Sunday, July 29, 2007

Hello out there?

Here's the deal:

I've been blogging semi-consistently for two months now, and it's time I got a good read on who's actually reading this thing. So here's your job: leave a comment on this post. Just let me know you stopped by--it will give me a better idea of whom, if anyone, I'm writing to.

This is important to me. I started this blog to keep in the practice of writing, to keep my friends informed of my exploits, and also because I thought I might have something interesting to say. So far, it's been a mixed experience. I realized very quickly that I had little interest in maintaining your standard minipundit outlet, consisting of frequent posts of interesting and newsworthy links followed by a paragraph or two of commentary. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's not something I'm especially excited about, and I found the prospect of keeping up with the proverbial Joneses tiresome.

Well, it's really been a tiring experience anyway, which is why I haven't posted as often as I would have liked. I'm doing more writing than I expected for The Post, and it takes a lot out of me.

What compounds this even further is that I have very little idea who's out there. I'm in a position where I sometimes feel like I'm just spewing thoughts into cyberspapce with little purpose or method, which is a very unhealthy thing. A writer needs an audience, and he needs to write for that audience, or else his writing is an exercise in narcissism. (Or, if you prefer, "self-liberation," but let's not go there.) And as someone who's so used to parsing his words very carefully, I don't think I like it.

So, since this is your blog (whoever you are), feel free as well to comment on what you've liked or disliked, and what you'd like to see more of. More deep philosophical discussions? Should I bother to finish up my Gatsby or my Peter musings? More New York stories? Spiritual reflections--maybe an occasional brief take on the day's mass readings? Or should I just get my act together and post more frequently on all of the above?

But if that doesn't suit your fancy, don't worry about it. Just tell me who you are, and I'll guess as best I can.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Good news on the home front

Support for the war in Iraq is going back up, the New York Times reported Wednesday. It's still low -- 42% of Americans now think the initial invasion was a good idea, up from 35% in May, and only 35% think the war is going "very badly," down from 45%. No victory parties yet. Still, if this is a trend -- and it's largely tracking with the facts on the ground -- it might be just enough for us to avoid an ugly surrender before Petraeus has a chance to do his thing.

My hope is that this means the country is climbing away from the second of two sillyheaded extremes we've passed through in the last few years. The first, of course, was Bush's democratic messianism -- "freedom is the desire of every human heart" and all that. Which may be true in some eschatological sense, but neglects the reality St. Paul pointed out 2,000 years ago, and which Bush should have known better -- that we're very very good at not doing that which, on a cosmic level, we probably really want.

Or, as Charles Kesler put it, the problem with neoconservatism is not that it thinks too highly of democracy, but that it doesn't think highly enough of it, minimizing its special genius by underestimating the level of virtue it actually requires of its citizens.

But as we learned that lesson the hard way by watching Iraq fall to pieces, a strange sort of cultural determinism set in. And along with a serious rethink of whether Islam is actually compatible with liberal democracy came the sentiment that, well, Sunnis and Shiites have been killing each other for a thousand years, and there's really nothing we can do about it.

Which is not quite true either. In the grand debate over whether politics influences culture or culture politics, the truth is a little of both. Certainly cultures can't be changed on the cheap, with a few quick elections and a truckload of Federalist Papers, but over the long term, major shifts can happen as a result of the way institutions are structured. Isn't that why we fight culture wars in the first place?

And it's also why, now that we've given up trying to push a strangely-deformed Iraqi democracy out of the nest and gotten down to the serious business of stopping violence our way, we've seen some significant fruit, and we can hope to see more. Stabilize more and more areas with an active troop presence, and we'll start to see a grassroots civil society emerge, which will do a lot more in the long run than any fragile political compromise we force together at the top.

There's no question that 3 years of American bungling is what got us into this mess, but I think we've finally bungled for long enough that our long-term strategic advantages are starting to emerge and the way forward (assuming we stay in) is becoming clearer. This is what often happens in war. Modern hawks like to compare everything that happens in this war to WWII, because it's recent and convenient. But I think an apter analogy might be Britain's situation during the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars. Basically, Britain suffered from political pettiness and division -- and hence poor military strategy -- far worse than ours as the Revolutionary armies kicked allied ass all over Europe. And then she got her act together. But that's a tangent for another time -- once I brush up on my Churchill.

In any case, our chief long-term strategic advantage -- and it's a huge one -- is that whether or not Islam is compatible with democracy, and despite all the dumb things we've done that Iraqis resent us for, it's becoming increasingly obvious that our aims and our methods are far better than anything else competing for dominance in Iraq. Let's keep working with that.


Until Iraq stops being Muslim, we will probably never see a real western-style liberal democracy there. As Richard John Neuhaus points out in his brilliant "America, Islam, and a Somewhat More Peaceful World," our language about "freedom" and such just doesn't jive with Muslim religious sensibilities. But, he continues,

It is more than conceivable that millions of Muslims desire to live under a government that can make a plausible claim to be Islamic and that is respectful of basic human rights... There are Muslim thinkers -- usually and somewhat misleadingly called moderates -- who believe that such a form of government is possible, and we should be listening to them.

In other words, Islam may not know what to do with "liberal democracy," but a Muslim can recognize a good government when he sees one. And if that government happens to keep the peace, uphold equal treatment under the law, and is to some extent determined through elections... is it that much of a stretch that Sunnis and Shiites might decide it's not worth it anymore to keep killing each other?

The caveat, of course, is that I know I'm speaking largely in general principles, and I have little clue whether certain inconvenient facts on the ground bely my musings. Like whether we have anywhere close to enough troops to keep this up. But facts need to be filtered through principles before they become meaningful analysis, and I think the pessimists' larger assumptions are off. And that gives me hope.

And now that I've written something a bit more controversial than "God loves us" or "Riverside Park is pretty," can I please get some comments?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Am I Cursed?

Something about me just seems to push governors over the edge. Consider my record:

August 2003: Start college in Claremont, CA.
October 2003: Gray Davis recalled.

May 2004: Return home to Connecticut for the summer.
June 2004: John Rowland resigns, sent to prison.

May-June 2006: Spend two weeks at my folks' house in Virginia. There for less than a week when George Allen (a former gov) goes macaca.

And now there's this. Needless to say, it's been a busy day at the office.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Gatsby, part 2

A quarrelsome comment on one of my earlier posts reminds me that I have yet to complete my thoughts on the great The Great Gatsby, and what on earth it has to do with Harvey Mansfield’s commentary on the role of literature in politics.

Here, by the way, is my first post on the subject.

First, though, to answer my good friend Andy Sinclair, who raises the standard for political science against Mansfield’s harsh assessment of its worthiness. My only reply is that I never meant to denigrate science, as I’m sure Mansfield didn’t as well. Working at a down-to-earth establishment like The Post has given me an even greater appreciation for the social sciences. You’re not going to make any headway in a debate about education or policing policy by constantly returning to first principles. Not only are people understandably suspicious of them, they also often have different ones. This may be unfortunate, but when your neighbors are getting shot, the best way to turn things around isn’t to convince your councilman of the wisdom of the Republic or the Summa.

Of course, that’s really not even the point. The point is that you need science and its method to figure out what’s going on and how to fix it. Good social science saved New York.

And I’m sure the same principle applies in the more specific realm of political science. The most charismatic candidate with the best ideas isn’t going anywhere without a grounded campaign apparatus, and even the most seasoned campaign managers rely on the meticulous study of the electoral landscape and the patterns of the past.

So, Andy, I swear on my high school math league trophies that just as you have nothing against literature and philosophy, I have nothing against math and science. If the debate comes down to what needs more emphasis in today's academy or politics, I suppose we'd both be partisans of our respective focuses. Or maybe not. My point (and I think Mansfield's as well) is not so much that there's too much science and not enough literature, but rather that we need to understand their proper relationship, and hope that this may ennoble both.

As Mansfield says, science is very good at telling us the what and the how, but not the who or the why. The problem occurs when science, perhaps absorbed by its method, claims metaphysical significance that it can't support. The most eggregious violator here was Karl Marx, an economist who thought that economics could explain everything. This presumption, of course, led to some very poor economics.

Today, the problem is not so much with scientifically-inspired dogmatic ideology as with scientifically-inspired dogmatic lack of ideology, or dogmatic agnosticism, if you will. Mansfield speaks of science's suspicion of anything that can't be counted, asserting that it's had terrible consequences for American political discourse. I think his diagnosis is spot-on, and I think the last 20 years of New York City politics proves it.

I promise I'll get to Gatsby. But first I need to explain what I mean. Next post.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Two for the Fourth

Here are two articles I've recently come across that I highly recommend.

"Iraq and the Neoconservatives" is by the brilliant scholar and rumored Presidential dark horse Charles Kesler. It's rather long, but absolutely worth it. It's about the evolution and internal debates within the neoconservative movement and how they're reflected in current thinking about the Iraq war. Prominent is the relationship between politics and culture, and the debate over which influences which.

This one
isn't quite as long or as refined, but it says what needs to be said.

Happy Independence Day!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Greyhound on the Hudson River line

It's time for another post. I know I've promised a discourse on the philosophical significance of The Great Gatsby, and I also still need to explain how my reflections on the end of John's gospel disprove the Protestant Reformation. But those are fairly weighty subjects, and I appreciate your patience.

For now, it's come to my attention that I haven't blogged at all yet about New York itself--this city that I've already come to love. I've had the opportunity this weekend to see a bit more of it, so this seems as good a time as any. The following observations have no particular unifying theme, and I promise that any prescient nuggets of sociological or philosophical wisdom that may emerge are completely accidental.

Riverside Park: Probably my favorite place in the city. My apartment is on the far west end of Manhattan island (around 63rd street), so I have a very nice view of the Hudson River when I stick my head out my window. I'm a short walk away from Riverside Park (the park along the river, if you haven't figured it out), which is a wonderful place to go for a stroll, especially around sunset. Stroll out on one of the piers, and you have a clean view of the George Washington Bridge to your right and downtown Manhattan to your left. It's just sweet.

Although maybe I misspoke. Riverside Park is best known as the place where all the beautiful liberal yuppies on the Upper West Side go to walk their dogs and push their strollers. It's a wonderful park, to be sure, but it technically only starts north of 72nd street. The area I'm more stricken with is the Hudson River Park, which stretches intermittently along the river from 72nd street down to lower Manhattan. I haven't explored the length of it, but at least the part near my place has a more, well, romantic quality to it. It's still pretty and safe (so far as I can tell), and there's lots of nice places to sit and look at the river, but there's also more of a gothic element. There's the waste treatment facility right next to the old creepy-looking parking garage, the basketball hoops and bike path directly underneath the raised highway, and a decaying wooden half-sunken structure of some sort sticking out into the water. I just wish the benches weren't so new.

Governor's Island: May give Riverside Park a run for its money. I just visited today for the first time. It's a national monument on the site of a former fort, military barracks and arsenal about 800 feet southeast of Manhattan island. It's also the best view you can find of the lower Manhattan skyline, the Brooklyn Heights skyline, the Jersey City skyline, and the Statue of Liberty. And it's completely free, including the ferry to get there.

Currently only the top half of the island is open to the public, but the city recently decided to develop the rest into some kind of recreation area. They've narrowed the proposals down to five, some of which look really weird.

A side note: even though I grew up in Connecticut, today was the first time I'd ever seen the Statue of Liberty. It actually gave me goosebumps. My only previous experience with Lady Liberty had been through movies about turn-of-the-century immigration, notably The Godfather, Part II and An American Tail. There's something both comforting and challenging in realizing that she's still there.

Speaking of which, here's an article by the beautiful Peggy Noonan on her family's immigrant experience. For all her weaknesses in straight punditry--or perhaps because of them--this is the kind of piece that Peggy can write as well as anyone else alive.

And speaking of the lower Manhattan skyline...

I've had a few opportunities to pass by ground zero in my comings and goings around the city. It's a strange place, and I think it would do me good to linger and pray there one of these days. Quite soon after it happened, I filed 9/11 away in my mind as a significant historical event, but it's hard to escape the physical reality of what happened when you're standing right next to a big pit. Hmmm. There used to be two giant towers here.

It's especially good perspective given what's been going on in Britain recently. I may be in the news business, but it's so much more that just news. This is a perspective I've sensed in some of the real New Yorkers I've gotten to know, especially at the Post editorial page, and it says something about journalism as a vocation. Perhaps more on that later.

Also relevant to the physical reality of ground zero is that it's still right in the middle of the downtown financial district, so there's thousands of people passing by every day just in the normal course of their own business. And there's finally construction going on there--and just in time, because downtown is booming and it needs more office space. Which seems appropriate, although I'm not going to pretend I can speak to how until I've lived here a lot longer.

But one final comment on ground zero. So far as I understand it, there's really no good reason why construction of the new tower couldn't have started years ago, and I've heard it suggested that the delays and all the fights about memorials and the new tower's design and such have gradually transformed ground zero from a monument to American heroism and toughness into a monument to American bureaucratic incompetence.

I don't know about that. I'm reminded of one of my many favorite lines from my favorite movie, Casablanca. The evil German Major Strausser and the unscrupulous Vichy French police chief Captain Renault are in Renault's office talking about Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine and the stolen letters of transit they know he has. Renault tells Strausser that Rick is far too clever to let him find the letters. Strausser disagrees: "You give too much credit to this Mousier Blaine. My impression is that he's just another blundering American."

"One musn't underestimate American blundering," Renault coolly replies. "I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918."

Casablanca is a movie about the American doing the right thing--after he's exhausted all the other options. And as frustrating as it may be to the rest of the world (as it has been in the past), there's something fundamental about the American character there. We may try our best to slink into ignobility, but we also refuse to let the sins of our past hold captive our aspirations to goodness and greatness. There's a persistent sense of youthful innocence about America, and that comes, I think, from an understanding of itself that transcends history.

Ground zero is being rebuilt, which is as fitting a monument as any to what happened there. Ten years from now, no one will care whether it was a few years late in coming.