Criticism Economics The Opinionsphere

Victor Davis Hanson’s “Productive Classes”

It’s always interesting to watch a pundit venture from his field of “expertise.” Scratch a bit beneath the surface, and anywhere outside of their expertise they tend to be rabid ideologues. Every virtue they bring to their perspective on what they are an expert in vanishes. Generalists on the other hand seem to bring the same worldview to everything – whatever it may be. (My goal with this blog is to be a rather amiable generalist.)

For example, Victor Davis Hanson is an expert on ancient warfare. However, he wrote last week a column in the National Review about the “war” on the “wannabe rich.” His evidence of such a war is based on the idea that someone who is extremely wealthy has far more money than he or she needs – and so, increased taxes don’t hurt them much. Which is, of course, the entire basis for the progressive taxation that Hanson is trying to reject – that money beyond a certain base of income serves little use. The utility of more income for someone making $500,000 a year is undoubtedly less then for someone making $50,000.

Hanson also attempts to play the populist card in the class struggle between the “haves” and the “have mores” – or the “haves” and the “have yachts.” According to Hanson, those making between $200,000 and $500,000 are the “productive classes who want to be rich” (the 95% of Americans making less are not mentioned) and those making more are the corrupt elites. It’s a rather interesting view – quite Randian in its conclusion: “continue to punish and demonize [the productive classes], and the country will grind to a halt – as we are seeing now.”

More mature libertarians and conservatives often look at Rand through the somewhat rosy lens of adolescence when they first discovered her – but they find her theories to be fundamentally lacking. Hanson though seems to still view the world through this adolescent lens – and doesn’t realize how it sounds to claim that those who are still making $500,000 in the midst of this recession are deliberately grinding the economy to a halt because they feel demonized and burdened by paying a slightly higher percentage of their taxes than they did a few years ago (but still less than they did under Clinton, Bush I, or Reagan.)

History National Security Politics The Opinionsphere

“Hardly Churchillian.”

[digg-reddit-me]I’ve mentioned before that the  contrasting stories of Churchill and Chamberlain in the lead up to the Second World War have become the founding myth of neoconservative foreign policy. Neoconservative foreign policy is based on the counterfactual presumption that if Churchill had been prime minister, Hitler’s rise would have been thwarted. The appeasement of Hitler by Chamberlain thus caused Hitler’s rise in the neoconservative view.

However this myth took root, it is now the framework which neoconservatives use to understand every foreign policy issue: Every threat to America thus becomes Hitler’s Germany, no matter how marginal – from Kim Jong Il’s North Korea to Ahmadinejad’s Iran to Chavez’s Venezuela to Putin’s Russia. There are two possible responses to the rise of these existential threats: appeasement or confrontation. The right thing to do is to project confidence and bellicosity to deter the next Hitler from rising. Every sign of restraint is debasing appeasement; every Democrat then who advises restraint, who seeks to put these threats in perspective thus is portrayed as Chamberlain – from Carter to Clinton to Kerry to Obama. Every leader of this war, of our warrior nation, is compared to Churchill for his resolve and rhetoric. This neoconservative root myth thus leads to a policy of constant belligerence against every possible foe as a homage to a man who was belligerent for a lifetime and memorably right once.*

In a sense it seems, neoconservatives looked with hope to Obama Tuesday night (see especially these responses by Kagan, Kristol, and Gerson), as he promised to escalate the conflict in Afghanistan as they hoped. They hoped he could be their Churchill. Many on the right wing though not all, having been trained to focus most of all on symbology and rhetoric over substance, believed Obama had failed to meet their Churchillian expectations, and so took the comfortable position of assailing him.

Anyone who doubts this story of Churchill’s intransigence is at the core of neoconservative foreign policy can find evidence looking at the right wing responses to Tuesday night’s address:

The National Review‘s lead editorial:

Churchillian it was not.

Rich Lowry:

Is Gen. McChrystal in Kabul regretting that Obama didn’t strike a more Churchillian tone…?

Fred Thompson:

In the first part of his speech he sounded like Winston Churchill.
In the second part of his speech, he sounded like Lady Churchill.

Victor Davis Hanson:

Stanley Baldwin, not Winston Churchill.

Charles Krauthammer on Fox News:

Not exactly the kind of speech you’d hear from Henry V or Churchill.

Matt Lewis:

Hmm. What to say about Obama’s speech… Well, he sure as hell ain’t Winston Churchill.

John Hannah:

Hardly Churchillian.

* I quite admire Churchill – and he was also prescient about the specter of Communism and had a remarkable view of history, as if from a distance. But the single opinion of his that created his out-sized reputation was his steady belligerence against Germany during its rise.

[Image of Winston Churchill not subject to copyright.]

Criticism National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

Deconstructing the Right Wing Appropriation of the Term “Appeasement”

[digg-reddit-me]I’ve tried hard to find something to respect about Victor Davis Hanson – as he takes himself seriously, and is taken seriously, including by people whom I take seriously – but for the most part, his pieces are just less hysterical attempts to push right wing memes. Only in a world of Sean Hannitys, Glenn Becks, Sarah Palins, Jonah Goldbergs, Kathryn Lopezes, Michelle Malins, and Ann Coulters, is he a moderate.

But he has an interesting post over at The Corner, making a good point in defense of George W. Bush (though in the service of a meme that so many of these independent, individualistic conservatives promote in a synchronized fashion: that Obama should stop blaming George W. Bush for what he inherited.) Hanson points out that Bush inherited some bad “stuff” from Bill Clinton – including a mild recession, simmering issues with Iraq and the Middle East, and Osama bin Laden on the loose – and left some improved areas to Barack Obama – including an Iraq much improved from its chaos earlier in Bush’s term, relationships with Europe much improved from earlier in Bush’s term, a Libya that had given up its nuclear program, and a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.  Obama inherited a more challenging set of issues than Bush though: Two wars, the worst economic conditions in 80 years, a deficit doubled in 8 years and having grown so large it threatens America’s fiscal solvency, America at its lowest standing in the world community in a generation, Osama Bin Laden still at large, an Iranian regime strengthened and emboldened as America took away every check on its power, etcetera, etcetera.

But even while making this valid point, Hanson resorts to propagandic measures – none of which actively undermine the point he is trying to make – but all of which together demonstrate that he is merely attempting to write propaganda rather than engage with the issues. He only cites those facts that prove his point, ignores the large amount of contradictory evidence, and makes a number of questionable assertions. (Is Kim Jong Il really on better terms with Obama than Bush? Ahmadinejad? Putin – into whose eyes Bush looked and got “a sense of his soul“?)

But perhaps most telling, is his use of the buzzword, “appease.” To quote George Orwell in his “Politics and the English Language,” propagandists organize their thoughts as collections of  “phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” Rather than choose words based on their meaning, they instead choose those which best serve their ideology. For example, Orwell, writes that some words, “now [have] no meaning except in so far as [they] signify[…] ‘something not desirable.’ ” He uses word “Fascism” as an example of this – and the word “democracy” as an example of a word that is used to mean merely “something good.” Hanson’s writing doesn’t always have that prefabricated henhouse feel – as some writers do (Kathryn Lopez, I’m looking at you!) – but he does misuse language in the manner Orwell discussed.

The most glaring issue is his use of a single word. Hanson writes:

George W. Bush inherited…a pattern of appeasing radical Islam after its serial attacks (on the World Trade Center, the Khobar Towers, U.S. embassies, and the U.S.S. Cole). [my emphasis]

Think about the use of the word “appease” in this context. The word means “to make peace with” often by “acceding to demands or granting concessions.” Bill Clinton’s response to these attacks – prosecuting the perpetrators, bombing locations we believed were related to Al Qaeda, and attempting to assassinate Osama bin Laden – doesn’t fit into what anyone would call “making peace with” or “acceding” to any demands. The word “appease” then was chosen not because of its meaning, but because of its place in Hanson’s ideology. The word “appease” – as used by right wingers – has evolved from its literal definition. They use it to call forth comparisons to the single historical moment that has defined neoconservative thinking: Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler at Munich. Chamberlain famously did seek to appease Hitler, offering him Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia in return for peace. And just as famously, it did not work.

Right wingers now though seem to see every national security issue as a binary choice between Appeasement and Confrontation. Obama wants to try terrorists in federal court instead of military commissions? Appeasement. Democrats oppose sending a surge of troops into Iraq? Appeasement. Iran wants to negotiate peace with the United States? If we even talk to them, it’s Appeasement, so we must choose Confrontation and ignore them. Only if every national security decision is seen as a binary choice between Appeasement and Confrontation does the disastrous first term decisions by Bush make sense. Orwell warned that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Language is corrupted in order to “defend the indefensible” and to “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Thus, words such as “appease” are now used by right wingers to distract and obfuscate from the history that was and to suggest an enhanced and alternate view of the history that proves them correct.

[Image in the public domain.]

Barack Obama Domestic issues Political Philosophy Politics The Opinionsphere

Equality of Result versus Equality of Opportunity

[digg-reddit-me]It is noteworthy that a certain type of older conservative or right-wing intellectual finds it necessary to insist repeatedly that Obama’s politics is “the same old” stuff as liberals tried earlier in history. These olders intellectuals try to place Obama in the context of typical big-government liberals – and they presume by doing so they are taking the wind out of his sails and making him a more prosaic and less historic figure.

Victor Davis Hanson recently wrote a column explaining that Obama was interested in “the same old equality of result.” He describes the debate going back to the Greeks between “the equality of result” and “the equality of opportunity” – and he identified France with the first and America with the second. His implicit question: Do we want to become France? George Will and others have described Obama’s administration as the third or fourth wave of liberalism. There is a strong need among this group to get across the message that Obama isn’t different – he isn’t change – he’s just more of the same stuff that they – as Republicans – defeated back in 1980 and 1984 and 1994 and 2004. 

But insistince does not make it so.

Obama’s liberalism is not the liberalism of the Great Society or of Jimmy Carter – or even of Bill Clinton. Hanson, Will, and others refuse to acknowledge that in the debate between equality of result and equality of opportunity, they already won. Obamaism is about expanding equality of opportunity – which would be clear if Hanson were doing more than reciting talking points. Look at the three specific programs Hanson cites before claiming Obama wants “equality of results”:

…creating a new health care bureaucracy, cap-and-trade, allotting trillions more for education…

None of these try to achieve an “equality of results.” They are about ensuring people equal opportunity to succeed – and ensuring the market properly prices activities which are damaging to society in general. For example, if you want everyone to have an equal opportunity to succeed, you need to make sure that everyone who is intelligent enough and works hard enough can get an education. Health care costs and concerns have made it much more difficult for smaller businesses to succeed – so Obama is proposing to open up the federal program. This will even the playing field in competition between big and medium- to small-sized companies to a significant degree. Cap and trade imposes a market mechanism to take into account the costs of polluting activities.

Hanson and the others of his generation need to understand that they won the opportunity versus results debate. Liberalism today has evolved to deal with the demands of the moment

Perhaps they should focus on their own political philosophy to see that it does as well.