Monday, December 15, 2008

The Snowboarder Menace

Cross-posted from Taki's Magazine.

In honor of the 2008-09 North American ski season, I give you the following rant.

As of March 18, 2008, Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, Alta and Deer Valley in Utah, and Mad River Glen in Vermont were the last skiers-only resorts in North America. The next day, Taos Ski Valley opened up its slopes to snowboarders. Now only three resorts free of snowboards remain. 

The fall of Taos—as alarming to North American skiers as the fall of the Bastille to the ancien regime—typifies everything obnoxious in American life today: the sacrificing of the will of the majority to the complaints of the obstreperous few, the cloaking of every cause in the phony garb of victimhood, the wanton destruction of the traditions that make life worthwhile, the relentless homogenization of the cultural landscape in the name of “diversity.”  Even non-skiers may take it as a warning.

To review, skiers get down the mountain on two planks facing downhill.  Snowboarders get down on a single board facing sideways. The difference means nothing to snowboarders but everything to skiers.

First, while skis make a euphonious swishhhh, snowboards pollute the atmosphere with a cacophonous crrrrunch!

Second, snowboarders make wider turns than skiers, thereby leaving less room on the slope for others.

Third, while skiers face downhill, snowboarders make half their turns blind, forcing everyone on the slope to get of their way to avoid getting hit.  A trial lawyer in Colorado once told me that he makes all of his money litigating injuries from snowboard-skier collisions. 

Fourth, while skiers rest standing up, snowboarders plop their bottoms on the ground every time they need to catch their breath.  Clusters of snowboarders now obstruct almost every slope in North America.  Indeed, snowboarders have cultivated whole ethos of loafing.  A pack of them can be found menacing passers-by at the base of almost every resort in America.

The foregoing harms are ultimately forgivable What makes snowboards truly intolerable is that they destroy great snow conditions.  While skiers carve turns, snowboarders (even the best of them) plow.  Groomed trails turn to ice under the snowboards’ punishment.  Worse, fresh powder disappears the instant the first snowboarder slides his way down the mountain.

Fresh powder!  One day of powder skiing—nay, one run of powder skiing—makes up for years of inflated lift ticket prices and disappointing weather.  In the past, almost all North American resorts had powder days. No longer. With grooming, high speed lifts and slope-side development to lure more and more skiers onto the slopes, new snow these days gets packed down or skied out within minutes.

Until recently, only three resorts in North America still gave you a fighting chance of finding untracked snow: Alta, Mad River Glen, and Taos.  Each limits the number of skiers on the mountain at any one time.  Alta—William F. Buckley Jr.‘s favorite American resort—gets so much snowfall that to prevent avalanches it has to fire canons for days before opening its terrain.  As soon as they stop firing, almost every skier can hike or traverse to an untracked run. 

The only way to get to the top of Mad River Glen in Vermont is via a 1948 diesel-powered single chair lift.  Riding it is the skiing equivalent of driving a Model T.  Meanwhile, Mad River barely grooms its trails and keeps them only about as wide as a closet. While novices go to Killington or Stowe, experienced skiers can thread through the woods at Mad River and find untracked runs for days after a snowfall. 

Then there’s Taos. Owned by the Blake family since 1955, Taos operates under an agreement with the United States Forest Service that caps the number of ticket-holders who can ski each day. Until recently, the agreement dampened Taos’s enthusiasm for development. To this day, you can’t get to the top of the mountain with a lift; instead, you have to hike. My wife and I once took four hours hiking to the top with reluctant friends of ours from Nebraska. It was one of the best days skiing of our lives, even if our Nebraskans might not agree. Above the ski lifts, Taos features some of the finest drops to be found anywhere in the world.

In sum, up until March, skiers in North America had three resorts where they could find great conditions.  (Deer Valley, which also bans snowboards, grooms its trails relentlessly and has therefore never really counted as a great ski resort).  Snowboarders, meanwhile, had already overrun almost 500 North American resorts, where their very presence now makes great skiing impossible. 

You would think that they would be content to leave Taos alone.  But you would be wrong. Instead, snowboarders did what all aggrieved groups do these days:  They formed a pressure group! “Free Taos” they called it, by which they really meant that snowboarders were unfree because not allowed at Taos.  They accused Taos of perpetrating a grave injustice against snowboarders—all of whom, like skiers, hail from the whitest, most privileged backgrounds imaginable.  Open your minds!  Equal rights!  Sign the petition!  Down with elitism! Winter sports diversity!  No slogan was too rebarbative for the Free Taos movement.  I once read a sports columnist liken, with a straight face, Taos’s policy of banning snowboarders to the African slave trade.

We cannot know what went on in the board meeting where the corporation decided to turn against its most loyal customers.  Some speculate that the younger scions of the Blake family want to turn Taos into an insipid profit center like Vail in Colorado. Given Forest Service restrictions, however, it is unclear how Taos can ever make much money.  All it had to offer was great skiing and eccentric local tradition. It is far from clear that Taos will make more money abandoning its market niche and instead offering what one can find at every other resort in America already. The Taos that generations of skiers loved is now gone—sacrificed, like everything else that is charming and worth preserving in America, to the demands of the impudent few.

Even if you care nothing for skiing, be forewarned: Eventually, the vandals will overrun even the most beloved and stalwart institutions. 

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Arbiters of Kool

30 years after the infamous mass suicides, does the spirit of Jonestown live on?

On November 18, 1978, 908 members of Peoples Temple, a Disciples of Christ congregation founded by Jim Jones, drank poisoned fruit drink and died. They carried out their "revolutionary suicide," as they called it, with impressive efficiency. Months before, Peoples Temple leaders had collected the potion's ingredients and tested them for maximum lethality with minimal discomfort. On the night of the event, Jones assembled his followers — then mostly located in a socialist utopia in Guyana known as "Jonestown" — to deliberate on whether the time for revolutionary suicide had come. Dissenting views were aired but ultimately rejected. The decision reached, the residents of Jonestown formed a queue. First infants had the poison squirted into their mouths. Then older children and adults drank. As they died, Jones urged his followers not to scream but to face death with dignity. The citizens of Jonestown lay down one by one, dying in each other's arms.

Surviving members of Peoples Temple confirm that the event had been rehearsed. On "White Nights" — Jones' term for a state of emergency within the community — Jones would assemble his congregation and tell them that they were in danger. Members would then testify on the need to commit revolutionary suicide. Finally, cups of flavored drink said to be poisoned would be passed out and drunk. On the last "White Night," the poison was real.

Jones' extreme loyalty test has entered the lexicon as "drinking the Kool-Aid." (By most accounts, the actual drink was Flavor-Aid.) To "drink the Kool-Aid" is to acquire an irrational loyalty to a particular figure or movement, often to the exasperation of one's friends and comrades. By now somewhat hackneyed, the phrase remains a vivid image of ideological blindness. It also — together with the media's tendency to describe Jones as a weird cult leader — makes it all too easy to dismiss Peoples Temple as a bunch of brainwashed freaks.

In reality, Peoples Temple was firmly a part of mainstream cultural, religious, and political life. It enjoyed the support of prominent figures from Harvey Milk and Angela Davies to Rosylynn Carter and Walter Mondale. The mainline protestant denomination Disciples of Christ ordained Jones as a minister back in 1964. San Francisco mayor George Moscone even appointed Jones Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. If Peoples Temple was a cult, it was one that was not only accepted but prominently admired.

Moreover, the teachings of Peoples Temple are entirely familiar to us — indeed, in some cases, they are ubiquitous today. To this day, Jones' defenders praise his vision, even as they ultimately condemn the idea of revolutionary suicide. Some even say that Peoples Temple held out unique hope for mankind. Years after the event, some survivors expressed regret that they did not die with the others, and described their years in Peoples Temple as the happiest of their lives.

Jones' teachings included the following:

Racial harmony. Jones preached that all races could live together in harmony. He even adopted several black and Korean children into his own family. Long before "diverse" became a euphemism for "non-white," Jones made sure to recruit a sufficient number of representatives of every race. Peoples Temple, he boasted, was a "rainbow family." Every summer, Jones took his followers (located in the 1970s in San Francisco) on bus tours around the country. The tours showed Peoples Temple as a joyful, racially integrated community. It seemed to many that Jones had finally realized the dream of racial equality. One follower wrote on the last White Night, "His hatred of racism, sexism, and mainly classism, is what prompted him to make a new world for the people."

Gay rights. Jones, who had sex with both men and women, thundered against society's prejudice against gays. In the early 1970s, he began actively recruiting lesbian and homosexual members. When interviewed, gay members spoke gratefully of how Jones and Peoples Temple welcomed them for who they were. In San Francisco, Peoples Temple contributed speakers and volunteers to a variety of gay rights causes. Harvey Milk, the celebrated San Francisco politician, even wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter in Jones’ defense.

Much of Jones' teachings on sexual ethics seem outmoded today. Contrary to contemporary thinking, for example, Jones taught that everyone had homosexual inclinations. Here, Jones’ views echoed those of sex research pioneer Albert Kinsey, who plotted homosexual-heterosexual orientation on a linear scale from zero (exclusively heterosexual) to six (exclusively homosexual). If the Kinsey scale is correct, then, as Jones taught, a pure heterosexual is rare indeed. The gay rights movement today argues that homosexuality is a congenital condition affecting only a minority of the population who deserve our tolerance and protection. In Jones' today, however, it was often argued that homosexuality affected the entire population and should not be seen as abnormal. Peoples Temple was simply following a conventional script for sexual progressives of the time.

Happy-clappyism. Of all the elements of Peoples Temple theology, its self-conscious niceness, informality and celebration of difference are the most familiar to us today. Jones discouraged traditional courtesies, and asked that he be called "Jim" or even "dad" rather than "Pastor Jones." His followers insisted on how happy and welcome they always felt. Here, they said, nobody judged you. Everyone was accepted just for who he was and everyone's contribution was valued. Members tirelessly expressed their love and affection for one another. At social events, they shared their gifts with each other, whether for music, dance or storytelling. The most frequent adjective that they used to described the Peoples Temple community was "beautiful."

Suicide notes written during the last White Night strike a militantly happy-clappy tone. One wrote:
Where can I begin — JONESTOWN — the most peaceful, loving community that ever existed, JIM JONES — the one who made this paradise possible...

No one was made fun of for their appearance — something no one had control over. Meanness and making fun were not allowed...

Jim Jones showed us all this — that we could live together with our differences, that we are all the same human beings...

What a beautiful place this was. The children loved the jungle, learned about animals and plants. There were no cars to run over them; no child-molesters to molest them; nobody to hurt them. They were the freest, most intelligent children I had ever known.
And another, evidently describing the ongoing deaths:
These are a beautiful people, a brave people, not afraid...

People hugging each other, embracing, we are hurrying — we do not want to be captured. We want to bear witness at once...

Hugging & kissing & tears & silence & joy...

Touches and whispered words as this silent line passes. Determination, purpose. A proud people. Only last night, their voices raised in unison, a voice of affirmation and today, a different sort of affirmation, a different dimension of that same victory of the human spirit.
Other elements of Peoples Temple ideology are more controversial but still not unusual.

Socialism. Jones taught that all should share their wealth and work for the common good. Like all socialisms, Jones’ had its own distinct flavor. It was, first of all, agrarian. In Guyana, Peoples Temple ran a largely self-sufficient farming collective. Second, Peoples Temple socialism emphasized care of the elderly. Able adults worked tirelessly while the aged had all of their needs met. Third, it was pro-Soviet. Jones hoped to move the entire community to the Soviet Union and attempted on the last day to transfer all Peoples Temple assets to the Soviet Communist Party. Finally, the Peoples Temple celebrated labor. The work at Jonestown was back-breaking and never-ending.

Jones' socialism worked. Peoples Temple was no short-lived hippie commune where free-riders took advantage of others' labor. In Guyana, Peoples Temple members had carved sustainable farming community out of the jungle. Facilities were clean, produce healthy and abundant, housing sturdy and reasonably comfortable. Congressman Leo Ryan — whose investigative visit to Jonestown precipitated the massacre — was favorably impressed. After witnessing a vibrant welcome celebration, replete with soul music, dancing, laughing, and embracing, he related how so many of them had called Peoples Temple "the best thing that happened to them in their whole lives." The pavilion burst into a jubilant applause.

Charismatic preaching. Early in life, Jones showed a gift for preaching. Today, with the controversies over the "religious right" still raging, a white preacher with a charismatic style is considered dangerous and right wing. Historically, however, white charismatic preachers have been just as home on the left. William Jennings Bryan could whip audiences into a frenzy preaching women's suffrage or the need for an income tax. Jones drew from this tradition. Theologically, he had no use for the Bible or the creeds. For him, Christ was socialism; anti-christ the exploitative capitalist system. He took the intimate, communal life of the early church as a paragon of exemplary Christian life. The spiritual trappings of Christianity could be used to recruit and inspire but were subordinate to Peoples Temple's earthly goals.

Fear of reaction. Jones believed that the CIA and other anti-communist agencies constantly threatened his community. He viewed a confrontation between Peoples Temple and the U.S. government and its surrogates as inevitable. The only question, he preached, was when. Over time, Jones interpretation of events became increasingly paranoid. Nevertheless, Jones’ belief that the CIA actively frustrates all successful socialist experiments has a respectable pedigree. To this day, many argue that the CIA orchestrated the Jonestown deaths in order to destroy a progressive community.

Finally, there is the concept of "revolutionary suicide," which followed naturally from the other elements of Peoples Temple ideology. Jones wanted to create a harmonious society free of meanness and conflict. The goal proved elusive. To maintain zeal, he increasingly blamed outside forces for Peoples Temple's struggles. Ultimately, the congregation concluded that the world simply could not tolerate the beautiful community that they had created. Rather than re-assimiliate into "fascist" America, the members of Peoples Temple chose instead to accept death on their own terms. Revolutionary suicide was nothing but a happy-clappy form of eschatology.

We flatter ourselves that since Jones’ vision found a place for murder-suicide, the whole of it was outlandish. All too many ideas, including innocuous ones, can be mixed in a lethal ideological cocktail. Perhaps most of all, what the Jonestown massacre has to teach us today is the strange arbitrarinessof ideological systems.

Nonetheless, that very arbitrariness teaches at least a negative lesson. Some of Jones’ ideas are so mainstream that we hardly even think to question them today. Just like the members of Peoples Temple, for example, many insist today, as if it were a moral obligation to do so, that we can all live together in harmony just so long as we learn to celebrate rather than despise our differences. Realistic, disillusioning theories of how the world really works are deemed too "offensive" to be considered. Orthodox social teaching today could be lifted straight out of a Jim Jones homily.

But happy-clappyism will no more cure our problems than it did the problems of Peoples Temple. Jim Jones assembled perhaps the most highly motivated people ever to try to celebrate differences and learn to live together with love. They failed. For one thing, to maintain their happy-clappy fervor, Peoples Temple had to demonize the non-happy-clappy Other. Peoples Temple's hatred for the racist, capitalist outside world ultimately turned murderous. Nor did Peoples Temple eliminate jealousies, possessiveness, or cruel hierarchies internally. Strikingly, Jones and his inner circle consisted of upper class whites, even as the majority of members were lower class blacks. Whites in Peoples Temple plainly derived profound satisfaction from their ability to live with other races. The ultimate picture is quite familiar: white elites in Peoples Temple used the their black compatriots as symbols of their own moral superiority. African Americans in Peoples Temple ultimately paid for whites' status obsessions with their lives.

Contemporary happy clappyism will not end, as in Peoples Temple, in revolutionary suicide. It does, as in Peoples Temple, blind us to reality. America is now imbrued with the same poisonous sentimentality that was the pride of Peoples Temple. A few brave souls spit it out but the rest keep drinking.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Where the WASPs Aren't

Cross-posted from Taki's Magazine.

The TV show Gossip Girl, now in its second season, chronicles the “scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite”—“elite” meaning private school kids and their families.  Replete with iPhone-toting teenagers, haute couture and on-location filming, the show pretends to at least a surface verisimilitude. When it comes to underlying sociological realities, however, it offers nothing but the most fatuous distortions.

For example:

• In Gossip Girl, the obligatory fish-out-of-water character lives in a capacious Williamsburg loft with sliding industrial doors and exposed brick.  From this, we’re supposed to infer that his family not only has less money but that they’re more authentic and less status-driven that the denizens of the Upper East Side. In reality, many New Yorkers would cut out their own eyeballs to get a big Williamsburg loft. Here are some of the prices. Further, as status symbol, a Williamsburg loft arguably trumps a Park Avenue co-op. Williamsburg is where the cool white people live; only sell-outs live on the Upper East Side.

• In Gossip Girl, kids get into elite colleges by not-so-deftly signaling their membership in the good old boys network. One applicant even says to an interviewer, “Why should I get into Dartmouth? Because I’m a [impressive family name].” In reality, name-dropping in an interview is probably the one thing (other than telling a racist joke) an applicant could do to ensure that he doesn’t get admitted. Further, as colleges like to trumpet the “diversity” of their student body, an Hindu or an Eskimo has a better chance into college than a preppy with an ancient pedigree. Finally, colleges compete for do-gooders with exceptional brains. The world of Gossip Girl, where slackers and nincompoops get in through family connections, simply doesn’t exist.

• In Gossip Girl, rich kids all have names like Waldorf, Archibald, Bass and van der Woodsen. (In keeping with media’s loathing of the Texas Bass family, the villain is named “Chuck Bass.”) In reality, however, the families of the old Protestant Establishment make up only a minority of New York’s wealthy elite. They haven’t entirely disappeared; they still host their debutantes balls, the Forbes family still keeps the Social Register afloat, and a handful of institutions (mostly hidden from public view) are still controlled by WASPs. Some WASPs even have substantial fortunes. (Those fortunes, however, are rarely very old; no Knickerbocker family like “van der Woodsen” can afford New York’s social whirl.) But WASPs as a whole just don’t have the numbers, much less the will, to dominate New York society. As Louis Auchincloss gently puts it, they have “lost their monopoly.”

Instead, perhaps a plurality of the rich private school kids in Manhattan—even at historically Protestant schools—are Jewish. The Jewish Daily Forward goes so far as to report that Trinity and Dalton, two of the top private schools in New York, are “largely Jewish.” An entire media industry follows the lavish bar mitzvahs of Manhattan private school kids. The closest real-world model for the high school in Gossip Girl, The Dalton School, has historically been the most recherchĂ© school for Jewish New Yorkers. (Most WASPs prefer to send their children to the old single-sex grammar schools.) Tellingly, the media now treat Dalton as the most posh school in Manhattan.

In Gossip Girl, however, Jewish kids don’t even exist, much less predominate. Everything about Gossip Girl is modern, from the drugs to the iphones, except for the sociological background, which the writers may as well have lifted out of the Gilded Age.

• It almost goes without saying that Gossip Girls gets nothing right about WASPs. WASPs don’t flaunt their wealth; on the contrary, they cultivate their shabbiness, the better to signal to the world that they don’t need money (which they probably don’t have anyway) in order to rank socially.  To demonstrate your WASP bona fides, you drive a 1980s Buick station wagon, not a Rolls Royce.

In fairness, in mischaracterizing America’s upper class, Gossip Girl is merely following pop culture convention. Virtually every Hollywood movie and TV show, from Scent of a Woman to Family Guy, assumes that a WASP episcopacy that collapsed two generations ago still controls this country’s wealth and power. (Indeed, it is hard to think of any pop culture product that doesn’t associate wealth with WASP privilege.) I’m told even told that “chic lit” novels routinely assume that all Upper East Side socialites hail from patrician WASP families and despise anyone who doesn’t. The authors of these novels then do book signings on the Upper East Side in front of audiences that know full well that the novels bear no resemblance to the world they actually live in. 

In the end, Gossip Girl is an example of market failure. The public probably really would like to know how the rich live. WASPs, however, unlike others wealthy groups, have not formed a pressure group to punish studios that portray them unfavorably. (WASPs instead prefer to express themselves politically through benign environmental causes, with perhaps a little feminism mixed in.) Consequently, pop culture purveyors have zero tolerance for unflattering depictions of other groups, but give writers absolute license to defame WASPs.

Don’t pity the WASPs, who surely deserve their fate; pity instead the audiences who have to suffer though one hackneyed treatment of the upper class after another. Great fame and fortune awaits anyone who somehow manages to overcome this market failure. When he does, I might actually tune in and watch.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Grand New Party, Same Old Illusions (part II)

Cross-posted from Takimag.

This is the second of two posts critiquing Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s new book, Grand New Party. This first can be found here.

I wrote previously that “Douthat and Salam neither defend nor stick to a consistent theory of what motivates voters.”  At least three such theories appear in Grand New Party:

1. First, some voters collect political allegiances as status symbols. Thus, liberal Democrats, Douthat and Salam write, have become primarily interested “in their own moral vanity.” Affluent voters on the coasts have been “wooed leftward by lifestyle politics.” Clinton promoted “lifestyle-liberal pet causes like gays in the military.” In his 2000 campaign, John McCain “promoted the pet causes of the media and the Boboized upper middle class.” In short, upper class whites choose their politics not to advance any particular political goal but to signal to the world their impressive wealth and education.

2. Other voters support the policies and candidates that benefit the fellow members of their socio-economic class. Thus, “working-class social conservatism” is, in the authors’ view, “a rational response to lives lived without the security provided by education and family wealth.” The working class had once trusted the Democrats to give them “a helping hand in a time of financial need” but later embraced Republicans who promised to stop spending their tax dollars to subsidize the welfare dependency of the poor.  After the 2008 election, write Douthat and Salam, working class voters will ask the new administration, “where’s the beef?” that is, what the administration’s policies are actually doing for the working class. 

3. Finally, some voters choose their politics out of ethnic solidarity. Although somewhat coy on question of race, Douthat and Salam clearly assume that some ethnic groups vote as a herd. Grand New Party argues that lawlessness and family breakdown turned “working class voters” against the Democrats. But lawlessness and family breakdown harmed the black working class just as much as, indeed, more than the white working class. The authors even argue that the New Deal was never a good deal for blacks; by inference, therefore, the Democratic Party has never in the authors’ view advanced the interests of working class blacks. Nonetheless, Douthat and Salam virtually concede the hopelessness of any GOP efforts to court black voters. Evidently, therefore, Douthat and Salam do not believe that an appeal to working class self-interest succeeds with all “working class” voters.  Rather, for at least some minorities, ethnic solidarity trumps class interests.

Douthat and Salam never clarify which motives predominate at which times for which segment of the electorate.  They write, for example, that Boboized elites favor fiscal conservatism not for its social cachet but to inhibit the kind of class warfare that would threaten their comfortable existences. Suburban voters, meanwhile, fear school choice programs because they threaten the expensive school districts that they paid good money to live in. So, when exactly do the wealthy vote to express their elite status and when do they vote their class interests? The authors do not say.

Nor are all of the authors’ theories of voter motivation plausible. Grand New Party never establishes, for example, that working-class-ness inspires much group loyalty in America. As Douthat and Salam write, class consciousness has always seemed un-American. Not only that, but working class Americans (like, one might add, working class voters in most other Western countries) retain a keen sense of what the authors call “solidarity,” or what might less euphemistically be called nationalism. Thus, as the authors admit, working class “security moms” vote not to protect their class interests but the lives of rich (and poor) “blue state” Americans on the coasts. Nonetheless, for all the evidence of working class nationalism, Douthat and Salam still treat them as a rent-seeking special interest whose votes can be bought. The authors acknowledge the power of inspiring nationalist rhetoric (or what they call the moralistic “idiom” of American politics), but to win votes, in their view, the GOP must supply its supporters with a medley of government benefits.

Grand New Party also assume an implausible level of working class political diligence. In the authors’ view, wealthy whites only want to know which political allegiances will impress their friends the most, while ethnic voters only want to know how their co-ethnics are voting. Working class white voters, by contrast, spend their time evaluating contrasting policy programs. Thus, working class voters in the Carter years “saw liberal failures—wasteful spending, incompetent economic micromanaging, and pointless overtaxation.” They “saw foreign policy failure as well.” Later, the working class understood Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America better than sophisticated pundits.

Douthat and Salam deny that the Contract with America was “a document of Goldwater-style small-government purity”; rather, it was “pragmatic rather than ideological, targeted explicitly to voters who wanted to keep the welfare state in place.” In other words, a message that escaped most informed political observers somehow made its way into the heads of working class voters, producing the 1994 Republican Revolution. 

Douthat and Salam sometimes downplay their assumption that working class voters actually think through different candidates’ policies.  At one point, for example, they write not that the Democrats’ “tax-and-transfer redistributionism” did take money from the working class and redistribute it to the undeserving poor, but that it “seemed primarily aimed” at doing so. For the most part, however, Grand New Party commits that most common of punditry vices, namely, to project onto a profoundly ignorant electorate thought processes that only take place in the heads of a handful of sophisticated observers. That working class voters might have better things to worry about than the merits of various candidates’ proposals largely escapes the authors.

In the end, it seems fair to say that Grand New Party is not what it appears to be. The authors claim to be offering a blueprint for a GOP victory. What they are really offering is entertainment. In the story they wish to tell, Democrats cater to the vanity of the rich while Republicans champion the common man. The story flatters some readers and scandalizes others. To tell it convincingly, the authors have no choice but to subordinate the demands of analysis to the demands of narrative. Grand New Party may succeed as a literary effort, but as an account of how the world actually works, it largely disappoints.

Post scriptum: I feel it behooves me to note an unfortunate choice of metaphor on page 126. “History’s verdict” on President Bush, Douthat and Salam write, will be that he “brought Republicans to the edge of the Promised Land, but couldn’t guide them in.” Yes, you read that correctly: In summing up Bush’s failures, Douthat and Salam liken him to Moses, the greatest figure in the Hebrew Bible after Yahweh himself.  Surely this comparison is fulsome even in the eyes of the most ardent Bushite. Bush did not win enough actual votes to become president in 2000; after that, he reaped a slight marginal benefit from 9/11. This is not the stuff of Mosaic greatness on even the most generous interpretation.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Is the Conservative Movement Worth Conserving?

Cross-posted from Takimag.

I resigned my membership in The Philadelphia Society, the prestigious fraternity of movement conservatives, a couple years ago, but as I continue to pay my wife’s dues, I still read the Society’s communications from time to time. 

Evidently, the topic of TPS’s upcoming national conference is “How to Transmit the Legacy of the Great Conservative Thinkers of the 20th Century”—a topic that not surprisingly begs the question of whether the “legacy of the great conservative thinkers” should be transmitted in the first place.  “We must teach the young,” the members of TPS seem be saying, “to have those same conversations that we so enjoyed thirty years ago, so that they can teach the next generation to do the same.” In this way, the world will never want for movement intellectuals who will hold forth on the dangers of “immanentizing the eschaton,” the problem of “fusionism,” how “ideas have consequences,” the differences between paleocons and neocons, &c &c. 

Institutions are not often known to question their own reasons for existing.  On the contrary, they have a strong tendency—exemplified in abundance by the institutions of the conservative movement, notwithstanding the ubiquitous talk these days of the supposed crisis of conservatism—to insist that their respective missions are needed Now More Than Ever. Nevertheless, as The Philadelphia Society is that institution in America that professes to sponsor the most freewheeling discussion of the conservative movement, allow me to suggest for the Society’s consideration the following Untimely Topics:

• Setting the Party Line: Who gets to decide what positions constitute “conservatism” and do those positions have any relationship to any principles that might be called “conservative”?

• The Failure of the Canon: To what extent would anyone read the authors of the movement conservative canon (Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer et al.) if a conservative movement did not exist to promote their works so relentlessly?

• Caricaturing Liberalism: Do the movement’s sundry critiques of “liberalism” (or “Liberalism” the brooding omnipresence) have anything to do with reality?

• The Vacuity of the Founding Principles: Do any of the principles allegedly embodied in the movement conservative canon impose any constraints at all on the movement conservative party line?

• The Sycophantic Personality: Is the tendency of movement conservatives to promote each other’s works excessive even by the standards of ordinary ideological loyalty?

• Beating Dead Horses: Why are movement conservative intellectuals so obsessed with refuting positions (e.g., that the United States is an inherently “liberal” regime) that nobody has actually believed in fifty years?

• Embracing Bad Ideas: Why has the conservative movement promoted so many unsound or dangerous policies, from rollback of communism to the Bush-era tax cuts?

• The Rewards of Conformity: Has the conservative movement’s system of internships, seminars, collegiate newspapers, and fellowships produced anything other than two generations of bland loyalists? Would three generations be enough?

• The Outsiders: Why is it that the greatest American conservatives—Joseph Schumpeter, Jacque Barzun, Jane Jacobs, Tom Wolfe—have had so little to do with the conservative movement?

• Squandering Talent: Did it ever make sense to divert conservative talent into movement-building activities, and thereby deprive mainstream, establishment institutions of conservatives? Is it possible that the conservative movement has moved the establishment consensus left?

• The Rise of the Trolls: What does it say about the conservative movement that its most famous personalities (Jonah Goldberg, et al.) are increasingly those who make careers out of finding new ways to infuriate their opponents?

• Ostracizing the Best Minds: Why is it that the leading organs of movement conservative opinion no longer publish America’s best conservative writers (Sailer, Bacevich, &c)?

• “Conservative Movement” as Oxymoron: Did conservatism ever really need a movement in the first place?

• The Spurious Crisis: If, as everyone says, the conservative movement is in crisis, why isn’t anyone calling for it to be dissolved?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Grand New Party, Same Old Illusions (part I)

Cross-posted from Takimag.

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have won near universal acclaim for their book, Grand New Party (albeit not from the editors of Taki’s Magazine—see here, here, and here). I trust, therefore, that they will not take umbrage at my criticisms, of which this will be the first of two installments.

First, what is more of a complaint than a criticism, Grand New Party has no footnotes and cites authorities only sporadically. (As Steve Sailer has noted, the authors seem to have adopted several of his ideas. Can you blame them? Sailer comes up with more original insights in a week than most journalists do in a lifetime.) Not every book has to come with footnotes. But Grand New Party purports explain how different voters behave, how different policies affect them, and how different policies affect how different voters behave. On page after page, the authors make controversial claims about how the world works, oftentimes without telling us how they acquired this knowledge. For all one can tell, Grand New Party‘s policy ideas have no more to recommend them than the authors’ skill in fitting them into a coherent narrative.

Second, Douthat and Salam never address the most obvious flaw in their argument, namely, that helping (or trying to help) a given group of voters does not necessarily mean that they will vote for you. For the one to follow from the other, voters must recognize which policies are helping them in the first place—which in turn requires an almost preposterous level of political sophistication.

To reduce the cost of health insurance, for example, Douthat and Salam advocate establishing a program of federal reinsurance and limiting the tax deduction for employer-provided health insurance. Whatever the merits of these proposals, voters are unlikely even to know about them, much less understand, evaluate, and correctly identify them with one party or the other. Indeed, if Republicans sought to limit the tax deduction for employer-provided insurance, one can easily imagine the Democrats successfully demonizing Republicans for trying to take away voters’ health insurance.

As it happens, Douthat and Salam provide their own evidence that, when it comes to appealing to this or that segment of the electorate, policy does not matter. Richard Nixon, they write, enforced the very busing policies the working class hated, dramatically expanded the civil rights bureaucracy and ramped up spending for Great Society welfare programs. Despite his liberal record, Nixon maintained his popularity with the working class through symbolic opposition to the counter-cultural left. 

As this example shows, what actually wins working class voters (or any type of voter, for that matter) is not a party’s policies but its brand. Voter ignorance ensures a wide measure of policymaking autonomy. What politicians do with that autonomy is up to them. In the meantime, it is wrong to assume that a candidate or party’s policy positions play a large role in voter behavior.

Third, from Douthat and Salam’s observation that working class voters have vacillated between the two major parties, it does not follow that victory lies in wooing them. It is trivially true that, all else being equal, a party is more likely to win an election if it performs better with this or that segment of the electorate. But things are not always equal. An appeal to one segment of the electorate may cost a candidate with another segment; thus, the winning appeal is not to the segment of the electorate that will yield the most additional votes but to the segment that will yield the most additional votes at the least additional cost. 

Douthat and Salam appear to acknowledge this point in a recent essay on National Review Online, but not, as far as I can tell, in Grand New Party itself.  In the book, they sometimes seem to be advocating a working-class-based strategy more for moral than for strategic reasons.

Fourth, Douthat and Salam—like many young conservative writers these days—have gone Tocqueville-wacky. By the first chapter they are warning that the “great danger of modern life is atomization and isolation,” praising “America’s distinctive cultural habits,” and crediting our “mediating institutions” with saving us from “totalizing ideologies” invented by “countless moderns.” “Culture,” they continue, “provided the sense of solidarity and the moral guardrails necessary to sustain a society where the common man is independent of both state power and the dubious protections of noblesse oblige.” The proper goal of public policy is to promote “private virtue.”

Douthat and Salam don’t actually need any of this hefty sociology to make their arguments. At no point later in the book do the authors suggest that any of the policies they recommend (or all of them together) will not just create healthy incentives but will also give rise to self-sustaining and virtuous habits. Neither Douthat nor Salam, nor, I daresay, anybody else, actually knows a reliable mechanism whereby government policies can inculcate a given set of cultural traits or folkways. A felicitous set of folkways—such as, say, those that the Anglo-Americans brought to this continent—is just that, felicitous. 

Although Douthat and Salam profess at the outset that “wise public policy promotes both virtue and security,” in the end they do not actually believe that the policies of the Republican Party can create a healthy culture.

Book Cover

Nevertheless, to the extent that the authors regard their discussion of “modern life,” “mediating institutions” and the like as essential background, it ought not to pass without comment. Most of it is unconvincing. Consider:

The authors contrast “atomization and isolation” with “order” of the kind that is either imposed “from above” or that swells up “from below.”  But “atomization”—assuming that such a thing exists to begin with—does not conflict with “order.” On the contrary, a perfectly atomized society would be also be perfectly orderly, for by definition atomized individuals could not form factions or coalitions to compete for power and resources. Indeed, a strong case can be made that the societies that sociologists might describe as “atomized”—say, Scandinavian countries, where family and religious life as they were once known seem to have disappeared, or Singapore, where the regime strongly discourages ethnic and religious loyalties—are also the most orderly.

In any case, it seems rather quaint in a multicultural world to warn against the “great danger” of “isolation and atomization.” Day by day, whether they like it or not, Americans of different backgrounds are feeling their ancestral attachments more and more keenly. Americans who never saw themselves as “hyphenated” are now regularly categorized by ethnic group. The potential consequences are ominous. If any sociological phenomenon is dangerous today, it would seem to be our accelerating retreat from “isolation and atomization.”

Douthat and Salam hold modern “isolation and atomization” responsible for inspiring “totalizing ideologies” such as communism and fascism. But actual totalitarians do not exhibit a strong fear of isolation and atomization.  On the contrary, radicals such as Marx have despised such “mediating institutions” as the family or the church. Perhaps Douthat and Salam meant to say that without strong mediating institutions, a society becomes vulnerable to totalizing ideologies.  While this idea has a semi-respectable pedigree, it ought not be accepted blindly.  Totalitarian movements, once in power, may seek to liquidate competing sources of authority, but that does not mean that a plurality of sources of authority prevents totalitarian movements from coming into power in the first place. On the contrary, competing authorities may weaken the state’s legitimacy and leave it vulnerable to overthrow.

In any case, the very idea that there is now or ever was a tendency towards “atomization” is dubious. It may have looked that way to Tocqueville, who observed in America a widely dispersed population of independent farmers. (I myself strongly suspect that he simply mistook the particular folkways of the Anglo-Americans for some universal set of “modern” institutions.) But in point of actual fact, modern men have associations galore, many of which were previously unimaginable. As human beings’ coalitional psychology is written into their DNA, the sociologists’ belief in “atomization” is almost unsupportable as a scientific matter. Tocqueville argued that Americans “solved” the problem of atomization by creating voluntary institutions. But it would be more accurate to say that Americans’ genius for voluntary institutions—as opposed to institutions into which one is happily or unhappily born—followed naturally from their relative lack of tribalism and ancestral loyalties. Because Americans did not feel so keenly the accidents of birth, they formed a remarkably high-trust society where voluntary associations flourished.  From this perspective, “atomization” is the friend rather than the enemy of a healthy culture.

Douthat and Salam write that “intense sense of national solidarity” is “necessary to sustain a society” and “create economic security and independence.”  If by “cultural solidarity,” they mean nationalism, then insofar as “mediating institutions” often get in the way of nationalism by creating oppositional loyalties, the authors may embrace one or the other but not both (or at least embrace only those “mediating institutions” that are compatible with American nationalism). If they instead mean something like “a high sense of social trust,” then it is likely that what the authors call “isolation and atomization” is one of the preconditions of Americans’ ability to trust total strangers. Show me a place where individuals are intensely attached to their clans, their homelands, or their ancestral ways of life, and I will show you a place not of “cultural solidarity” but of violent antagonisms.

Concededly, what seems most to trouble Douthat and Salam is the breakdown of the nuclear family. But then their pontifications on how “countless moderns” have fought “atomization and isolation” are not only unnecessary but contradicts their point. 

The nuclear family (as opposed to the extended family) promotes atomization and isolation. Where the nuclear has broken down, it really does take a village—usually in the form of collateral relatives and co-ethnics—to raise a family. If Douthat and Salam want to return to a Tocquevillian America of independent and self-sufficient households, then they should have warned against the threats to Americans’ “atomization and isolation” rather than against “atomization and isolation” themselves.

Finally, Douthat and Salam neither defend nor stick to a consistent theory of what motivates voters. Do voters vote for their class interests? Their ethnic interests? Their self-interest? Is the candidate for whom one votes a kind of status symbol that has nothing to do with anyone’s interests at all?  As I will discuss in a later post, Douthat and Salam appeal (but without saying so) to each of these theories as their occasion suits.  The result is at best an impressionistic picture of how voters actually behave.