they are the guys on the anti-avalanche patrol shooting off cannons every now and them to move snow.

A Quote for Lent

“A church that doesn’t provoke any crisis, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a Word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, what kind of gospel is that? Preachers who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed do not light up the world!” -- Oscar Romero, bishop and martyr. HT -- The Anchoress)

Let's Have a Tea Party!

I went to the NYC Tea Party yesterday. The tea parties have been held around the country to protest the stimulus bill. The parties seem somewhat small right now, and amateurish. The one I attended in New York had a bunch of people in City Hall Park listening to a series of folks speaking through a megaphone.

The crowd was maybe about 150-200, though to be sure, I am poor at judging these sorts of things. It did not seem angry and in fact was more light hearted. I did see quite a few Ayn Rand acolytes and Ron Paul supporters. The only angry guy I saw was an anti-immigration type wondering about.

Many of the signs were based on the principle of the stimulus bill leading to socialism. My favorite sign was "Pork -- the other red meat."

OK -- it is a beginning. Conservative/libertarian protests rarely come close to the protests the left is able to put together. Mostly I think it is cultural. The American right tends to be more individualistic and somewhat distrustful of protests. Protests too uncomfortably look like mobs.

Further, as PJ O'Rourke used to say "conservatives have jobs" and generally have better things to do other than stand around listening to people complain. They would rather sit at home and watch basketball or spend time with family.

Also, conservatives do not have groups that exist to organize action. The Left has ACORN and an array of activist groups. They call a meeting and within a day have professionally printed signs and rhyming chants. Conservative groups tend to be more like think tanks, and unfortunately, lobbying groups. Not as much street action oriented.

And yes, I would argue that much of that cultural difference is good. We do not think everything revolves around politics. Which is probably why the only major "right" protests tend to be ones that the churches are involved in -- most importantly abortion. But the churches have their own agendas and cannot really be considered part of the Right (though the more churchgoing you are the more likely you are on the right). The Catholic Church for example helps get the annual March for Life protests going, yet it also was the force behind the immigration marches (at least initially).

The rally was mostly positive and lighthearted. There was a Minuteman type running around. But the crowd seemed a mix of conservatives and libertarians, with Ron Paul supporters and Ayn Rand disciples sticking out.

The Iraq Plan

The plan has come down, 100,000 troops and combat operations to cease by 2011. 35,000-50,000 to stay in "support" roles.

I would imagine that many people on both sides feel some disappointment. But here is the deal as I see it. Basically, the war is pretty much over. Al Qaeda in Iraq seems to be defeated, the people of Iraq do not seem to want to become an Iranian style Shia theocracy and just want to get on with their lives. On most nights, it seems to be safer to be a US soldier in Baghdad than walking around certain parts of Chicago (and listening to my former mayor, there seem to be fewer "assault weapons" in Tikrit than there are on the South Side).

So those who supported the invasion (which I did), look -- it was never supposed to be about conquering the country, or so I thought. The Iraqis have to be given the opportunity to run their own affairs. If they really do not want a return to brutal military strong men or to go down the road of Shia or Wahhabist theocracy, they won't. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq is a more modern, educated country -- having climbed out of the abyss, I doubt they will want to go back there. And if they do, well, at this point it is their problem.

And in any event, what President Obama is proposing is pretty much what George Bush was heading for and what John McCain said he wanted -- basically, the combat would end and US troops, if they remained, would be in bases like US troops in Germany or Japan. (That was the real meaning of McCain's "100 year" remark -- that if there were no US troops dying, few Americans would care about keeping US bases there. We have had troops "occupying" parts of the UK since 1942, Italy since 1943, Germany and Japan since 1945, South Korea since 1950 -- no one really thinks much about it because no US troops are dying there).

As for those who feel disappointed by the fact that it will take longer than promised or that substantial US forces will remain for a period, two things. First, what was said (or what you THOUGHT was said) by a dark horse candidate two years ago has to be adjusted by the realities of office and power TODAY. Second, frankly, what the President is doing now is pretty much what he said he was going to do. I have no desire to look for the news articles, but President Obama always suggested a US military role in Iraq after combat troops were pulled out. At one point, I think, he referred to an "over the horizon" presence whereby we would pull out but stay in the neighborhood, and move in as necessary. That probably (hopefully) is not needed now. I assume the remaining troops will be there for training and support of the Iraqi Army (and not combat itself).

One thing I find interesting is the 35-50,000 number. In 2005, the last year I can find figures for, there were about 66,000 US forces in Germany (defending Germany from the threat of Serbia I guess). So basically, using the upper number, President Obama foresees a US presence similar to that of the US presence in Germany. Not sure what I make of it.