Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
They Said It:
For me, the issue this US election season is the corruption. Sure, I’d like a balanced budget and less debt and repeal of Obamacare, but I’m getting used to being sold out on those issues. So I’m down to the bare minimum requirement for a politician: The corruption nauseates me, and, if it doesn’t nauseate the candidates, then that explains a lot about why nothing happens on any of those other matters. It’s in the air, it’s in my nostrils, and I’m sick of choking on it. We have a “justice” department that prosecutes a senator who made the mistake of crossing the President (Menendez) but declines to do anything about a tax collector who treats American taxpayers differently on the basis of how they vote (Lerner). We have a revenue agency that regards itself as the paramilitary wing of the ruling party. We have replaced equality before the law with a hierarchy of privilege, so that no-name ambassadors can be fired for breaking federal record-keeping requirements by a department whose boss outsources her federal records to her own server and then mass-deletes them with no more thought than when she’s parking her van in the handicapped space. We have a federal police agency in which 26 out of its 28 hair analysts gave false testimony favorable to the prosecution. We have a cabinet officer who managed to get more firepower deployed to toss her designated scapegoat videomaker into the county jail than she assigned to the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi. We have a president who rules by decree on everything from immigration to health care – and a legislature of castrati too craven to object.
I would like a candidate who promises to hose out the sewer. Yes, yes, I know it’s not as jolly and upbeat a slogan as “Morning in America” or “Hope and Change” or “A Thousand Points of Light”, but hosing out the sewer happens to be what’s necessary….
Like I said, I want a candidate who’ll restore government integrity and equality before the law. These days I can’t sit through that “I’m proud to be an American ’cause at least I know I’m free” song. I’d like fewer people to sing it and more people to live it.
Mark Steyn, “Oligarchs for Hillary,” April 20, 2015.
CHARACTER AND THE RULING CLASS.
We thought long and hard about this week’s essay. We thought and thought and thought. And then we thought some more. Certainly, there is no dearth of important and interesting topics: “Sanctuary Cities;” the sell-out of America’s interests in Iran; the sell-out of Israel’s interests in Iran; the collapse of the planned economy in Europe; the impending collapse of the planned economy in China; the utter breakdown of the federal bureaucracy; the fecklessness of the American ruling class; Hillary and her incredibly shrinking political fortunes; the surprising and sudden popularity of both a died-in-the-wool socialist and a New York real estate mogul. And the list goes on and on (and on and on. . .).
Any of these would, we suppose, be an appropriate subject. But then, they are becoming somewhat hackneyed. Stale, if you will. They are Khat to the nation’s best and brightest talking heads, who chew and chew on these subjects day in and day out, harmonically repeating themselves and each other in meaningless mutterings which rarely if ever deviate from the ritualistic form. To paraphrase Emperor Palpatine: All is proceeding as we have foreseen.
Given this, we thought we’d like to write this week about Harper Lee. Why Harper Lee, you ask? Well . . . that’s complicated. But if you bear with us a minute, we’ll try to explain.
For those of you who may not know, Harper Lee – the author of To Kill A Mockingbird and thus the greatest one-hit-wonder in any genre of American culture – turns out not to have been a one-hit-wonder after all. This week, Ms. Lee’s second novel, written as the original draft to Mockingbird, will finally be published, some five-plus decades after it was composed. It also turns out that Ms. Lee has a wicked sense of irony and, moreover, that she seems to understand the world better than most “world leaders.” This second book – Go Set a Watchman – is very different from Mockingbird, despite covering much of the same subject matter. It is also quite upsetting to a few groups of Americans who seem to have real difficulty telling fact from fiction and, even more importantly, from digging below the superficial. A New York Times review of the book, focusing specifically on the “shocking” bits of Watchman’s plot, makes this point well, we think:
We remember Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as that novel’s moral conscience: kind, wise, honorable, an avatar of integrity who used his gifts as a lawyer to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small Alabama town filled with prejudice and hatred in the 1930s. As indelibly played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie, he was the perfect man — the ideal father and a principled idealist, an enlightened, almost saintly believer in justice and fairness. In real life, people named their children after Atticus. People went to law school and became lawyers because of Atticus.
Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel, “Go Set a Watchman” (due out Tuesday), Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Or asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
In “Mockingbird,” a book once described by Oprah Winfrey as “our national novel,” Atticus praised American courts as “the great levelers,” dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” In “Watchman,” set in the 1950s in the era of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he denounces the Supreme Court, says he wants his home state “to be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP” and describes N.A.A.C.P.-paid lawyers as “standing around like buzzards.”
In “Mockingbird,” Atticus was a role model for his children, Scout and Jem — their North Star, their hero, the most potent moral force in their lives. In “Watchman,” he becomes the source of grievous pain and disillusionment for the 26-year-old Scout (or Jean Louise, as she’s now known). . . .
The depiction of Atticus in “Watchman” makes for disturbing reading, and for “Mockingbird” fans, it’s especially disorienting. Scout is shocked to find, during her trip home, that her beloved father — who taught her everything she knows about fairness and compassion — has been affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies, and the reader shares her horror and confusion. How could the saintly Atticus — described in early sections of the book in much the same terms as he is in “Mockingbird” — suddenly emerge as a bigot? Suggestions about changing times and the polarizing effects of the civil rights movement seem insufficient when it comes to explaining such a radical change, and the reader, like Scout, cannot help feeling baffled and distressed.
Here’s the thing. In Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is a hero to the New York Times because he is not flawed. He is good and right and just and honorable. He is perfect, or nearly so. In fact, as the Times – along with countless other reviews – notes, he is so perfect and so admirable that many Americans of a certain age have, over the years, chosen to make him their hero, their moral model. That’s fine, as far as it goes. But there are problems associated with modeling fictional behavior, especially if that behavior is approaching perfection, which is rare among humans.
In Watchman, by contrast, the New York Times reviewer finds Atticus “disturbing” because he is flawed, manifestly NOT perfect. Atticus holds racial views that are not enlightened. He is weak. He is sinful. He is filled with prejudice. Or, as Sam Sacks put it in his review for the Wall Street Journal, Finch’s racial biases “reduce Atticus from a god to ‘the status of a human being . . . .’”
Not surprisingly, the New York Times makes special note of the fact that Watchman only briefly touches on the subject of the rape trial of a black man, which, of course, was the main story line in Mockingbird. In making this point, the reviewer is spared the difficult task of addressing a troubling, ideology-doubting fact: the Atticus who is now a racist is the same Atticus who put his name, reputation, and even his life on the line 20 years earlier as the one man in town who would defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. And, even more importantly, this “new” Atticus presumably still believes in Watchman what he believed in Mockingbird; which that every man – black, white, or otherwise – is deserving of equality under the law.
How can that be? The poor reviewer of the New York Times can’t even fathom it. Indeed, he finds it “disorienting.” So much so that he admits that he cannot even begin to address a central question raised in Watchman, that being whether the Atticus Finch of Watchman is or at least can be a man of character, a good man despite his flaws.
We would argue that he can be, and that this possibility should not be disorienting. For starters, we would note that all good men are flawed. Moreover, we’d suggest that Atticus Finch’s flaws make him a more real, more genuine, a much more appropriate “hero,” and yes, even “role model.” Part of the reason for this is that readers can more easily relate to this second version of Atticus. A bigger part of it, though, is the fact that he has demonstrated that he was at one time, and presumably still is, capable of rising above his deepest and most enduring prejudices to do what he knows in his heart is “right.” “Right” not only in some abstract sense, but “right” as in strictly obeying the unwritten mores and specifically written laws of the land.
As such, it can be argued that Atticus joins a distinguished crowd of deeply flawed and “disorienting” heroes whose important role in Western literature, ranging from the great Greek tragic plays and histories to the some of the world’s most famous novels and children’s classics, is to illustrate the importance of the overcoming one’s baser instincts and appetites for the greater good of one’s own soul and of mankind.
Today, of course, lessons such as these are frowned upon by those who wield the terrible swift sword of political correctness and are thus contemptuous of words that raise uncomfortable questions about such things as “right,” “wrong,” “sin,” and “truth.” Heroes in their world are free from the bounds of both traditional moral and ethical behavior as well as from the very laws of the land. To avoid being “disorienting,” they must instead swear absolute fealty to a variety of ever-changing, tribal bigotries and chauvinisms which require no disconcerting exercise of restraint or pangs of conscience.
Regular readers know that we have been writing about the consequences of this sad state of affairs among this nation’s ruling class ever since Bill Clinton moved into the White House 22 years ago.
More specifically, we argued that Bill’s willful disregard for both behavioral norms and legal niceties were a danger to the country. Worse still, we maintained that the Republicans willingness to resign themselves to the notion that “character” was unimportant in contemporary politics would exacerbate the problem and put nearly all of the major issues of the day beyond the scope of allegedly “civilized” political discourse. We put it this way just a couple weeks before Bill’s reelection to his second term.
We were particularly upset by Jack Kemp’s assertion last week in the debate with Al Gore that he too apparently thinks that character is not particularly important. Kemp sanctimoniously maintained that he believes it would be “beneath” both him and Bob Dole “to go after anyone personally;” thus implying that anyone who does so is himself or herself most probably, unlike Kemp himself, a person of diminished character.
We’re sure this made Kemp feel like he was a real swell guy. And we’re sure it made a lot of Democrats like him. But we think it’s hogwash. We think it’s nuts. Personally, we want no part of a party that is led by people who believe that the only important political issue is which side can deliver the most material goods.
Don’t get us wrong. We believe that management of the economy is an extremely important part of Washington’s role today, and therefore a very important part of the political equation. And we think the Dole-Kemp tax cut is a terrific idea. But to maintain, as Kemp did last week, that the moral and ethical behavior of the president is irrelevant, and that the question of who has the best economic plan is the only important issue in the election is not only nonsense, but dangerous nonsense.
In our opinion, Kemp should be using his position to impress upon the American public that there is a reason, a good reason, that the constitution contains guarantees against such transgressions as obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and invasions of privacy. He should stress that there is a reason why tens of thousands of Americans have died, and others have made great sacrifices, in order to insure these guarantees. He should feel comfortable challenging, and challenging enthusiastically, the character and integrity of any and all candidates for high public office; and he should expect to have his own honesty and integrity challenged as well.
By deliberately scoffing at the importance of character, honor, honesty, courage, morality and ethical behavior, and by maintaining that economic issues are the only important ones, Kemp reinforces the rampant materialism that is, we believe, in large part responsible for the decay that is rotting away at the foundations of American society.
What people like Kemp never understood is that when we spoke about “character,” we weren’t speaking solely about a person’s propensity for untoward behavior. Sure, Bill’s perpetual adolescence was an issue. But it wasn’t THE issue. As we said in that quote, the rule of law and the presumption that no man – even the President of the United States – is above the law is what mattered then and now.
“Obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and invasions of privacy” were Bill’s real transgressions. You see, any man – indeed every man – is susceptible to ethical lapses, to “sin,” if you will. It’s what makes us human. And every human in the history of the world – save two, for those of you Catholics – has been a sinner. But a man who would compound his human frailty with wanton contempt for his office, for the law of the land, for the very Constitutional order that makes the United States unique in the world, is not a mere sinner, but a man without character as well.
When the Republicans impeached Bill over the Monica Lewisnsky affair, the Left and the mainstream media spent endless hours feigning outrage at the fact that a political party would try to overturn the results of an election “based on sex.” What they never understood – or at least pretended never to understand – is that the sex, such as it was, was tangential to the real issue.
The President of the United States called on God to witness the truth of what he was about say. And then he lied. At which time he raised the question asked by Washington in his famous farewell address to the nation. “Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?”
As icing on the cake, he quibbled with prosecutors about the meaning of the word “is.” He obstructed justice. He, through various intermediaries, attempted to suborn perjury. He tried to portray a confused young woman as a psychotic stalker in order to save his own skin. In short, his sexual transgressions were clearly peripheral matters. His attack on the very foundation of the constitutional order was what mattered, what proved him to be a man lacking the character necessary for the job.
For years, we have noted for years that Bill’s definition of “morality” depended heavily on the idea that his personal behavior was irrelevant and that he should be judged by “who he fought for.” Political junkies will recognize that this is Hillary’s definition of morality as well and that she thinks that her refusal to obey the law is irrelevant next to her desire to “fight for” the right people and the right causes. “I have every confidence,” Hillary said last week, “that during the course of this campaign people are going to know who will fight for them, who will be there when they need them and that’s the kind of person I am. . . .”
There are countless problems with this drivel, of course, but for our purposes today, the biggest problem is the fact that the people for whom Bill and Hillary “fight” are always changing. Unmoored from anything even approaching actual moral principles, Bill and Hillary “fight for” whatever and whomever suits their whim on any given day. And in so doing, they represent the broader political class quite well.
Two years ago, for example, Hillary Clinton was against same-sex marriage. Twenty-three years ago, Hillary’s husband instituted a policy that mandated that gay men and women remain closeted in order to serve in the military. Nineteen years ago, Hillary’s husband signed the federal Defense of Marriage Act. And yet today, she makes same-sex marriage and civil rights for gay men and women a centerpiece of her campaign. She is fighting for them today. But she was fighting against them yesterday. Conversely, yesterday, she was fighting for those who believe in a traditional definition of marriage, but today she is fighting against them. Principles shminciples. The notion that ALL Americans deserve to be “fought for” or that the character of the fighter might actually matter are notions that are completely foreign to the Clintons. Political expediency uber alles. And so it goes with the ruling class more generally.
When Barack Obama came to office six-and-a-half years ago, among his first acts as President was to order federal management of the Chrysler and GM bankruptcies. And as any schoolboy knows, Chrysler’s bankruptcy in particular was managed in violation standard bankruptcy procedures, providing Democratic allies (i.e. labor unions) with a far sweeter deal than the company’s creditors.
And it’s only been downhill from there. . . .
From the misuse of the IRS to the attack on religious liberty; from executive orders dealing with power plants and their emissions to extra-legal measures designed to bypass the people’s representatives regarding immigration and the ultimate disposition of the tens of millions of illegal immigrants in this country; Obama has done as he pleased, favoring friends, punishing enemies, and trampling the rule of law. Unlike Bill and Hillary, Barack Obama does not appear possess any notable or overwhelming personal failings. And yet like the Clintons, he too thinks that the law is unimportant when measured against his desires to change the country. The ends justify the means, you see, and who cares about the means anyway since those who are punished deserve it anyway.
The result of all of this has been the cementing of the “administrative state,” which is to say the undemocratic, corrupt, corporatist structure that has come to dominate American governance, particularly at the federal level. The problem with the administrative state isn’t just that it substitutes the will of “experts” for the will of the people (although that IS a significant problem). The problem is that the so-called experts, the bureaucrats who make the vast majority of governing decisions in this country are far from Max Weber’s “ideal type,” meaning that they are anything but impartial. Rules are made, regulations are enforced, instructions are given based on personal preference and, more to the point, based on the influence wielded by moneyed interests acting through the legislative and executive branches.
When the incomparable American political scientist Theodore Lowi wrote that “interest-group democracy” and the administrative state warp the reality and expectations of government, what he meant was that the people should expect that their representatives will act in their interests and that the bureaucracy will act impartially. Instead, what happens is that both players act on other, less honorable motivations, protecting moneyed interests, personal interests, and ignoring the common interest. For example, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, pushed for policies that coincided with the interests of foreign entities who donated large sums of money to her husband’s “private” foundation and directed State Department staff, in turn, to accommodate her wishes and those interests. That may not be technically illegal. But it is perverse. And it demonstrates a widespread lack of character, a general disregard for the notion that all men are equal before the law.
In a recent essay, Victor Davis Hanson, the renowned classicist and military historian made a very similar point about the decay of the West and the potential for decay in the United States, given the declining respect for the rule of law demonstrated by our ruling class. Specifically, he put it this way:
Barbarians at the gate usually don’t bring down once-successful civilizations. Nor does climate change. Even mass epidemics like the plague that decimated sixth-century Byzantium do not necessarily destroy a culture.
Far more dangerous are institutionalized corruption, a lack of transparency and creeping neglect of existing laws. All the German euros in the world will not save Greece if Greeks continue to dodge taxes, featherbed government and see corruption as a business model.
Even obeying so-called minor laws counts. It is no coincidence that a country where drivers routinely flout traffic laws and throw trash out the window is also a country that cooks its books and lies to its creditors. Everything from littering to speeding seems negotiable in Athens in a way not true of Munich, Zurich or London.
Mexico is a much naturally richer country than Greece. It is blessed with oil, precious minerals, fertile soils, long coastlines and warm weather. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens should not be voting with their feet to reject their homeland for the U.S.
But Mexico also continues to be a mess because police expect bribes, property rights are iffy, and government works only for those who pay kickbacks. The result is that only north, not south, of the U.S.-Mexico border can people expect upward mobility, clean water, adequate public safety and reliable power. . . .
Americans, too, should worry about these age-old symptoms of internal decay. The frightening thing about disgraced IRS bureaucrat Lois Lerner’s knowledge of selective audits of groups on the basis of their politics is not just that she seemed to ignore it, but that she seemingly assumed no one would find out, or perhaps even mind. And she may well have been right. So far, no one at the IRS has shown much remorse for corrupting an honor-based system of tax compliance. . . .
Ultimately, no nation can continue to thrive if its government refuses to enforce its own laws.
Now’s here the thing: no one, ourselves included, expects our politicians to be perfect. We don’t want god-men to rule us, largely because we know no such thing exists. We also know that bona fide saints are few and far between, particularly among the class of people who find “public service” to be their calling. But that’s irrelevant, frankly. What matters is consistency, honor, the willingness to ask for forgiveness from those maltreated, and above all, the willingness to carefully execute the duties of the office, which is to say to respect the rule of law and the idea that ALL men are equal before the law, up to an including the best, brightest, richest, and most powerful men and women in society.
So what does Atticus Finch have to do with this? Well, nothing really. But the Times’ book review has a lot to do with it. Because it provides valuable insights into the nearsightedness of the people who led us down this path.
You see, not only did the reviewer miss the literary necessity of the duality of all fictional heroes – since, as any good fiction author knows, heroes without flaws cannot be heroes, for they overcome nothing by being good.
But, more importantly, after this reviewer acknowledged that he was unable believe that the “the polarizing effects of the civil rights movement” were sufficient to explain the radical change in Atticus, he gave up looking for another explanation, preferring instead to simply announce that he was simply “baffled and distressed.”
No surprise there. “Baffled and distressed” says it all. Atticus didn’t change, after all. The Left’s conception of morality and character did. And it changes still – and will change time and again going forward. We’d be baffled and distressed by that as well. Moreover, we’d probably find ourselves celebrating a political culture that favors saying the right things over doing the right things.