Monday, November 23, 2009

The Economist Again, and Those Funny Rightists

War is Good

I don't mean to pick on The Economist (and I doubt they'd care if I did). I love the magazine. But the oddities are piling up.

The current issue is dedicated to "Dealing With America's Fiscal Hole." In the leader of that name, and in "Stemming the Tide," the three-page briefing that follows it, the magazine proposes a number of ways America might reduce spending and reduce its current $12 trillion national debt. Yet among all its proposals, which include innovative and politically risky schemes like a carbon tax and a national value added tax, and which include a call to cut social security and health care spending, not a passing thought is given to war. Not a single word on the subject in the leader, and only a few lines in the briefing -- lines devoted to dismissing the notion of reducing military spending.

When military spending is so sacrosanct it doesn't even get mentioned as reducible in the service of America's economic health (if for no other reason), something seems amiss. Especially when one considers that our wars since 2001 have thus far cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $935 billion (eventual costs of the Iraq war alone are reckoned to be in the $3 trillion range).

The kindest explanation I can come up with is that The Economist, like others in the media, puts a high priority on war. I wonder, though, why they don't explicitly say so?

One of those Essential Rightist Moments

Here's Bill O'Reilly, declaring, "I don't care about the Constitution."

In fairness to O'Reilly, I imagine he'd explain his remark by saying he was just trying to get his guest to offer his personal views on the matter of terror trials in civilian courts: "The Constitution isn't here," as he put it. "You're here." But why would O'Reilly care about what someone thinks irrespective of what the Constitution provides? His follow-on is telling: "Don't be a pinhead." Translation: "Don't be one of them, one of the out-group. Show me you have the right loyalties, that your loyalties are tribal, and that those loyalties trump your adherence to an objective application of the rule of law."

I like this clip because it captures something essential to the rightist mentality. It's not that rightists don't care about the Constitution (despite O'Reilly's claim); it's more that they don't get the Constitution. They don't get that you can't apply the law through a tribal filter, with one set of rules for your group and another set of rules, or no rules at all, for the "pinheads," or "enemy combatants," or "terrorists," or whatever other designation the tribalist employs to avoid having to apply the law impartially.

Another Essential Rightist Moment

Another incident I like for the way it illuminates rightist thinking (or what passes for rightist thinking) is Obama's recent bow to Japanese Emperor Akihito. Obama's bow precipitated predictable outrage on the right, with cries of "treason," "weakness," etc.

It's as though these people don't know that in Japan, the bow is a sign of respect. Or maybe they know it, but believe the purpose of diplomacy is to show other countries we're so badass we can ignore their customs? That we can disrespect other countries and still get what we want? What do these people think diplomacy is for? Do they have any capacity at all to look at things from the other side? Or are they so insecure that they can only imagine a show of respect being taken instead as a sign of weakness?

Rhetorical questions, I know. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of temperament in America today: one that's so weak and fearful it declares a bow off limits even in the land of bows; the other confident enough to understand adopting your neighbor's custom will be taken as a sign of respect. One, delusional enough to believe you can get what you want in life through disrespect; the other, competent enough to understand that respect in human relations is essential. One, so brittle it's afraid -- literally -- to bend; the other, sufficiently supple to recognize that diplomacy without flexibility is just a metaphor for pigheadedness -- and futility.

Obama's bow was also useful because of the way it exposed rightist hypocrisy. Did anyone who criticized Obama for bowing to the Japanese Emperor criticize Bush for holding hands and kissing the Saudi King? If not, the kindest explanation for the discrepancy is that there's something more verboten in America about a man bowing to another man than there is about a man holding hands with and kissing another man. That would be a tough argument to support, given rightist homophobia, but even if I bought it, we'd be back to the explanation above: rightists are relatively brittle, fearful, and insecure.

Despite its shortcomings, though, the right does have a talent for communication (usually fear-based). True, Democratic marketing geniuses decided to apply the shockingly banal label "public option" to their health care reform proposals, thereby ensuring they would have the world's most boring rallying cry with which to respond to GOP "death panel" accusations. But still, think about it: the right managed to convince significant segments of the voting public that government subsidized health care would be bad for them -- and that trillions spent instead in Iraq and Afghanistan would be good! Even with marketeers as feckless as the Democrats for opponents, convincing people to turn away a government subsidy and send the money to foreigners instead is no easy task. I wish the right would do it for sugar beet farmers, bankers, and mortgage holders, too.


Ken Green said...

Barry -

About your post "The Economist Again, and Those Funny Rightists," I have to ask, do you really want to go here, and risk alienating your readers?

I'm a fan of your work, and have read all the Rain books (several times), but I have to point out that this post contradicts what you say is the purpose of your blog.

"This blog aims to be a haven from fulmination, disrespect, polemics, and other attack-style debate."

Isn't what you've done here, by whacking on "rightists, "fulmination, polemics, and other attack-style debate"? Do you really want to just dismiss those with conservative points of view from your readership?

And, do you really think that quoting sn O'Reilly captures "rightist" thinking, as compared to the serious articles in Commentary magazine, National Review, The Weekly Standard, or the publications of my own institution, the American Enterprise Institute?

Would you want someone characterizing your work based on someone else's lame ninja cartoon? That's what you've done with conservative thought: you've picked a caricature, and used it to imply that anyone in the same genre shares the same shallow thinking.

It's fine if you disagree with conservative thought, I actually believe in civil discourse, but if that's so, you should show that you've actually read some, as opposed to dipping your toes into the shallows of Fox News, and implying that Fox News represents a line of political thought that traces its roots to Thomas Jefferson. If you want to discuss serious issues, then you should be serious.

As for bowing, I also studied Karate (Shotokan) for some time (5 years), and though I have not had the pleasure of visiting or living in Japan, I do know that the depth of a bow, and the angle of one's eyse represents one's view of one's place in a power structure compared to that of the other person. For the President of the United States, a vastly more powerful country than Japan, to bow as low as Obama did, with his eyes cast down, was a bow of submission, not one of mutual respect.


PS: Bush was *heavily* criticized for sucking up to Saudi Arabian royalty, a quick search of news archives would have shown you that.

JCH said...

In response to Ken,

While I agree that Bill O'Reilly is a caricature of a human being, and a feckless thug who tries to win arguments by being louder and meaner, I believe what Barry has said still has merit. I have read selected articles from several of the magazines and publications you mentioned in your response (call it opposition research), and agree that the tone of those works is vastly more civil, earnest, and worthy of debate. However, I would also point out that the viewership for shows like The O'Reilly Factor and other rightist scream-a-thons far outstrips the readership of most, if not all of those publications, and as such a majority of "average" Americans get their political debate by watching these types of programs. As evidence I would point you to the recently released fact that a significant portion of the viewership of The Colbert Report believe he is seriously a conservative pundit meant to be a balance to the liberalism of The Today Show.

And did Barry not begin the post by discussing his disagreements with an article in The Economist, a respected political publication with conservative tendencies?

I believe the interesting thing that Barry highlights with these diametrically opposed pieces of journalism (and i use the word lightly with O'Reilly) is that the rightist press seems incapable of broaching the subject of the war efforts, and spending, on anything but their basist, simplified terms... or not at all. As if the war their president began is inviolate and above reproach.

As far as Bush being criticized, yes he was- by the leftist press. Barry's point was merely to call attention to the hypocrisy of rightist pundits who DID NOT criticize Bush for "pandering", but did criticize Obama.

Being a martial artist myself, I am also aware of the intricacies of the bow, and I am also aware that for someone who is not schooled in the art, it can be a difficult and subtle task to master. It was simply further evidence of the right wing press machine attacking Obama on any and all grounds, not because they believe he is in the wrong... but rather because it allows them to sound off, and sounding angry and aggressive appeals to their "base" and boosts ratings. Its Obama bashing. For profit.

To Barry- I always enjoy your posts, please keep them up

JCH said...

**I apologize, I meant The Daily Show in my previous post, not the Today Show**

Ken Green said...


You make some good points, however, I would suggest a few counter points:

1. The viewership for left-leaning programming on CNN, combined with Oprah, and The View, and other such shows renders the conservative blathersphere in the minority.

2. Yes, Barry did start the post by talking about the Economist, but by most conservative standards, they're only middle-of-the-road. I had noticed that it seems to be John Rain's favorite mag, and liked that.

3. Several high-profile right wing commentators have called overtly for walking away from Afghanistan, seeing it as un-winnable. That was hugely controversial a month ago. But Obama campaigned on the idea that the Iraq war was the "wrong war" while Afghanistan was the "right war." The question now is, does he walk away from what he loudly proclaimed to be the "right" war? (PS: I'm a libertarian, I didn't think that EITHER war was the right war, I'd have responded differently).

4. Bush was also criticized for kissing the ring of the Saudi's by the right.

Finally, had Obama not bowed to the Saudis, I doubt his bow to the Japanese would have been mentioned. once is a mistake, twice is evidence of a pattern...

The White House has protocol officers. There's no reason for screwing up such simple rituals.



aaron said...

"Rightists" don't get the Constitution?

Ah. May one infer from this that "leftists" do? Or perhaps only "moderates"?

Or could it be possible that none of the above glittering generalities are supportable by any objective standard?

I would posit that our current President doesn't. He extended the Patriot Act. He has referred to the Constitution as incomplete, because it did not get into the redistribution of wealth. Under his watch, we have an active-duty Army Brigade (1st BDE, 3rd ID, at the moment) on orders that include authorization to "help" with civil unrest and crowd control.

I fail to see anything Constitutional about those decisions.

Of course, I'm about as far to the right as you can get. Maybe I just don't get the Constitution.

Barry Eisler said...

Folks, thanks for the thought-provoking and civil comments.

Aaron, there are too people to the right of you. Attila the Hun!

Kidding, kidding. And you're right: Obama is continuing terrible damage to the Constitution. Think about the whole issue of military commissions vs civilian trials for terror suspects. The right is outraged that we're going to try KSM and a few others in civilian courts. But on the underlying principle -- that the government can try cases it believes it will win in civilian courts, tougher cases in military commissions, and permanently imprison without trial suspects it doesn't believe it could convict either way -- there's no daylight at all between Obama and Bush.

All a long way of saying I might be better off finding another kind of shorthand besides right/left.

Ken, that leads to your point. You might be right. I don't mind being provocative with a purpose, but if Obama and Holder are taking the very positions I once loathed, maybe my shorthand categories aren't accurate. That said, it's hard for me to find anything I've written that could reasonably be described as fulmination. I was also struck by this: "[You're] implying that Fox News represents a line of political thought that traces its roots to Thomas Jefferson. If you want to discuss serious issues, then you should be serious." Did I really imply that? Is that the riff you really want to use for an admonition that I need to be serious?

(As for alienating my readers, it's not a consideration, nor do I think it should be. If someone offered me money to keep my opinions to myself, I wouldn't take it, so why would I keep quiet to sell a few more books? There are things more important than sales, no?)

FWIW, I do sample the various publications you mention. They certainly provide Fox-like fodder for principled response, but I tend to cite what airs on Fox instead because I sense it has a wider audience. Andy McCarthy, contributing editor at TNR, for example, is a particularly good example of the kind of tribalist thinking I describe in my post. But I don't think as many people read him as listen to Limbaugh or watch Beck.

JCH, thanks for responding to some of the other points I was going to address.

Again, FWIW, if you're curious about who I'd call worthy of the designation "conservative," try Daniel Larison at The American Conservative.

An aside about the bow: Ken, your concerns about the depth of the bow tend to reinforce my point. It was a bad thing for Obama -- the most powerful man in the world -- to show extra respect to the man who represents and in a sense embodies all of Japan? To me, such a gesture is a sign of confidence and security (and smarts). Does such a gesture carry any material costs? Japan will invade us? Insist on lower interest rates for the T Bills they buy? Or seeing the picture will embolden our enemies to attack us? (I thought our enemies hated us for our freedoms and nothing we do matters one way or the other...?) And the bow's benefit? Given its intended audience -- Japan -- I imagine it was well received. So a favorable impression upon the intended audience, at no cost to the man or the nation that offered it... a pretty sensible trade, I'd argue. And I maintain that it takes a substantial level of insecurity about one's own strength and standing to believe otherwise.

Back to the main point. Part of the problem is that our traditional nomenclature is increasingly anachronistic. The right still purports to favor small government, balanced budgets, and realism in foreign policy. Yet none of these claims is remotely plausible after eight years of Bush. At the same time, "leftists" like Obama claim the president can imprison people without a conviction or even a trial -- a notion more recently associated with the right.

Barry Eisler said...

For me the main takeaway is that I might need to rethink my nomenclature. It's clear to me that there's a movement afoot in America today that's favors tribalism over the rule of law, hews to religious teachings more than enlightenment ones (itself a form of tribalism), that is primarily fear-based and fear-motivated, and that values government-promised security significantly more than it values freedom. Loosely speaking, I'd call this movement authoritarian, and I see it present far more among Republicans than I do among Democrats. All of which strikes me as a good topic for a separate blog post -- so thanks again, everyone, for the thought-provoking commentary.

Charlieopera said...

It is good to see this (polite) discourse and while I lean to the left, I did find your post (Barry) a bit too much like other strictly liberal bloggers as regards the negative implication of “rightists”; that said (to quote from Curb Your Enthusiasm's last show), I also know you better from being here in the past and I know you’re much more fair than that.

I’ve been in a few blog wars (one particularly nasty that was finally resolved with mutual apologies earlier today) over politics (god bless/help you for doing this, brother). There is a tendency to paint much too broadly those from either camp. I’ve been a pretty straightforward boring monotone about a third party (any third party) in response to what I too often find dead horse beating on the left about the insignificant extremists like Palin/Beck and Limbaugh when they (the left) should be all over Obama for being Bush light, but it seems to me the real fear in all this has to do with voters (between the two major parties) being afraid of the other side winning; the lesser of two evil nonsense that absolutely drives me crazy (mostly because what you mentioned above, Barry … there is little light between Bush and Obama thus far.

As to NY and the trial … boy am I against it, but that has to do with placement more than the type of trial (although I would prefer a military tribunal). I don’t like that NY gets to be the center of attention a third time—way too tempting for the bad guys.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks, Charlie, and again everyone else. I'm considering the nomenclature I've been using. As I mentioned, despite important exceptions, I see common elements of a worldview among that I'd loosely describe as rightist. I think we can fairly generalize about leftists, too. Certainly I could name a dozen different positions that we would all easily classify as being associated with the right or the left. That must mean something.

BTW, here's a piece today from the Weekly Standard, purportedly a far more serious source of news than, say, Fox.

A question I'm mulling over, and that I'll throw out here: if Fox (O'Reilly, Beck, Limbaugh) isn't in fact representative of the right, have reputable rightists (such as the folks at AEI) disowned it? For example, the way William Buckley once did with the Birchers.

Charlieopera said...

I'm not sure what the Republicans will do come come 2010, but I thint it is pretty clear that if they permit the Palins, Becks, etc. to stick their noses into the fray anywhere they don't have a strong conservative base, they're going to lose.

On the other hand, so long as Obama continues to accomplish Jack and Squat, independents will seek another answer. Why voters aren't fed up with both parties yet continues to baffle me (but I'm easily baffled).

As regards these wars. Obama backed himself into a corner with Afghanistan being "necessary". I was hoping this delay in his decision was him realizing the political rhetoric of campaigns doesn't work now that the campaign is over. There is no point to either of these wars. Bob Herbert (NYTimes) a week or so ago wrote a great article about this--getting out of both wars and focusing on the economy and then health care. These wars ... all for nothing ... or worse (like Vietnam and Cambodia, where the exact opposite of our "goal" to stop communism from spreading was accomplished).

By the way, I'm forming the curmudgeon party. Feel free to join.

Barry Eisler said...

Curmudgeon party? I'm in...


aaron said...

It's not entirely your fault, Barry. (Oh, and before I forget-Attila believed in shared property/spoils, the fucking pinko.)

The following will be filled with generalizations to which their are many exceptions. I use said generalizations only to express my unscientific opinion/theories regarding observed trends in American politics and society:

The problem is that none of the traditional shorthands work any more. Many people chose a political party based on the popularity that party had at the moment, and not based on the philosophy that party traditionally represented. Lobby groups hedge their interests on both sides of the aisle.

Far more people started changing the common use names of issues to frame the debate more pleasingly...I mean, (as an example only) does pro-choice or pro-life either one have-by literal definition-a fucking thing to do with abortion? We're all pro-choice, we're all pro-life. Who doesn't like choice? Who doesn't like life? But you cannot (in the context of newspeak political debate), claim both. Because we twist the language to conceal our meaning and get the poll answers we want or the voting support we need for an election. And overall, people are simply not educated enough or energetic enough, to fight it. Our media sources enthusiastically participate in the re-branding of concepts and politicians based off the competitive nature of the news cycle rather than journalistic integrity.

It has become, as you pointed out re: O'Reilly, more of a tribal loyalty issue than a moral position. And as for why the more traditional branches of the Republican party don't cast out the lepers, fear and money and more fear. The thought that it's better to have a 51% conservative in the Oval Office than a 51% liberal. The idea that one *must* cater to the other side of the political spectrum to steal away votes from the other tribe. The idea that if you have any real standards in your tribe, you won't have enough to go to war with the other one, or they might join the other one, and then you'd lose.

It's a anything to ensure victory position brought about by a very charged emotional response to certain issues, a void of perspective that pushes a "victory at all costs" viewpoint. If a Democrat were to run on the platform of increasing taxes, gun registration, giving the Southwest back to Mexico, *but* promised to overturn Roe v. much of the conservative Christian fundamentalist crowd would go for it? I would bet a huge number, because the issue is so very dear to them that they would give up just about everything else they care about to stop what they see as mass murder of children.

Once an issue has gained that sort of emotional hold on a person, there's not a lot they won't do to get their way on it.

Anyway, that's what I see at work here. Lastly, I truly do appreciate your willingness to acknowledge a... mis-speaking? Shortcoming in terminology? Far too many people would have become (as I brushed real close to myself) personally defensive and argued the point rather than seeking a way through it. Makes the debate much easier (and likely more productive) when people can argue the point without being the target of personally aimed invective.

Barry Eisler said...

Aaron, more good points. As for the tone here, I'm grateful to you and everyone else who maintains it. After seven years of reviews and four years of blog comments, I have a fairly thick skin -- but still, I find myself much more susceptible to arguments when they're delivered with a respectful tone. And I think I'm pretty ordinary in that regard.

(And here, I'm tempted to bring up the smarts behind Obama's bow again... ;))

Respect is easy when you agree -- and necessary when you don't. Assuming a goal of persuasion, anyway.

I'm still thinking about all these nomenclature issues. It's a fascinating and important topic -- thanks again everyone for making me think more about it.

Stay safe, brother, and I hope we'll get to talk about all this and more in person sometime soon.

dkgoodman said...

Have you seen this incredible example of doublespeak, asserting there were no terrorist attacks on our country during Bush's term?

Quote of the Day

Barry Eisler said...

I did, DK. Pretty damn amazing.

Ken Green said...

Now Barry, be nice about Weekly Standard, they've run an article of mine, as has National Review.

David Katz said...

With regard to Ken Green's remark:

"Yes, Barry did start the post by talking about the Economist, but by most conservative standards, they're only middle-of-the-road."

That shows how "traditional shorthands" are also culture specific. In England - where it is based - the Economist has always been considered a conservative publication and usually to the right of the conservative spectrum. It would never be described as middle of the road.

On the bowing issue I agree with Barry. Far better to bow a little deeper and get those trade concessions, treaty promises etc. But then England has form on this. In the nineteenth century the refusal of our ambassador to China to kowtow to the Emperor played a part in our ending up in two Opium Wars - a particularly inglorious episode in our history, going to war to force China to open ports to our drug traders.