Thursday, June 25, 2009

Initial Reactions to the Ensign + Sanford Thing

With both Ensign and Sanford realizing that their political futures are in shambles, one has to ask, are there any Republicans who are not having an affair now? If so, please stand up. Of course, calling for Sanford to resign might not be the best idea now. His state is not in such good shape so changing governors does not seem like such a good plan (unless he disappears again.) As for Ensign, it would probably be best for everyone if he resigned from the senate. After he so vigorously crusaded for the resignation of President Clinton and Senator Craig, what can one say but "he has no credibility now"?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Thoughts on Totalitarianism in the Twenty-First Century

I've been exchanging emails with a friend recently on the subject of government, culture, totalitarianism, etc. Here's the latest thing I added to the mix for anyone who's interested:

I wanted to read "Fahrenheit 451" before responding. I have done so. Bradbury, like Huxley before him, was very prescient in seeing the threat of passive despotism in a society; by passive despotism, I don't mean the type the seeks to create a New Man, but rather a variety of despotism that is created to govern once the New Man has been created. Of course, because this sort of despotism adapts to cultural change rather than forcing the culture to change according to its abstract goals--as in countries like the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China--the illiberalism of the system does not manifest itself to any but the outsiders of the society.

The claim that "we are left with democracy" I think is true, with some qualification, but the most important follow-up question, for me, would be how we are to protect democracy from becoming a tyranny of the mob. This question isn't a new one; nearly two centuries ago, de Tocqueville wrote of how democracy tended toward passive totalitarianism: "In America the majority draws a formidable circle around thought. Inside those limits, the writer is free; but unhappiness awaits him if he dares to leave them. It is not that he has to fear an auto-da-fe, but he is the butt of mortifications of all kinds and persecutions every day . . . He yields, he finally bends under the effort of each day and returns to silence as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth" (244).

This, for me, underlines one of the fundamental flaws of democracy: It trivializes recognition. Dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Natan Sharansky could oppose autocratic regimes, and, in cases like these, their imprisonment confirmed their relevance to the cause of freedom. But what about parents in present-day Germany who are imprisoned for homeschooling their children? What about people like Liinda Gibbons in Canada who are imprisoned for protesting permissive abortion policies? In cases like this, the abuse of power would seem apparent to most classical liberals and conservatives, but the abuse is not inconsistent with the General Will of the nations whose governments perpetrate the action.

To summarize, totalitarianism failed in the West in the twentieth century because partisan elites tried to create a New Man through deeply flawed belief systems (such as communism and Nazism). In the twenty-first century, we may very well see a totalitarianism with all of the opposite characteristics: absent will be the near-religious devotion that either of these two ideologies inspired in its adherents; there need be no talk of revolution, culture or even the New Man because under such a totalitarianism all of these could be assumed. A government does not need to create a New Man if he already exists. The disturbing part, though, is that the success or failure of this sort of totalitarianism is, from what I can tell, indeterminate.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Movie Review: Suburbia vs. Artifice

Intellectuals hate suburbia. I have never understood why. Perhaps the suburbs are antisocial when compared to the city, perhaps the communities are planned, but then what may appear as antisocial to some is just plain privacy to others. Apart from that, there is something intimately appealing about being able to build one's own independent if also small kingdom apart from the milieu of civilization. (After all, isn't the key to American culture the dialectic between civilization and the frontier.)

"Revolutionary Road" is no exception to the self-justifying slag pile which is the genre of antisuburban art. The movie clearly hates suburbia, but it is difficult to articulate why. Is suburbia merely an artifice to keep the machine of society running? You wouldn't guess it, had you the free Wheelers as neighbors. They seem to make no reservations about ripping one another apart. (Though, given the acting in this film, you might think that suburbia was a bit hammy if you visisted the neighborhood.)

Apparently the Wheelers, like so many other (fictional) bored suburban couples before them thought that they might actually make a difference in the world (and were fortunate enough not to live by their desire for recognition--who knows how many people have let their children starve to death from neglect in some of those bohemian-style art colonies.) The real problem was that they just couldn't shake it off; if not, their lives might have been happy, or at least more peaceful. After all, isn't that what artifice is for?

After having written in this, I should acknowledge that I can't speak with any degree of authority as to whether suburbia is or is not miserable. I lived as un-suburban a life as anyone in a small town could live. My parents were not particularly radical, but there was no more radical place in the state of Idaho than that street on which I grew up: Elm Street, fraternity row, in a house across the street from a brown-stone fraternity, juxtaposing a Southern revival TriDelt sorority and a graduate student apartment complex. Maybe this is the reason why suburbia has always had an appeal--I have never desired to live in suburbia, but there are aspects of it which I admire. However fraudulent it may be, there's no establishment which is much realer and it is much realer than some.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Why I Am Not an Agrarian

This paragraph is taken somewhat out of context, but I think that it's a pretty good summation of my uneasiness with traditional (i.e. paleo-, though this term is a bit impolite) conservatism:

There’s always been something unrealistically romantic about too much emphasis on place and memory in America. Not so far from where I live there was a town -- Cassville, GA -- that, by 1860, was extremely well settled, had several serious institutions of learning, and certain sorts of aristocratic traditions that are still remembered by those who care about that stuff. It wasn’t even there until 1840 -- it was founded in the wake of the pretty anti-communitarian Cherokee removal that’s part of our wonderful southern heritage -- and it was devastated by the Civil War. Community came and went with almost blinding speed, as it has done often in our country’s history. (Consider also, if you want, how quickly the Cherokees transformed themselves into good [slaveholding sometimes], agrarian Americans, with their really deep traditions both adapting and sometimes disappearing.)

Peter Lawler, Postmodern Conservative
This is not to say that I completely object to the agrarian ideals of place, belonging, connection, but it is a telling fact that most of the famous agrarians did not choose this life, even when they could have done so--Wendell Berry, for instance, is a farmer and lives off the land, but he does not have to depend on the land for his sustenance. (And neither did his father, from whom he inherited the land.) But Wendell Berry is the closest that individuals come to living up to their ideals. Many other agrarian idealists are professors, writers, doctors, etc. Men who farm as a hobby. Or not at all.

I would say it is inappropriate to be unfairly judgmental. After all, men like these are necessary for the message of agrarianism to reach the people. But most farmers I have met are hardly distinguishable from the rest of us, once they cross the city's boarders, and it is moments when I meet the real farmer they I begin to suspect that agrarianism is a romantic notion which distracts us from the crooked timber of . . . reality.