The weakness of retrospective conservatism — September 17, 2011

The weakness of retrospective conservatism

I don’t know why I made the mistake of reading David Brooks. This is a mistake that I’ve avoided making for *so long*. Why must I make it now?

Anyway, I’ll be quick. Brooks’s point is basically that people expect their government to do massive social engineering and do it well, and that they should rather expect it to fail: the systems government is engineering are just too massive to engineer them well. This is by way of telling us that government isn’t going to get us out of this recession, and that it’s foolhardy to expect that.

Let’s imagine it had gone the other way: Alan Greenspan had jacked up interest rates to prick the housing bubble a few years back, or any number of regulatory steps had been taken to tighten lending standards. Then Brooks would have nothing to talk about today.

Or go back to Hurricane Katrina. There were various conservative pundits, solemnly averring that the government’s disastrous response was just proof that central planning never works, and that people should never expect to get any help from anyone but themselves and their families. But had the government — at all levels — done its job, we never would have heard them claiming that this was proof of the government’s wisdom.

If we want to talk about the failures of central planning, let’s talk about war, or the DoD. There could be nothing more centralized, more hierarchical, or more literally regimented than the U.S. military — yet this is supposed to be why conservatives are all about the military. It’s a killing machine precisely because it is focused, like a massive machine, on the task of destroying other militaries.

So do we see David Brooks shaking his head from side to side as he sighs, telling us that war is not the answer because central planning never works? The closest we get to that is an apology, after the fact, for having supported the invasion of Iraq.

The best we can say, then, is that Brooks has learned his lesson, and will never again support conservative-friendly centralized government projects; he’ll be just as intolerant of conservative government causes as he is of liberal ones. We’ll just see about that.

My only post on the mosque controversy — August 18, 2010

My only post on the mosque controversy

Here’s what I don’t get. Ideally, in a well-run society of intelligent people, you need to advance arguments for your position. You can’t just wave your arms up and down, claim “It’s not right!” and expect that to be the end of it. And your own personal disgust isn’t grounds for anything. When you enter the public sphere, you’re supposed to present *arguments*.

Now, granted, sometimes — often — personal disgust sells things. It shouldn’t, but it does. I’m convinced that the fundamental belief underlying opposition to gay marriage, for instance, is that opponents believe anal sex between men is disgusting. (If the gay-marriage debate were about *lesbians’* right to marry, I doubt it would be nearly this acrimonious.) There have been lots of purported “arguments” over the years against gay marriage, but none of them amount to anything at all. “Marriage is about raising children”: sure, but what about childless couples? “But won’t this lead to pedophilia and bestiality?”: obviously not, because obviously we only support marriage between consenting adults. And so forth. The problem with these arguments isn’t that they’re wrong, it’s that they’re *incredibly* wrong. They’re remarkably simple to swat down. It’s so simple to swat them down that they don’t even count as arguments. They’re not arguments; they’re reflexes. They’re meant to make other people raise their fists in agreement; they’re culturally evocative totems, not arguments. I’m not obliged to respond to your culturally evocative totem, and you’re not obliged to respond to mine. We’re only obliged to respond to arguments made in good faith. And so far as I can tell, no one has made any such arguments against gay marriage.

Nor have they made any such arguments against the “mosque” in lower Manhattan. The only “argument” I’ve seen is essentially that the wound from 9/11 is too raw, and that the area around Ground Zero is holy in some way. But clearly the “mosque”‘s opponents would have no problem with a Christian or Jewish (or Buddhist, or Zoroastrian) place of worship in that area. So the fundamental argument against the mosque, so far as I can tell, is that *Muslims as collectively guilty for 9/11*.

That’s it, right? Everyone knows that that’s the subtext beneath the entire dispute. If you can find some other, deeper reason why the “mosque” shouldn’t be built there, let me know, but I’ve certainly not seen it. And when Newt Gingrich says that “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia”, it’s clear that he means exactly what I’ve suggested. All Muslims are responsible for 9/11, so there’s some kind of global [foreign: quid pro quo] that requires the Muslims everywhere to pay for the crimes of Muslims anywhere.

Put that way, I hope everyone would acknowledge that it’s a profoundly stupid, offensive, and false proposition. A tweet asking whether, since Tim McVeigh was Catholic, no churches should be allowed near the Murrah Federal Building sums it up as well as anything could.

And that’s it. That’s all they’ve got.

The debate became immediately confused, like they always do, by the meta issue of how this will affect [choose your favorite politician] in [choose your favorite upcoming race], or more specifically whether this will make Democrats look like pussies on what should be a morally clear issue (answer: yes). But all of that is immaterial. And doesn’t it just needlessly exhaust you? It exhausts me. There are a lot of things to think about in this life. There are a lot of things to get mad about. There are a lot of arguments to have about a lot of really important things. Becoming a morally aware adult, it turns out, is really hard.

If a lot of people are upset about the “mosque” in lower Manhattan, that is their business. If so many people are upset about it that it will cause some politicians to lose their jobs because they’re insensitive to others’ concerns, it is the politicians’ business to care about that. It is not my business to care about that. It is my business, as a rational member of a democratic society, to look at the arguments put forward against the Cordoba House and judge them on their merits. And there are no arguments. Shouldn’t that settle it?

Forgive me if this is an oversimplification of how democracies work. It certainly is. There’s a time and a place to engage in spirited rat-fucking. Other times, you just have to claw through the confusion on these issues, acknowledge that they really have no argument, and move on.

A brief note on the ethics of Harry Reid and of his critics — January 11, 2010

A brief note on the ethics of Harry Reid and of his critics

It speaks to our failings as a society that Harry Reid could be pushed to resign for *saying some words* about Barack Obama, whereas the entire Republican party feels no compulsion to resign for, objectively speaking, consigning many thousands of uninsured poor people to die every year and resisting all attempts to improve the lives of the less fortunate.

It speaks to the Democratic Party’s failings that they don’t say this.