Friday, April 29, 2005

Even more on the conservatism of doubt

It appears that mainstream conservatism isn't being fooled by Andrew Sullivan. Here's an excerpt from Jonah Goldberg's comments about "Crisis of Faith":
Which brings us back to the real role of conservatism. Sullivan nods to the fact that his division between conservatism of faith and conservatism of doubt is a bit unnatural and that most conservatives don’t fit into these “ideal types.” That should tell him something vital. If the actual humans we call conservatives in America aren’t in fact one or the other, then in an important sense conservatism in America isn’t one or the other. It’s both-and, not either-or. As much as I like doctrines of immutable truth, in the political context a movement is only what it believes and does. I agree with Sullivan that Republicans are straying a bit too much from conservatism and that conservatives are letting it happen too much and I think he offers important insights and useful suggestions on this score. But republicans are politicians and politicians promise to do things. Conservatives are people who — ultimately — explain why many things shouldn’t be done. As Hayek noted, “conservatives” in America are defenders of liberty because we wish to conserve those institutions that keep us free. This emphatically included the rich tapestry of moral traditions, dogmas, and precepts that have sustained Western civilization.

In the world we live in today, to be an American conservative requires two complementary forms of argumentation: skepticism about the new and faith in the old. You must have both to be a conservative of any stripe. Which new things you’re skeptical about and which old things you revere distinguish the kind of conservative you are. I think, unlike many readers, that by this criteria alone Sullivan is a conservative.
Another point that I made earlier was that the false distinction between conservatives of faith and conservatives of doubt gives Sullivan a convenient smear to use against anyone to his Right and a convenient term of approval for anyone he agrees with. As this excerpt from Sullivan's remarks about the Presidential press conference demonstrates, my point was exactly right:
Still, it was an impressive performance over all: at ease, in command, and effective. I doubt it will shift the public mood, which is souring on the Republican hegemony. But it certainly reassured me that [President Bush] is trying to tack away from the extreme right. Whether he can keep riding the tiger of religious zeal, while not falling off, remains to be seen. But in this press conference he struck me as a conservative of doubt more than one of fundamentalist faith.
It'll be interesting to see if President Bush becomes a conservative of faith again once the Federal Marriage Amendment returns to the public spotlight.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Propaganda and the political party

In the course of writing my previous post, it has occured to me that Andrew Sullivan's essay "Crisis of Faith" completely misses a major point about contemporary politics in order to set up his conservatism of doubt/conservatism of faith dichtomy.

The real distinction of contemporary conservative politics from that of the Goldwater era is that conservatives, and Republicans, are much more willing to wage a propaganda campaign in pursuit of their policies than before. It is a fact that some people are willing to act, and if need be act irrationally, to a greater extent than other people when exposed to propaganda. There is a continuum of responses that people can make to any given propaganda, from evaluating it an a completely objective manner and accepting rational conclusions to quitting a job and leaving a family for full time devotion to "the cause". And just because someone responds actively to one propaganda doesn't mean that he or she responds in exactly the same way to all future propagandas; I'm sure there are people who were desperate to keep Terri Schiavo alive who couldn't care less about judicial filabusters, for example.

The major error that Andrew Sullivan makes in his essay (insofar as a conservative of faith is not just a convenient straw man) is that he is attempting to equate the mass response to a propaganda campaign to the general state of mind of individuals, even though this is equating two ideas that are almost contradictory by definition. The real, fruitful questions that he should be asking should be exploring why propaganda is necessary for the success of the Republican Party and to what extent the Republicans should be willing to go to propagandize the public.

More on the conservatism of doubt

Andrew Sullivan's essay "Crisis of Faith", which introduced the new conservatism of doubt to the blogosphere, has now developed enough attention and commentary to merit it's own exclusive "debate" page at the The Daily Dish.

I'm also not the only one to notice that the conservatism of doubt is indistinguishable from liberalism.

Another paragraph from "Crisis of Faith" that illustrates its essential phoniness is this one:
Let me be rash and describe the fundamental divide within conservatism as a battle between two rival forms. The two forms I'm referring to are ideal types. I know very few conservatives who fit completely into one camp or the other; and these camps do not easily comport with the categories we have become used to deploying--categories like "libertarian," "social conservative," "paleoconservative," "fiscal conservative and social liberal," and so on. There is, I think, a deeper rift, and a more fundamental one.
Sullivan's essay is, by his own admission, a discussion of ideal types (which really seem more like moods to me) that he treats like the ideologies of real people even though he admits that practically nobody is represented solely by one or the other. And the reason his ideological catagorization fits practically nobody is because even the most doctrinaire contemporary conservatives are not moral absolutists about everything with tolerance for nothing. Practically everyone is certain about some things and doubtful about others, or intolerant on some issues and completely tolerant about other issues. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the conservative of faith/conservative of doubt dichtomy is completely false.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The latest craze in blogging...

is calculating your blog's readability indices. The Gunning-Fog index, in particular, is a measure of the number of years of schooling that your audience is likely to require to understand your content. Vacuum Energy, with the exception of this and subsequent posts, scored a Gunning-Fog index of 11.69, putting it roughly on the level of the Wall Street Journal in readability.

Some comparative ratings reported by are:
ProfessorBainbridge: 11.57
Instapundit: 8.53
The Corner: 9.37
Hugh Hewitt: 10.98
Volokh: 11.03
Kevin Drum: 12.10

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Conservatism of Doubt

Andrew Sullivan's latest lengthy analysis of conservatism attempts to coin a new phrase: The conservatism of doubt. Sullivan's definition of the conservatism of doubt begins with:
What other kind of conservatism is there? The alternative philosophical tradition begins in precise opposition to the new conservatives' confidence in faith and reason as direct, accessible routes to universal truth. The conservatism of doubt asks how anyone can be sure that his view of what is moral or good is actually true. Conservatives of doubt note that even the most dogmatic of institutions, such as the Catholic or Mormon churches, have changed their views over many centuries, and that, even within such institutions, there is considerable debate about difficult moral issues. They understand that significant critiques of human reason--Nietzsche, anyone?--have rendered the philosophical quest for self-evident truth even more precarious in the modern world. Such conservatives are not nihilists or devotees of what Pope Benedict XVI has called "the dictatorship of relativism." They merely believe that the purported choice between moral absolutism and complete relativism, between God and moral anarchy, is a phony one. Their alternative is a skeptical, careful, prudential approach to all moral questions--and suspicion of anyone claiming to hold the absolute truth. Since such an approach rarely provides a simple answer persuasive to everyone within a democratic society, we live with moral and cultural pluralism.
Ramesh Ponnuru has already posted a smackdown of the conservatism of doubt starting here (just keep scrolling upwards). Personally I think Andrew Sullivan should be congratulated for finally articulating a definition of conservatism that is indistinguishable from the political philosophy of Senator John Kerry.

Pretty much anyone who pays attention to politics for any length of time has seen the tactic of muddying the waters as an attempt to trick your opponent into giving up his or her disagreements with you. The converatism of doubt is essentially based on the same trick. If critics say that your political position is too absolute or that you seem to sure of yourself, then you can accuse them of an unseemly relativism. If opponents says that your political position is too unrealistic, then you can accuse them of holding onto moral absolutes that should be subjected to doubt. If people give you a challenge that you can't parry right away, tell them to come back when their Ph.D. theses get signed by their advisors.

A historical parallel

Regarding the nuclear option, The New York Times has reported today that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is not interested in a compromise that prevents judicial nominations reported out of committee from receiving confirmation votes.

Here's Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid quote in the article:
''As part of any resolution, the nuclear option must be off the table,'' said Reid, referring to the GOP threat to change the filibuster rules.
Doesn't that remind you of another historic confrontation? As written by President Reagan referring to the negotiations at Reykjavík:
Then, after everything had been decided, or so I thought, Gorbachev threw us a curve. With a smile on his face, he said: "This all depends, of course, on you giving up SDI."

Monday, April 25, 2005

Civilized Civilization

Another blogger reveals his addiction to Civilization, the video game.

I used to love playing "Civilization III", although apparently some huge amount of the hard drive space it takes up is devoted to animating a huge set of three-dimensional heads for the diplomacy screens. The ability of a few courageous galley crews to occasionally knock out a battleship always had me puzzled.

Anyway, I had given up "Civilzation III" a few years ago for reasons of, essentially, preserving interpersonal harmony, but it's back on the computer as of today.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Elections in the United Kingdom

It's election time in the United Kingdom! I've been going to John O'Sullivan's Election Diary at the The National Review Online for election commentary, although the mainstream media apparently judges the U.K. important enough for some cursory coverage.

One amazingly silly British election episode that hit the blogsphere (hat tip: Instapundit) is a report that the BBC launched a heckle attack at a Michael Howard campaign event. This is, of course, small beer in the United States: liberals have long considered the Republican attacks on John McCain (the 2000 South Carolina Primary), Max Cleland (his 2002 Senate relection campaign) and John Kerry (the Swift Boat veterans) to be so heinous as to be attacks on democracy itself.

On the other hand, it's not as if the BBC really needed hecklers. The Conservative's slogan for this election, "Are you thinking what we're thinking?", has me thinking that Tony Blair is likely to win a third term as Prime Minister. The Republicans have already tried basing a presidential campaign on the premise that their candidate can maintain brain activity, and although the Republicans did reasonably well they just couldn't get Bob Dole into the White House.

Shouldn't a British candidate for Prime Minister be aiming a little higher than this anyway? We're talking about an election in one of the preeminent humanist, artistic, and scientific nations in world history; whether or not actual thinking is taking place should have been a settled question a long time ago. And in a democracy, shouldn't it really be the electorate that is telling the government what to think and not the other way around?

The slogan that the Conservatives should be running on is not "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" but the nearly infinitely superior "We're thinking what you're thinking."

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A minor quibble

Michael Novak has written an op-ed in the New York Times that discusses the character of Pope Benedict XVI. In it, he seems genuinely puzzled why the new pope has been characterized as a neoconservative by commentators in Europe and the United States.

He's absolutely right to be puzzled. Given that this is the head of the Roman Catholic Church that is being referred to, shouldn't he be properly described as a "novaconservative" instead of a "neoconservative"?

Since I took German in high-school instead of Latin, I'm not entirely sure how the Latin novus should be modified in this context. But from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary it seems that "nova" is the accepted English usage with "novas" or "novae" allowed for the plural.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI

A new pope was elected today.

I would blog about this detail, but as an ex-acquaintance of mine might say "If you're not a Christian, than why do you care who the next pope is? He should be just an ordinary person to you."

It was questions like that one that left me 50% missing her, 50% never wanting to see her ever again.

To answer the question: I blame my german ancestry for this, but if you give me an institution that has had 266 heads over 2000 years of history while being ruled by a few dozen kingdoms, republics and empires, I will need to catagorize it.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

New Stuff

Plenty of template changes in the last couple of days. I added a link to, since I've been visiting his website more and more often to keep up on the nuclear option in the Senate, and I also added a link to commemorate her visit to Syracuse University last week. Scroll down far enough and you'll see the new hit counter and a link to the new trackback service that I signed up for (Haloscan originally handled only comments, but I have Blogger for that so I'm only using Haloscan trackback at present).

A friend of mine who left Syracuse for Louisiana also has a new, primarily textile-oriented blog named "Occasionally Accountable?" which is now on the link list. Any blog that is "Inspired by Robert Pirsig and Allen Ginsberg, Cynthia Ozick and cities like Zefat." is definately worth reading.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Trent Lott and the Democratic Party

Will Collier of Vodkapundit has an amazing post in which he illuminates the filibuster strategy of Senate Democrats. Also interesting is his take on Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist:

I've never been particularly impressed with Frist. Seems like a decent fellow, but I don't get the hoopla. For one thing, he's not a particularly good politician. He was picked out to replace Trent Lott (whom I have even less use for) because he was seen as a straight-arrow, and that's all well and good, but I thought he was too inexperienced for the job at the time, and he hasn't done much since then to convince me otherwise, or that he has the leadership qualities for a really critical position like Majority Leader. I really don't get the Frist-for-President stuff, for those reasons and others. I don't think he'd be a competitive candidate, even in the primaries.
I think that there are two possible interpretations of the Democratic Party's successful attempt to drive Trent Lott out of the Republican leadership by manufacturing public outrage against him. The first, as Will Collier's column suggests, is that the Democrats suspected that a Senate Majority Leader Lott would have been able to succeed with the so-called nuclear option to end filibusters of judicial nominations. Thus, Lott was forced to resign and, given that the Democrats have not launched a similar campaign against Frist yet, we can assume that they believe that Frist is going to bungle (or is currently bungling) the nuclear option.

An alternative is that Trent Lott is, aside from the filibustered judicial nominees, the highest profile victim of the Democratic Party's campaign to inflict casulties on the Bush administration. If you look at the pattern of public outrage from the Democratic party since 2000, it appears as if the Democrats have been probing the Republican leadership for weakness.

After the 2000 elections, the Democrat party's hatred was focused solely on the "illegitimate" President Bush. This gradually gave way somewhat to the "Dump Cheney" speculation before the 2004 elections, which gradually morphed into a call for Rumsfeld to resign over Abu Ghraib. After the 2004 elections, the Democrats have tried to attack the nominations of other cabinet-level nominations such as Condoleeza Rice and Alberto Gonzales, and at this point they've finally worked their way down to third-tier targets such as Lester Crawford and John Bolton.

Predictably enough, now that the 2006 congressional elections are the Democratic Party's planned stepping stone back to the Presidency, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is the latest Republican under high-profile attack.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Deficits for me, but not for thee

One of today's New York Times editorials was written in support of the federal estate tax. One point made by the article in favor of preserving the estate tax is that:
The House proposal would cost the federal government a whopping $290 billion through 2015, according to estimates by Congress's own budget agency. And that's just the start; the costs after that would be explosive.
On the other hand, one of yesterday's New York Times editorials comments about the foreign aid stinginess of the United States:
Britain announced long ago that it would meet the 0.7 percent target by 2013. France is more than halfway there, at 0.41, and has announced a timetable to get to 0.5 percent by 2007 and 0.7 percent by 2012. From America - the stingiest of all, compared with the rest of the G-7, donating just 0.18 percent of its gross national product to foreign aid - there has not been a word about getting to 0.7 percent by any date in this century.
Now, the 2004 GNP of the United States is approximately $10.75 trillion. Assuming that the figure is fixed for the years 2005-2015, 0.18% of $10.75 trillion per year over 10 years is $193.5 billion while 0.7% of that amount per year over 10 years is $752.5 billion.

Thus, the thursday editoral is willing to pay $559 billion for foreign aid over 10 years for something it endorses, but the friday editorial views $290 billion in tax relief over 10 years as way too expensive for something that it opposes.

By the way, according to this global issues site, the American people donated more than twice ($34 billion) the official United States aid ($15 billion) in 2003.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Random thoughts

I'm willing to bet that at some point, every blogger will get into a mood where practically anything could be made into a post, but practically nothing will seem to merit a whole post on its own. In the last week or so, I've had a bunch of ideas for a post floating around, but none of them really seemed to grab hold of the keyboard. So in order to clear out the mental closets, here are a few random thoughts that have occured to me.

One thing I noticed is that there have been a couple of recently released movies that operate from the premise that high school athletics are not the most important thing in the world. Friday Night Lights is one aspect of this premise with its familiar pairing of the sports-obsessed dad with the not-quite-as-sports-obsessed son. From a different perspective, Coach Carter has the amazing moment of a Coach with the guts to give academics a higher priority than athletics for his students (given that the average teacher can't give out too many B's to his or her students without feeling some heat, you have to give Coach Carter a lot of credit for toughness).

The wierd thought I had is that this emphasis, even to the point of irrationality, on athleticism within America's educational culture feels like an instance of a institution that has become to conservative, although not in the sense of Newt Gingrich taking control of the school system. What better way to root students within their community, rally the community morale, and build a sense of a shared purpose and participation for everyone than to put together the community's student athletes and give them all uniforms and a mascot and great victories to play for and to win if the community can just cheer them on a little bit louder than before? Isn't a big part of the drama of Friday Night Lights or Coach Carter really just the conflict of liberalism, in the sense of the liberal educational ideal, conflicting with this casual conservatism?

Another thought that I had some time ago was that the movie The Ring seemed to bear a resemblance to the short story "The King in Yellow". The Ring is about a mysterious video-tape; if you view it, a phone call informs you that you will die (presumably horribly) seven days later. "The King in Yellow" is about a mysterious sequence of events and strange dreams that, one after the other seem to be irrevocal steps that propel the protagonist to his doom. In both cases, the horrible end is predicated upon a script that the doomed character is fated to fulfill. Similarly, the yellow sign is a mark of doom similar to the wierd distortion of photographs or images of the cursed characters of The Ring. The key difference between the two is that one cannot just run the blasphemous manuscript "The King in Yellow" through a copying machine to live free again the way that reproducing the cursed videotape basically gets Rachael and Aiden off the hook (damnation was a lot harder to shake off in 1895, the year "The King in Yellow" was written).

Did you ever notice that the Democratic Party's public crusade against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is looking a lot like their assualt against Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, or alternatively, revenge for the Republican Party's public crusade against ex-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle? Launching a drive to get your enemy's experienced, battle-hardended commander knocked out of the leadership and replaced by a second-stringer is presumably Washington D.C.'s version of basic politics.

Here's a bit of hypocrisy to be on the lookout for. Regarding the so-called "nuclear option", the Senate Republicans are claiming that they simply want a majority vote to confirm judicial nominees reported out of committee, and nothing else. On the other hand, Senate Democrats are claiming that the Republicans are trying to destroy the cherished Senatorial privilege of the filibuster entirely, and in order to deter the Republicans from exercising the nuclear option they are threatening to bring business in the Senate to a standstill. Wouldn't it be ironic if the Democrats protest their "loss of the right to filibuster" by... launching a set of filibusters?