Thursday, May 11, 2006

What Andrew Got Wrong About Being Wrong About The War

Andrew Sullivan posted this juicy mea culpa about his support for the war at Time Magazine back in March.

In it, he explains three things he got wrong about his support for the war:

1. Overestimating the power of government to assess intelligence and successfully oust a dictator and reconstruct a country.
2. Blindness to international resentments of the U.S.
3. Not taking the culture of Iraq seriously enough.

To which I say - Andrew, this is hogwash. He is couching these failures all as intrinsic philosophical necessities (i.e., anyone would have had these problems, which I should have foreseen from the start). They aren't. They are specific failings of this administration that just about any other American administration would have overcome with ease.

Let's recount.

1. The power of government to assess intelligence and oust a dictator? How about Bosnia. How about World War II? The problem here isn't that government can't do this. It can and it does, often quite well. (Yes, we may delay getting into the act - but generally, such delay is a good thing.) The problem isn't even that we can't get good intelligence. Again, we can and we did. The problem is the stupid people who stovepiped the intelligence to justify a war they wanted whether the facts justified it or not, and then conducted the war "on the cheap." Prevarication and incompetence isn't a general symptom of government Andrew: it's just the signature of this Administration. To couch this as "government incompetence" is just a flimsy way for neo-cons to push a philosophy of government minimalism and avoid the true problem for our failure: incompetent Republicans.

2. Blindness to international resentment? As I recall, we had world-wide sympathies on September 12th, 2001. We could have easily harnessed this into a coalition of the willing: willing to truly combat terrorism and inculcate democracies. What happened was that Bush, Cheney, and Rove quickly squandered such good-will through their doctrine of pre-emptive action and go-it-aloneness. Once again, Andrew, the problem is not in our friends and allies - the problem is in ourselves, and the Administration's lack of any diplomatic skills.

3. Government should try to change culture, especially difficult, sectarian cultures abroad. But Andrew - if we can't change cultures, how could we ever hope to bring democracy to the world in the first place? Tyrannies can only become democracies through cultural change, as both Russia and China are learning. The problem isn't that government can't change culture - it's that you can't change culture at the point of a gun, or by telling people that "stuff happens." Cultural change requires moral leadership, something that this Administration has lacked completely, but that in the past, American's have been rather good at.

Would Clinton, or Carter, or Bush I for that matter have had more success in Iraq? We don't know. All leaders make strategic miscalculations. But the miscalculations and mistakes in this war have been so numerous and obvious: not lining up international support, not providing enough troops, not setting a moral example, not providing security, not even attempting to influence the culture - all obvious errors even to neo-cons like Andrew - that it's hard not to believe that in this war, we have turned potential victory into disaster over and over and over again.

So let's review. When faced with this obvious boondoggle of a war, Andrew says that he shouldn't have supported the war because government is incompetent, our allies resent us, and government is ineffectual. All which is rather convenient if you're trying to justify continued support for conservative principles in the face of the Bush administration's obvious failures.

But if you're like most of the rest of us, you know that the conservative movement has already had it's chance to dismantle the government, and what it's produced is the Bush years: incompetence, international resentment, and ineffectuality (not to mention corruptions and moral depravity), and this war is its most prima fascia result. Maybe then, Andrew, what went wrong with the war wasn't strong government, but weak leaders.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

My Conversation w/ Andrew

Blogger Andrew Sullivan was kind enough to respond to one of my emails sent to him in response to a posting of his about the philosophical destruction of the conservative philophy under the Bush Administration. Here's Andrew's original post (hope he doesn't mind the reprint):

"The founders, in other words, were elitists. You bet they were. You can see the imprint throughout the constitution, which is a republican, rather than democratic, achievement. And they were often conservative elitists, trying to restrain the impulses of democratic majorities, especially when conjoined to religious appeals. Remember when conservatism was like that? Miss it? Me too."

You can read it here under the title Founders and Faith, in its context as a reply to one of his reader's emails.

Here's my email to Andrew about this:

You are exactly right. And you know who we have to blame for this? Why, it’s the success and complete institution of liberal, deconstructionist thinking throughout the ‘70’s and ‘80s.

Yes, it was those deconstructionists who attacked not only elites, but the ontological conception of a ‘privileged position,’ which is the idea that some people may have access to better, more complete information (and better culture) and thus their point of view ought to have more weight. Their zeal to dismantle the notion of “great books” and “great thought” as reflecting a stultifying, “white-male” and oppressive ideology was completely successful. Not only did it open up the way for African studies and gay identity (a few of the benefits, I concede), it also destroyed such ‘cultured’ institutions as objective TV news journalism, ‘high’ culture entertainment, and contemporary literature. Now instead we have Hannity and Colms, American Idol, and the personal blog.

The effect of this philosophical shift to dismantle any “elite” position has been so successful, that throughout the ‘90s and the naughts, the fundamentalist crowd have been adopting it as well, and quite successfully too. They attack these earlier liberals back as now being the “elites.” This why they talk about the “east-coast MSM elite” and the “liberal elites” in Hollywood and elsewhere. The strategy is to cast these former iconoclasts and now being the new Republican Guard. You see this strategy to adopt deconstructionist tactics being specifically adopted in the religious quarters, for example in the debate on Creationism (i.e., “Intelligent Design”). Their argument to “teach the controversy” is lifted verbatim from Gerald Graff, the deconstructionist English professor who used controversy as another method for “deconstructing” a privileged position. (Thankfully, the field of science remains pretty firmly reliant on the privileged position of objective research and empiricism.)

As a liberal who grew up immersed in this deconstructionist thinking of the ‘80s (and who now finds myself adopting classicist and formalist values that would seem in opposition to that), I have to admit that there is value in the deconstructionist enterprise but I believe these deconstructionists were totally blindsided by not thinking through their position – by not realizing that anything can become the new Republican Guard ripe for deconstruction, even Deconstruction. Their failure to find a philosophical justification for creating some kind of legitimate ontological “grounding” – some way to justify a privileged position – is their biggest failure and quite possibly the reason that both Liberalism and Republicanism is in the mess we see today. I, now (as are many former, “reconstructed” Deconstructionists), am a believer that such an ontological grounding is necessary for any positive work to happen – be it the literary work of creating a classic or the political work of creating a body politic and sense of shared citizenship. Yes, Andrew – your Christionists have become the new deconstructionist Relativists, willing to deconstruct empirical evidence (Darwinism, WMDs, in global climate change) and elite knowledge (budget analysis from the OMB) and in fact any shared, political middle-ground in order to promote the cherished value-system of their minority. Just as liberal deconstructionists destroyed the philosophical underpinnings of true Libralism in the ‘80s, which also once was great philosophy based on positive values, these new deconstructionists are doing the same to Conservativism. It is “American Idol” Conservativism, and Bush is the leader of their pack.

Andrew posted this reply:

"I think the reader has a point here, except that some on the right, specifically those trying to resurrect natural law, share the reader's analysis, if not his prescription. My own view is that there can be only one real grounding for a politics: and that is reason exercized within the constraints of an inherited historical tradition. By "reason," I simply mean that deployed in Socrates' dialogues, where mere opinion evolves gradually into reason by conversation and argument. That reason is sturdy enough to provide a coherent defense of elite institutions in a mass society. And you only have to read the Federalist Papers to see it in action. By "tradition," I mean the inherited Anglo-American idea of individual liberty, protected by constitutional forms and institutions. I see no reason why this cannot be defended today, using the reason deployed by Socrates and Plato. And that's what my book is trying to do."

And my further reply to Andrew:

Thanks for your post! Fascinating response! I, for one, wish we could carry on a continued dialogue on this (I should post my email and your response and maybe we can).

First, I wish you luck with your book and your effort: grounding politics in reason constrained by tradition. It is a worthy goal and we surely could use more of that!

But let us say, just for example in one small argument, that I wanted to ground politics in reason constrained by progressive (or humanist) values, rather than “tradition.” This, then, I supposed would make me a centrist liberal rather than a centrist conservative – which I guess is the difference between us.

In either case, we both argue to ground our politics in reason. That is, reason + X, with X being whatever flavor, I suppose, we value more in the potential the political collective to benefit the individual within the social enterprise.

But it is this flavor of difference that makes me wonder whether we can ground our politics at all. Surely both the conservative and liberal “traditions” or “values” can be defended historically as well as intellectually. So then I must wonder – what makes any one political philosophy more persuasive than another in terms of its overall value to our times?

So your response leaves me wondering. Is a path back to reason, without your or my extra X, perhaps sufficient? If not, how do we avoid falling about into another relativistic trap? In other words: can we ground a politics that is big enough for both liberals and conservatives to agree on and re-build a shared culture around? THAT, I think would be the real breakthrough that our politics needs. Without that, we’re going to remain trapped in our fractured universe of 1000 + 1 dis-unified multi-cultures….

Sometimes, I think your blog is attempting to do that. Other times, I think your blog is attempting to defend and re-define your core Conservativism, rather than ground a more universally acceptable politics in a shared reason. I, for one, no more want to see a revived Conservativism than I’d want to see a revived Liberalism. What I’m looking for is more of a Re-Construction of culture – one that recognizes the fractured nature of our society while at the same time creating a shared groundwork of values. You are at your best at doing this when you are defending basic values such as freedom from torture, freedom of speech, the value of the Enlightenment, etc. Maybe it does require a “return to our constitution” to reground our politics, but it must be a return that also recognizes that creating a shared value system today is very different from 200 years ago and can only succeed if it can forge an acceptable commonality amongst our many diverse cultures and understandings. Your “Eagle Party” seems like one potential way to start a movement of this sort, as long is it represents a broad-enough swatch of the electorate, but it’s just a start based on a few centrists political principles (balanced budget, libertarianism, strong defense). We need to go broader than that and actually re-construct a shared communal culture. Until we do that we will be stuck in ever more fractured and fractious culture wars.

At any rate, I think I'll read Andrew's book when it comes out and let you know more....

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Importance of Brokeback

A lot has been said already about this movie that no one, it seems, doubts any more will win the Oscars. You may agree with David Poland that this is a retrograde gay film, showing essentially a closeted relationship that can't progress, even in the film's ending in the '80's. Or you may believe as others do that it is a perfect love story. Or maybe you think it just needs to be suffered through.

So what is it about this movie that's made it an Oscar front-runner? What is it that's made it a cinematic phenomena amongst gays and their friends and families? Why is it that I find this film so much more affecting than another movie about the closet that I loved, Todd Hayne's "Far From Heaven"? Or most of the "out" gay movies I rent at the video store? Is it simply that Lee is a better director than all these others? Is it simply the performances? Is it Annie Proulx's remarkable short story, on which the film is based?

I think the answer is all of that. What has gotten overlooked in all the discussion about "gay movie" and retrograde stories is the talent that went into making this movie. Proulx, McMurty and Ossana, Lee, the actors - everyone who contributed to this story brought their "A" game. That's rare enough for any movie. It's unheard of for a movie with a gay theme, even if that theme is about repression and gay bashing.

Lee, it turns out, is one of the few 'major' directors who has done gay material as well as blockbusters (let's not forget that it was the "Wedding Banquet" that started his career). Bryan Singer has the talent, but has yet to tackle the subject. Todd Haynes has developed into a confident story-teller, but has yet to create a film with Brokeback's simplicity and power. Akari's Mysterious Skin has a sexy confidence but trades in all the old tired gay-indie standbys: child abuse, turning tricks, and rough trade. Dan Futterman surprises and amazes with Capote; but this still feels like an "independent" film, one that fails to pull its ending together into an "A"-level emotional punch. Of all of these, only Lee has given us a film with gay characters that also has all of the qualities of a Major Hollywood Picture: major stars giving inspired performances; gorgeous cinematography; an instantly iconic soundtrack; a story with simplicity, grace, and perfect emotional pitch.

But notably, on that list of directors who might reach such an achievement with gay subject matter, Lee is the only heterosexual. As is Proulx, McMurty, Ossana, Ledger, and everyone else who made this film. Oddly, Brokeback is set to be the first gay-themed movie to win the Best-Picture Oscar, and yet, everyone associated with this movie is heterosexual.

Could this be what explains the phenomena? Could it be that it takes heterosexuals to tell a story about gay people that heterosexuals would be interested in? I hesitate to think so...but it could be. It could be that when we talk about ourselves, we are just too insular and...dare I say...esoteric...for everyone else to get it.

I don't want to call Brokeback a crossover film - every gay man I know has seen it repeatedly and called it deeply affecting, certainly in ways I never heard expressed about any other gay-themed movie. And yet, Poland is right in that the film is retrograde: Ennis is so deeply closeted that even the death of his one true love, it seems, is not enough to get him off the farm to live his life - the great journey of awakening that all people who can label themselves "gay" must go through. So how is it that all these wonderful, sensitive straight people are able to write a movie about gay people that both straight people and gay people can relate to? Or is it that straight people and gay people are seeing different things in this movie?

I think perhaps the latter is true, to some extent. When I read reviews in the press that talk about how straight people can "relate" to an "impossible" wonders whether they get the point that in this story, for this protagonist, this impossibility is completely ironic. That though the social taboo is real, the impossibility of breaking it exists solely in Ennis's mind. And only because Ennis is so deeply emotionally disturbed. That most "normal" people would fight their fears and jump at the chance to start a farm with the ebulliant and inspiring Jack Twist. For the gays who see this movie, the tragedy is not in Ennis's stars, but in himself; while for others...I'm not so sure.

But this may explain why gay people are so emotionally rivetted by this movie, dispite it's retrograde characters and lack of, for a better word, gay esoterica. The characters may not progress into the 'real' gay world...and many straight people in the audience may not understand that Ennis - not Jack - is the tragic figure. But for those of us who walk in Ennis's and Jack's shoes, the closet is something all of us lived with - whether for a few awkward teen years or well into adulthood. Proulx has well understood the psychology of the closet, and Lee and his team have brought this visually to the screen and mixed it with the romance and sweep of a Western epic. Even if it fails to grasp that the essence of gay culture, so notably absent in every way from this film, is the very life that Ennis is denying himself, how could we still not fall in love with this movie that forcefully and humanely tells the story of our most painful heartbreak...and makes it so quintessentially American in the process?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Oscar Nominee Update - Jan 2006

Trending Up

Paul Haggis and Crash - continues to get mentions as 2005 "serious" work. Look to see Haggis replace Ron Howard on my director list, possibly take best original screenplay.

Brokeback continues its surge - could it possibly win more Oscars? Nope: my prediction is seven. (The other two are best cinematography, best score).

Kong continues to rack up "feel good" reviews - could Jackson be up for his second directing nom? Maybe even another best picture nom? (To replace Munich?)

Trending Down
Cinderella Man continues its slide into oblivion. The old formula may no longer have any kick, and with Hollywood in a financial slump, there's no forgining a big movie with bad B.O. May not get any noms.

Munich not receiving post-release buzz or audience. Is this thriller too close to reality for audiences? More like homework than escapism: Look to see it fall off the best picture list, possibly w/ Speilburg off director list.
May be replaced by late releases: The New World, or possibly Speilberg alternative, War of Worlds.

Memoirs also tanking; may threaten to take Zhang off best actress win. Who does this help? Maybe Watts, who might surge on a Kong upswing.