My goodness!

Sssh! The Week’s daily briefing reports:
US President Barack Obama has spent almost 1,000 hours on holiday and playing golf since he took office in January 2009 but has spent less than half that amount of time, 474.4 hours, in meetings about the economy. The claim comes in a report from the Government Accountability Institute, based on analysis of the presidential diary and newspaper reports.


In defence of Ironic Man

“Irony”, Stanley Fish told us in the New York Times (January 28) “is a stance of distance that pays a compliment to both its producer and consumer. The ironist knows what other, more naïve, observers do not: that surfaces are deceptive, that the real story is not what presents itself, that conventional pieties are sentimental fictions.” Fish is taking his fellow critics to task for their love of irony and their mauling of the new movie version of the stage musical version of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, “Les Misérables”. The movie, like the musical, is devoid of irony.

This is a thought-provoking piece – not so much along the lines of his thoughts as along other, perhaps opposing, lines. Fish is essentially defending the musical and particularly its recent cinematic incarnation against nearly all the “serious” critics of the world. Let us leave Victor Hugo’s novel on which the musical is based out of this. The novel is an indisputable masterpiece. The musical bears but the most tenuous connection to it – as any examination of its very extraordinary genesis will reveal.

What Fish has to say about the musical is interesting enough but what is really interesting is what he has to say about irony and the great divide between a life examined through an ironic prism (or is it prison) and a life which is devoid of this sense. Life in the former mode is presented as one in which we encounter and deal with anguish, doubt, uncertainty; life in the latter mode is one of simplicity, certainty and untrammelled feeling. But is it as simple as that? What worried me not a little was the thought that the two main authorities whom Fish quoted in support of the unexamined raw emotional life, Mark Rothko and David Foster Wallace, both tragically took their own lives as their ultimate response to the vision of the world which they embraced. Fish makes no mention of this.

Post-modern irony seems to me an excessive and misguided expression of a very real perception of the fact that there is much more to the world and the human condition than meets the eye. In some way it seems to mock our folly in not seeing what we should see – but does not want to do anything about it. However, a genuine ironic stance is no more than an approach we take to getting beyond the surface of appearances to the reality underlying them.

The common cultural mode today is one in which we respond with enthusiasm and abandon to the superficial emotionalism of popular entertainment. This is typified by our consumption of pop music, Hollywood film and television, musicals since the 1970s – when Andrew Lloyd Weber and the likes of  ‘Les Misérables’ became the cultural phenomenon of the late 20th century. The parallel emergence of the multi-billion spectator-sport industry is another of its manifestations. All this consumption is devoid of that vital question-mark which distinguishes the response of the thinking creature from the unthinking creature.  We either feel good or bad about something. That is all there is to it. Sentiment is put above all else and when that happens sentimentalism becomes the core value of our ideology. Sentimentalism is, as D.H.Lawrence defined it, the working off on yourself of feelings you haven’t really got. That is the ultimate destructive self-deception.

Since the consumers of these products are in fact creatures destined to think and not just to feel, when they are deprived of the challenge to do so they will not then bother to think. Their culture deprives them of the opportunity to develop that vital habit of being which is necessary for the fulfilment of their true nature. Ultimately this will leave them with a vision of their existence which will appear meaningless. The consequences of that may be the response of Rothko and Wallace, and so many others who have taken the same nihilistic path for the same nihilistic reason.

Does all this help explain in part the apparent readiness of Western societies to embrace euthanasia, abortion, and many other life choices which only make sense when perception itself is limited to the surface appearances of our existence? Does this explain the appalling superficiality of Barack Obama’s presidency and in particular the content of his second inaugural address. His appeal to the superficial and the emotional is relentless. The speech, as fork-tongued as it was banal, paid lip-service to the ideals of the Founding Fathers but the connections between his sentimental politics and their real-life politics were remote. He gushed:

“The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few, or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people. Entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed. And for more than 200 years we have. Through blood drawn by lash, and blood drawn by sword, we noted that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half slave, and half free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together… For we have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

OK, it is just a speech, but as Janet Daly reflected in her article in The Daily Telegraph last weekend, it is a speech which chillingly betrays a fundamental change in the very nature of our democracy. While it was superficial and trite it was no less significant for that – indeed, that its trite message could pass for real political thought and be a harbinger for a new political reality was what was frighteningly historic about it in her eyes. For her it was a coming to America of the same trite political thought which New Labour brought to British politics in 1997.

“The core message was pounded home relentlessly: American government”, she wrote, “is now in the redistribution and welfare-provision business, and this is not (contrary to appearances) at variance with the founding fathers’ conception of a nation that is inherently opposed to state interference and domination over the individual. This is the new credo of American nationhood: the government, not the community or the household, will be the moral arbiter of social virtue. The traditional suspicion of the overweening power of the state is now a thing of the past. Democracy is about electing a government that will be there to protect you from hardship, shelter you from the storm and absolve you from sin. Well, no, maybe not that last one – but the concept of the state as moral saviour is not so remote from this, is it?”

And what has this to do with Stanley Fish? Perhaps this: nurture our society on superficial sentimentalism and feed it nothing more demanding than emotional highs and lows and you will take away our capacity for irony. With our sense of irony gone, and with it the capacity to see beyond superficial appearances, we will have to live with the spectre of a world in which we are represented by people who think in the way Obama thinks. We will see no hope beyond the quagmire of superficial emotionalism and sentimentalism in which they are threatening to engulf us. Our sense of irony at least gives us a gateway to a deeper and truer reading of our condition and some prospect of redemption.

Obama – the anti-American’s American?

Everyone is now aware that if the rest of the Western world’s electorates had votes in Tuesday’s US election, Barack Obama would be shoe-in. Why? Because that world is still anti-American and it is myth-making to say that Obama has changed that.

Charles Moore, in today’s Daily Telegraph, gives us a very interesting reading of the two opposing cultures represented in next week’s American election. In it he observes how badly a myopic and delusional European media establishment has misread it all in their fascination and adulation of the Obama presidency of the past four years. They do not see that Mr. Obama is not in fact what he appears to be.

In Britain and, even more, in continental Europe, the people who bring their fellow citizens the news do not really see this. To them, Mr Obama’s combination of historically persecuted ethnicity and posh seminar tone is just perfect. It satisfies their mildly Left-wing consciences and fits in with their cultural assumptions. The chief of these is that the excesses of the West, especially of America, are the biggest problem in the world. Mr Obama comes as near to saying this as anyone trying to win American votes ever could. His “apology tour” to the Middle East early in his presidency remains, for the European elites, the best thing he has ever done. He is the anti-Americans’ American.
Mitt Romney is not. Although he is a moderate Republican, it is fascinating how profoundly he clashes culturally with Obama, and, a fortiori, with the European media and political classes.

Read more here.

It’s not about “cold fish” or “wet fish” – it’s about people’s lives, stupid

What a breath of fresh air this sober analysis is after the rantings of Paul Krugman  and utterly blinkered wishful thinking of Lara Marlow in the Irish Times and her other platforms.

Liberalism’s Glass Jaw by ROSS DOUTHAT in today’s New York Times calmly and coolly exposes the bubbly substance of everything that Obama stands for and shows us that the real problem with all this is not Obama himself but the fragile ideology he stands on. We can only hope that while he has been able to fool a majority of the people to get  one term in office he will not be able to fool enough of them to get a second.

As Doubthat reads it, all of Obama’s signature accomplishments have tended to have the same weakness in common: They have been weighed down by interest-group payoffs and compromised by concessions to powerful insiders, from big pharma (which stands to profit handsomely from the health care bill) to the biggest banks (which were mostly protected by the Dodd-Frank financial reform).

It may have been an empty rhetorical gesture, but the fact that Romney could actually out-populist the president on “too big to fail” during the last debate speaks to the Obama-era tendency for liberalism to blur into a kind of corporatism, in which big government intertwines with big business rather than restraining it.

Doubthat does not mention his social policy “evolutions” and the concessions he has risked making to the gay lobby on marriage, the ease with which he has slipped into assuming that Christian consciences on sexual morality issues can be tossed around the ring like so many rag dolls. But he might have done. These were the cotton wool compassionate gestures which Obama has allowed to distract him from really grappling with the more difficult challenges of getting the country back on its feet.

One hopes that the American electorate will get well beyond the preoccupation which some in the media have tried to focus on – whether it is Romney as a “cold fish”, or Obama as a “wet fish” – and look at the real issues of substance which Doubthat summarizes here.

Do we really deserve this?

The “silly season” seemed to start early this summer – not even waiting for our revered political assemblies to take their well –earned breaks. A month ago the newspapers were already scraping the bottoms of their troughs of choice. Time spent on them in the morning got shorter and shorter as the weeks moved on. America excepted. While the political battle being engaged in there over the next few months is not promising to be very inspiring, it is, however, offering some food for the politically curious among us.

This, from an interesting piece in today’s Washington Post by Anne Applebaum, makes an astute but somewhat dark observation on the prospect ahead of us there – and like it or not, it is a prospect in which we all have a stake.

“You know the stereotypes already. Both Obamas come from what might loosely be called the intellectual/academic meritocracy, the “liberal elite,” the post-WASP Ivy League, easily caricatured as the world of free-trade coffee, organic arugula, smug opinions and Martha’s Vineyard. The Romneys, by contrast, belong to the financial oligarchy, the “global elite,” the post-financial-deregulation world that is just as easily caricatured as one of iced champagne, offshore bank accounts, dressage trainers and private islands.

“The two groups have some important overlaps. Although Romney got some attention for holding a fundraiser in the Hamptons last week, Obama has raised more money in the Hamptons overall (the president scored particularly well in Sagaponack, by one account, where the median home price is $4.4 million)….

“They also have some important differences. The financial oligarchy, as we learned from the Barclays scandal in London last week, is happiest when it operates in deep secrecy, where it can manipulate interest rates, package derivatives, hide its profits and shelter its taxes as it sees fit. The liberal meritocracy prefers to operate in the glare of publicity, where it can give lectures, write books, make documentaries and generally promulgate its own views as loudly as possible. Aged 34, Obama wrote his autobiography. Aged 37, Romney founded Bain Capital.

“But while you might think one or the other group more preferable or more offensive for reasons of politics, culture or taste, you certainly cannot argue that either of them is in close touch with “average” or “ordinary” or even “middle-class” people, however those terms might be defined. And although they and their supporters may shout about “radical left-wing professors” on the one hand or “Gordon Gekko” on the other, neither Obama nor Romney can plausibly claim to leading a populist revolution against the “elites” who are allegedly destroying America.

“Which is just as well, because the political success of both Obama and Romney proves that radical populism in the United States has failed spectacularly. For all of the attention they got, neither Occupy Wall Street nor the tea party has a candidate in this race. Neither found a way to channel inchoate, ill-defined public anger — at the deficit, at the banks — into electoral politics or clear alternatives. Whoever wins in November, we’ll therefore get the elite we deserve.”

Did the Irish electorate deserve the “elite” it has been landed with for the next several years – with not another prospect in sight for at least a decade? One wonders what cataclysm we will have endure before we can escape from the politically correct mediocrity we are now crippled with.

Folly of Obama’s Technocratic General

David Brooks makes a cri de couer in yesterday’s New York Times – prompted by the folly of Obama’s technocratic general, Kathleen Sibelius. It reminds one of Tolstoy’s take on Ernst Heinrich Adolf von Pfuel, the Prussian mastermind who lined up against Napoleon as the French Emperor drove east. Tolstoy was summing up the various modes of foolish self-assurance which he observed among different nationalities.

“The German’s self-assurance”, he said, “is worst of all, stronger and more repulsive than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth – science – which he himself has invented but which is for him the absolute truth.

“Pfuel was one of those hopelessly and immutably self-confident men, self-confident to the point of martyrdom as only Germans are, because only Germans are self-confident on the basis of an abstract notion – science, that is, the supposed knowledge of absolute truth.

“Pfuel was one of those theoreticians who so love their theory that they lose sight of the theory’s object – its practical application. His love of theory made him hate everything practical, and he would not listen to it. He was even pleased by failures, for failures resulting from deviations in practice from the theory only proved to him the accuracy of his theory.”

Obama’s generals are demoralising Brooks. He tells us why:

Every once in a while, the Obama administration will promulgate a policy that is truly demoralizing. A willingness to end the District of Columbia school voucher program was one such case. The decision to force Catholic social service providers to support contraception and other practices that violate their creed is another.

These decisions are demoralizing because they make it harder to conduct a serious antipoverty policy.

The essential truth about poverty is that we will never fully understand what causes it. There are a million factors that contribute to poverty, and they interact in a zillion ways.

Some of the factors are economic: the shortage of low-skill, entry-level jobs. Some of the factors are historical: the legacy of racism. Some of the factors are familial: the breakdown in early attachments between infants and caregivers and the cognitive problems that often result from that. Some of them are social: the shortage of healthy role models and mentors.

The list of factors that contribute to poverty could go on and on, and the interactions between them are infinite. Therefore, there is no single magic lever to pull to significantly reduce poverty. The only thing to do is change the whole ecosystem.

If poverty is a complex system of negative feedback loops, then you have to create an equally complex and diverse set of positive feedback loops. You have to flood the zone with as many good programs as you can find and fund and hope that somehow they will interact and reinforce each other community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood.

The key to this flood-the-zone approach is that you have to allow for maximum possible diversity. Let’s say there is a 14-year-old girl who, for perfectly understandable reasons, wants to experience the love and sense of purpose that go with motherhood, rather than stay in school in the hopes of someday earning a middle-class wage.

You have no idea what factors have caused her to make this decision, and you have no way of knowing what will dissuade her. But you want her, from morning until night, to be enveloped by a thick ecosystem of positive influences. You want lefty social justice groups, righty evangelical groups, Muslim groups, sports clubs, government social workers, Boys and Girls Clubs and a hundred other diverse institutions. If you surround her with a different culture and a web of relationships, maybe she will absorb new habits of thought, find a sense of belonging and change her path.

To build this thick ecosystem, you have to include religious institutions and you have to give them broad leeway. Religious faith is quirky, and doesn’t always conform to contemporary norms. But faith motivates people to serve. Faith turns lives around. You want to do everything possible to give these faithful servants room and support so they can improve the spiritual, economic and social ecology in poor neighborhoods.

The administration’s policies on school vouchers and religious service providers are demoralizing because they weaken this ecology by reducing its diversity. By ending vouchers, the administration reduced the social intercourse between neighborhoods. By coercing the religious charities, it is teaching the faithful to distrust government, to segregate themselves from bureaucratic overreach, to pull inward.

Members of the Obama administration aren’t forcing religious organizations to violate their creeds because they are secular fundamentalists who place no value on religious liberty. They are doing it because they operate in a technocracy.

Technocrats are in the business of promulgating rules. They seek abstract principles that they can apply in all cases. From their perspective, a rule is fair when it can be imposed uniformly across the nation.

Technocratic organizations take diverse institutions and make them more alike by imposing the same rules. Technocracies do not defer to local knowledge. They dislike individual discretion. They like consistency, codification and uniformity.

Technocratic institutions have an unstated theory of how change happens. It’s the theory President Obama sketched out at the beginning and end of his State of the Union address: Society works best when it is like a military unit — when everybody works together in pursuit of a mission, pulling together as one.

But a realistic antipoverty program works in the opposite way. It’s not like a military unit. It’s like a rain forest, with a complex array of organisms pursuing diverse missions in diverse ways while intertwining and adapting to each other.

I wish President Obama would escape from the technocratic rationalism that sometimes infects his administration. I wish he’d go back to his community-organizer roots. When he was driving around Chicago mobilizing priests and pastors on those cold nights, would he really have compelled them to do things that violated their sacred vows?

I don’t think so. I think if that Barack Obama possessed the power he has today, he’d want to flood the zone with as much rich diversity as possible.

Waterloo looming?

So it looks like it is all over and Republicans are going to unite behind Romney as their best hope of beating Obama. It may be a very close run thing.
Mitt Romney scored a sweeping victory in Nevada today with a broad coalition of voters that included groups that he has struggled to win in previous contests, including very conservative voters, strong Tea Party supporters and evangelicals.The victory extends the momentum Mr. Romney received from his commanding victory in Florida last Tuesday, and pushes forward his march toward the Republican nomination.

Mr. Romney’s rivals largely conceded the state before the results were known, with some leaving Nevada to campaign in Colorado and Minnesota. Mr. Romney, who won Nevada in 2008, had never given up the lead in polls here.