Tar Pits

Speaking of tar pits and the critters who sink into them, I just saw this head and blurb on the Los Angeles Times site:

Props to Pax Americana

Jonah Goldberg: Does being the leader of the free world make the U.S. an empire? Who cares?

I can’t bring myself to actually read it. You can, if you have the courage. I just want to ask … Has he not noticed that “Pax Americana” turned into “Bellum Americana” (excuse my Latin) some time back? Does he not realize that the “free world” would not follow Dear Leader even to a buffet table? Does he not know what an empire is? And does Goldberg make a bag of hammers look brilliant, or what?

Well, don’t get me started.

And then there are Democrats. Bob Herbert has a gloomy assessment of the current field of presidential candidates.

A friend of mine, talking about the Democratic presidential candidates, tossed out a wonderful mixed metaphor: “This is awfully weak tea to have to hang your hat on.”

The notion that Bush & Co. had fouled things up so badly for Republicans that just about any Democrat could romp to victory in 2008 was never realistic. What’s interesting now, with the first contests just weeks away, is the extent to which Democratic voters are worried about the possibility that none of their candidates have the stuff to take the White House.

This election, the most important in decades, cries out for strong leadership. The electorate is upset, anxious and hungry for change. But “weak tea” is as good a term as any to describe what the Democrats are offering.

I can’t say I disagree.

Bush-bashing is not enough. Unless one of the Democratic candidates finds the courage to step up and offer a vision of an American future so compelling that voters head to the polls with a sense of excitement and great expectation, the Republican Party could once again capture the White House (despite its awful performance over the past eight years) with its patented mixture of snake oil and demagoguery.

The G.O.P. game plan is already being pieced together. The White House hopes to inoculate Republican candidates on the Iraq war issue by bringing home a significant number of combat troops in the middle of the general election. And the demagogic issue of choice for 2008 is immigration.

The Willie Horton ugliness of 1988 will be like nothing compared with the concerted attack to be unleashed by the G.O.P. on illegal immigrants next year.

The Democrats will have to figure out a way to counter that with an appeal to the better angels of our nature, and that will require courage.

Of the current field, I think Barack Obama is the one most likely to catch fire with the vision thing. When he’s on his game, he’s electrifying. But his campaign so far hasn’t shown as much spark as I anticipated it would. Maybe he’s pacing himself.

At the Washington Post, Andrés Martinez makes an interesting observation:

I remember being in Europe on the eve of the 2000 election and seeing polls that showed about 85 percent of the people in Holland favored Al Gore. And that was back when Bush was known as a compassionate conservative who worked well with Democrats and talked about a “humble” foreign policy. His “popularity” in Holland has taken quite a hit since then.

There is no way around it: Bush’s departure will be a good day for the U.S. “brand” around the world. And while wanting to be liked isn’t the sole criterion on which to base your vote, it’s hard to deny that the election of a Democrat would result in a a bigger boost to America’s international brand. …

… On the whole, change will likely be welcomed around the world. And setting aside any other merits or demerits of Barack Obama’s candidacy, given his life story I do think the conventional wisdom is right: His taking the oath of office on Inauguration Day would count as a massive propaganda coup for the United States.

That’s the single biggest reason I’m rooting for Obama. That does not count as an endorsement, however. Presidential candidates always should have caveat emptor stamped on their foreheads. In past history, many sparkling candidates proved to be disappointing presidents, but a few have exceeded expectations.

I’m actually not too worried. Our guys may be a pack of mutts, but theirs are … well, you know.

Twilight of the Would-Be Gods

Their dreams of empire dropped about their ankles, righties today look gloomily ahead to a non-imperialist future. For example, Don Surber laments,

We need our Tony Blair, our Nicolas Sarkozy.

While Democrats select a presidential candidate, Republicans seek a president. There are a bunch of Jimmy Carters on the other side who are willing to apologize for America’s greatness. Forget about finding the next Reagan. America can settle for another Tony Blair or Nicolas Sarkozy.

It’s not clear to me if the “bunch of Jimmy Carters” are the Dem or GOP candidates. Or, indeed, how the first sentence of that paragraph connects to the rest of it.

Wouldn’t it be delightful to hear Mitt Romney say: “Sept. 11 was not an isolated event, but a tragic prologue, Iraq another act, and many further struggles will be set upon this stage before it’s over. There never has been a time when the power of America was so necessary …”

Wouldn’t it be great to hear Rudy Giuliani say: “There is a myth that though we love freedom, others don’t; that our attachment to freedom is a product of our culture; that freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law are American values, or Western values; that Afghan women were content under the lash of the Taliban; that Saddam was somehow beloved by his people; that Milosevic was Serbia’s savior. … ours are not Western values, they are the universal values of the human spirit. “

Surber goes on to lament those and other straw men missing (he says) from the campaigns so far. You don’t want to parse Surber’s prose too closely.

If you consider the subsequent terrorist acts that took place in Bali, Madrid, and London, and the ongoing threat of international terrorism, then certainly the 9/11 attacks were not isolated. But by now anyone whose head is actually screwed on must have realized that the real long-term damage of 9/11 is not the result of the attacks themselves but of our response to them. I fear that historians will look back at 9/11 and call it the day that America began to self-destruct.

There’s a difference between strength and toughness. There’s a difference between courage and swagger. There’s a difference between results and spin. There’s a difference between resolve and stubbornness. There’s a difference between action and ideology. But try to explain any of that to a rightie.

The enormous majority of Americans realize that something has gone horribly wrong with America. A majority realize that the economy is not, in fact, peachy. Although news stories say the situation in Iraq is improving, the fact remains that the invasion itself was a colossal mistake and that no result we could possibly obtain there could come close to being worth the blood and treasure it cost.

Righties depend on that sugar high of vicarious vainglory mixed with loathing of others to give their lives meaning. But most Americans are sick to death of junk politics and policy. They want real leaders, not the strutting tin soldiers righties mistake for leaders.

For years, righties were certain that “movement conservatism” held the answers to everything. Today they are struggling to define what the word conservatism means. For example, Bob “the Reptile” Novak complains in today’s Washington Post that GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is not a real conservative.

Huckabee is campaigning as a conservative, but serious Republicans know that he is a high-tax, protectionist advocate of big government and a strong hand in the Oval Office directing the lives of Americans. Until now, they did not bother to expose the former governor of Arkansas as a false conservative because he seemed an underfunded, unknown nuisance candidate. Now that he has pulled even with Mitt Romney for the Iowa caucuses and might make more progress, the beleaguered Republican Party has a frightening problem. …

…The rise of evangelical Christians as the force that blasted the GOP out of minority status during the past generation always contained an inherent danger: What if these new Republican acolytes supported not merely a conventional conservative but one of their own?

In other words, “real” conservatives were fine with evangelicals as long as they stayed in their place.

Huckabee simply does not fit within normal boundaries of economic conservatism, such as when he criticized President Bush’s veto of a Democratic expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Calling global warming a “moral issue” mandating “a biblical duty” to prevent climate change, he has endorsed a cap-and-trade system that is anathema to the free market.

Paul Krugman:

Ah yes. True conservatism means denying the overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is a problem, and rejecting even the most market-friendly solutions to the problem.

Thanks for clearing that up, Bob.

Andy Sullivan:

Memo to Novak: have you heard of George W. Bush? Barely a government program he hasn’t expanded; barely a soul he doesn’t want to heal. Nation-building where there is no nation; borrowing when there is no more money. And all wrapped up in a theological bundle of conservative “compassion”. The main difference between Bush and Huckabee is that Huckabee once actually raised the money he wanted to spend, instead of borrowing it from the Chinese. And Huckabee’s resort to left-liberal criticism of conservatism – that’s it’s heartless and greedy – has been deployed by Bush as well. Heroic Christianism – with its certainty about everything and moral imperative to intervene wherever “evil” strikes – is not compatible with any sense of limited government. It’s pretty amazing to me that it has taken Huckabee to wake some up to this somewhat obvious fact.

George Will discusses Michael Gerson’s new book Heroic Conservatism. Will begins his column thus —

… the health of a political persuasion can be inversely proportional to the amount of time its adherents spend expelling heretics from the one true (and steadily smaller) church. Today’s arguments about conservatism are, however, evidence of healthy introspection.

From there, Will marches on to expel Gerson and others from the church.

Conservatism is a political philosophy concerned with (BEG ITAL)collective(END ITAL) aspirations and actions. But conservatism teaches that benevolent government is not always a benefactor.

Conservatism’s task is to distinguish between what government can and cannot do, and between what it can do but should not.

Will is famous for thinking that one of the things government should do is criminalize abortion.

Gerson’s call for “idealism” is not an informative exhortation: Huey Long and Calvin Coolidge both had ideals. Gerson’s “heroic conservatism” is, however, a variant of what has been called “national greatness conservatism.” The very name suggests that America will be great if it undertakes this or that great exertion abroad. This grates on conservatives who think America is great, not least because it rarely and usually reluctantly conscripts people into vast collective undertakings.

And I would argue that government itself is a vast collective undertaking, which may be why conservatives suck at it. But compare/contrast what Will says here to what Surber says, above. If Surber isn’t stuck in national greatness mode I will eat my mousepad. So who’s the “real” conservative — Will, or Surber?

Libertarianism also seems to be facing an identity crisis. Patrick Ruffini writes,

If it’s possible to be known as a pro-life, pro-war, pro-wiretapping libertarian, then sign me up.

without pausing even for a second to consider that criminalization of abortion, endless war, and warrantless wiretapping are all directly at odds with liberty. Essentially, he wants government that isn’t restricting him but through which he can control others. “Libertarianism is no longer aligned with libertine stances on abortion and gay rights,” says Ruffini. Which begs the question, what the hell is it aligned with? What makes “pro-life, pro-war, pro-wiretapping” libertarianism one iota different from big-government authoritarianism? And does language mean absolutely nothing to righties?

William Buckley told an interviewer that “movement conservatism” peaked in 1980, when Reagan became president. One might infer that it’s been dying a long, slow death since, even as its disciples gained more power. Whatever.

BTW, in this interview, Buckley provided an illuminating definition of conservatism:

Conservatism aims to maintain in working order the loyalties of the community to perceived truths and also to those truths which in their judgment have earned universal recognition.

I’d rather just live in the plain ol’ real world, thanks. But this does tell us a lot about why so many are so keen on labeling themselves “conservative” even if they can’t agree on what it means. They are loyal to an idea of conservatism. They like the sound of “limited government” even as they promote warrantless wiretapping and state control of reproduction. They believe in the “rule of law” even if they don’t practice it. They honor “democracy” even as they don’t trust it.

And I say they’re all sinking into the tar pit of irrelevance, and they don’t realize it.

Fire Sale Nation

The weak dollar has drawn hoards of bargain hunters to America, the Associated Press reports:

Many shoppers go to great lengths to find Black Friday bargains, and some are even crossing the ocean this year.

A weak dollar is bringing in overseas visitors looking to take advantage of holiday weekend sales.

The dollar hit a new low against the euro today, while the British pound is valued at more than two dollars.

The CEO of toy store FAO Schwarz estimates foreigners will make up about one-third of customers at its flagship New York location this holiday season.

One European says he may spend $2,000 dollars or more on an American shopping spree. Another Northern Ireland resident says the effect of the weak dollar is, as he puts it, that “everything is half price for us.”

Great. We’re the new Hong Kong.

See also Michael Hirsh, “In the Realm of the Dying Dollar“:

In a blistering essay in the current Vanity Fair, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, a former World Bank economist, notes that Bush took a nation with a budget surplus upon assuming office and turned it into a global debtor, and he has underinvested in education and alternative energy. “In breathtaking disregard for the most basic rules of fiscal propriety, the administration continued to cut taxes even as it undertook expensive new spending programs and embarked on a financially ruinous ‘war of choice’ in Iraq. A budget surplus of 2.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), which greeted Bush as he took office, turned into a deficit of 3.6 percent in the space of four years. The United States had not experienced a turnaround of this magnitude since the global crisis of World War II,” Stiglitz writes. “Up to now, the conventional wisdom has been that Herbert Hoover, whose policies aggravated the Great Depression, is the odds-on claimant for the mantle ‘worst president’ when it comes to stewardship of the American economy. The economic effects of Bush’s presidency are more insidious than those of Hoover, harder to reverse, and likely to be longer-lasting. There is no threat of America’s being displaced from its position as the world’s richest economy. But our grandchildren will still be living with, and struggling with, the economic consequences of Mr. Bush.”

Head Boxes

I want to address a post by Grim, at Blackfive. To be clear, this is a Right Blogosphere blog, but I don’t intend to snark or disagree with the post as much as look at the same issue from another angle.

The issue is post-traumatic stress (PTS) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), of which Grim writes from the perspective of a combat veteran,

What you need to know, first and last, is that so-called PTSD is not an illness. It is a normal condition for people who have been through what you have been through. The instinct to kill and war is native to humanity. It is very deeply rooted in me, as it is in you. We have rules and customs to restrain it, so that sometimes we may have peace. What you are experiencing is not an illness, but the awareness of what human nature is like deep down. It is the awareness of what life is like without the walls that protect civilization.

Those who have never been outside those walls don’t know: they can’t see. The walls form their horizon. You know what lays beyond them, and can’t forget it. What we’re going to talk about today is how to come home, back inside those walls: how to learn to trust them again.

There is a sense that combat changes people, but it really doesn’t. It brings out parts of yourself that were always there, but that you hadn’t encountered directly. Those parts are in everyone else as well. No one has clean hands. No one is different from you. That is important, so let me repeat it. Everyone around you is just like you. They don’t know it, but they are. You are not sick; you are not broken. Everyone else is just the same.

One’s opinion of whether PTSD is or is not an illness probably has less to do with PTSD than with how one understands “illness.” There are a range of conditions — physical, mental, emotional, behavioral — that are or have been labeled “illnesses,” “disorders” or “diseases,” and the labels in turn tend to color how we understand these conditions. When the condition impacts one’s thought processes, emotions, or behaviors, people can disagree sharply over the labels. The very fact that we make a distinction between “physical” and “mental” disease is a problem, says the Mayo Clinic.

Why does stigma of mental illnesses continue? For one thing, the term “mental illness” suggests that it’s not the same as a medical or physical illness. To some, the word “mental” suggests that the illness is not a legitimate medical condition but rather a problem caused by your own choices and actions. People may blame you and think your condition is “all in your head.” They may think that a mental health disorder means that you’re weak or lazy. They may think that you should just “get over it.” And you may begin to think these things about yourself, too.

In reality, mental illnesses have very complex causes, often a mix of your genetics, your biology and your life experiences — most of which are beyond your control. Neuroimaging studies, for instance, show physical changes in the brain associated with mental disorders. And studies show that some mental illnesses run in families, suggesting that they may be due in part to your genes.

Grim says that PTSD is a normal condition for people who have experienced war, and I respect that. But most illnesses are, in a sense, normal reactions to something — germs, toxins, injury, aging. I believe what he’s saying here is that the soldier experiencing PTS or PTSD is not unnatural or flawed of character. I’d like to think we can all agree on that, even if we disagree on how we label it.

We tend to treat language as if if were something solid and precise that cleanly transmits bits of reality from transmitter to receiver. But in fact language is liquid and messy. Words themselves are weighted down with centuries of connotation that color understanding. And language does not convey reality, just concepts and ideas about reality. People very often get hung up on words and miss the reality, and I think that’s what is happening here.

The better course is not to run away from the word “illness,” but to get over our medieval attitudes about illness. In medieval times to be ill was to be morally evil or malevolent. Sick still carries that meaning sometimes, as in “That pedophile is one sick puppy.”

The word disease originally meant, simply, “without ease,” and came to be a synonym for illness or sickness over time. The words disorder or disturbed suggest chaos, something out of control or out of place. And I would argue that while PTSD may not be a sickness, it is a disorder, in that it’s something out of place. Behaviors and habits of mind essential to surviving on a battlefield are out of place in peacetime, and vice versa.

Another word for out of place is deviant. To be deviant is to be abnormal and possibly dangerous. Although the word disorder is relatively clean and clinical by comparison, the connotations of deviant cling to it stubbornly for some people. My calling PTSD a “disorder” is an attempt to be helpful, but someone else might perceive it as threatening or stigmatizing.

In social animals such as we there is a deeply hardwired urge to eliminate deviant individuals from the pack. I suspect that from the point of view of evolutionary biology, this urge is useful. It isolates those animals carrying infectious diseases and prevents an animal with unfortunate characteristics from reproducing. This trait lingers in humans and, unfortunately, accounts for some of the worst of our behaviors. We have all manner of ways, some subtle and some not, to isolate and expel people whom we judge to be “weird” or “different from us” from our society. Only those who can rise above their programming see how unjust and how stupid this is.

There is no logical reason why a mood, emotional, or cognitive disorder should be any more stigmatizing than a broken bone or a bullet wound. A lot of people have crusaded to get PTSD recognized as an illness so that people with PTSD will get the treatment, compassion, and respect they require and deserve. I can commiserate, because I’m on a similar crusade regarding clinical depression. It’s still common for people, including doctors, to dismiss the depressed as whiners. In this case the point of the label “illness” is not to stigmatize people, but just the opposite.

What’s “normal”? What’s “abnormal”? Grim speaks of “what human nature is like deep down,” as if there is a fixed baseline “normal” and all other aspects of human nature can be judged by degrees away from the baseline. Over the ages countless philosophers have tackled this question, and they’ve come up with countless answers. I suggest it’s more pragmatic to judge what’s “normal” entirely in context of circumstances. “Normal” is responding appropriately to what’s going on around you. If something is getting in the way of appropriate responses, then it’s a problem no matter what label you slap on it.

Intense experiences, good and bad, can leave considerable residue. After an intense experience, good or bad, often someone will say, “Wow, that was real.” Whenever you bring whole body-and-mind focus to anything, the experience takes on a bright clarity that makes “ordinary” experience seem dull and muddled. People who have shared that intense experience know what’s “real,” and everyone else seems to be sleepwalking. After this intense experience it can be terribly disorienting to leave the company of those who shared it with you and move among those who have not. The ones who weren’t there may care about you, but they don’t “get it.” They don’t “know.” You can tell by their questions and comments that what they imagine you experienced is light years away from the reality. You find that trying to explain it to them is futile.

What’s worse, you may not yet be ready to leave that experience; you may want to linger in that clarity awhile longer. But the ones who weren’t there seem to want to drag you out of the clarity and bring you back to their fuzzy, mundane world, and this makes you angry. You have acquired several new layers of behavioral conditioning, and you no longer conform to the expectations they have of you, and that makes them angry.

This phenomenon is well documented as common (but not limited to) soldiers returning from war, going back at least to the Civil War and probably earlier. Yet it still catches us by surprise. It shouldn’t. It’s normal.

Further, I argue that war is no more or less “real” than cooking soup or sorting socks. It’s what you bring to the experience that makes the difference, not the experience itself.

I’ve never tried to wade through Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and there seem to be hundreds of diverse and conflicting interpretations of what Kant was getting at. However, I was struck by something Mark Lilla wrote:

According to Kant, thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, and Hume had a crude notion of how the human mind works. While they were right to think that the “faculty of understanding” (Verstand) can deal only with objects of possible experience in space and time, they failed to see that the “faculty of reason” (Vernunft) has a very different function. It not only draws inferences from evidence, it also places a kind of “architectonic” order on them by means of ideas, making sure they cohere. These ideas are not themselves drawn from experience; they are useful notions that the mind employs to organize what it does experience in space and time. … One of reason’s functions is to develop fictions like this and employ them to regulate the employment of our understanding, which is limited to what can be experienced in space and time. [Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), pp. 135-136]

The way I understand this — borrowed heavily from talks by my first Zen teacher — is that we all have mental filing cabinets in which we sort everything we learn and experience. These filing cabinets may or may not be organized in any logically defensible way, but logical or not they are artificial. Construction of the filing cabinets begins as soon as we are born as our parents imprint upon us the norms and common assumptions of our culture. We are so accustomed to using our heads this way we don’t see the artificiality of it, but generally when somebody says something is self-evident or common sense, he’s saying “this nicely conforms to my mental filing system.”

So when we sort PTSD or anything else into “normal” or “abnormal,” “illness” or “not illness” files, we’re using an artificial construct. Ultimately, arguing about whether PTSD is an illness or not isn’t arguing about PTSD, but about an artificial classification system. Advocates for home birthing will tell you that pregnancy and childbirth are not illnesses. Deaf people often are militant about not being called “sick” or “diseased.” Again, these arguments are not about the realities of childbirth or deafness; they’re about the artificial classification system.

What things are is one thing, and how we understand them is something else entirely. Don’t get hung up on the labels.

Sorta kinda related: In a different context, Ian Welsh considers “how do we know what we know?”