Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Media and the Messiah

Of late, it has often been practically a full-time job to keep up with reading (and occasionally forwarding) my anti-Obama e-mail. While the mainstream American media intently avert their eyes – and ours – from the flaws of their messiah, those who have bothered to look have found a history of out-of-the-mainstream Leftist politics; close ties to terrorists, criminals, and Islamists; and a pattern of deceit, manipulation, and cover-ups. He also maintains a longstanding relationship with ACORN, which, among other crimes, extorted banks into making subprime loans (Obama actually served as an attorney for ACORN on one such case) and is currently being prosecuted for voter registration fraud in several states. (A friend personally witnessed ACORN reps paying under-age teens to fill out multiple voter registrations earlier this month.) In addition, despite his attempts to straddle the fence between pro-life and pro-choice positions, he has the most extreme pro-abortion record of any political candidate in American history. But even if you want to discount these sensationalistic-sounding allegations, it is not hard to find damning indictments in what is commonly known about Barack Obama.

Senator Obama’s campaign rhetoric would have us believe that he is moderate and post-partisan – a new kind of politician for a new era. The media have refused to challenge this attractive image, giving Obama an unprecedented free pass. But the truth is easy enough to discover. Barack Obama spent his formative years in politics as a loyal cog in the Daley machine. He learned to play power politics in the manner that Chicago Democrats are known for. One might excuse him, since he did not invent that system and could not realistically have challenged it. But in doing so one would be conceding that Obama’s record is one of politics-as-usual, not “change”; and one of service as a Democratic Party yes-man, not an independent-thinking leader. His record and his rhetoric are entirely at odds. Which are we to believe?

Those who would believe in the sincerity of candidate Obama’s promises must face the fact that he has already broken his first campaign promise: he pledged to participate in public financing of his presidential campaign if his opponent did. Obama weaseled out of his pledge and his sycophants in the media made excuses for him.

The domestic media’s pro-Obama bias has become so flagrant that it is even drawing attention overseas. The OSCE, which is sending observers to monitor the U.S. elections next week, has issued a preliminary report that concludes favoritism in the major media gives Obama a “hidden advantage.” Meanwhile, Melanie Phillips of the UK’s Spectator exposed Obama’s longstanding close ties to communists, racists, and other extremists, as well as the refusal of the U.S. media to investigate the candidates’ background, in two recent articles.

One American journalist, ashamed of his profession, blames short-sighted, self-interested editors for the media bias:

In other words, you are facing career catastrophe – and desperate times call for desperate measures. Even if you have to risk everything on a single Hail Mary play. Even if you have to compromise the principles that got you here. After all, newspapers and network news are doomed anyway – all that counts is keeping them on life support until you can retire.

And then the opportunity presents itself: an attractive young candidate whose politics likely matches yours, but more important, he offers the prospect of a transformed Washington with the power to fix everything that has gone wrong in your career. With luck, this monolithic, single-party government will crush the alternative media via a revived Fairness Doctrine, re-invigorate unions by getting rid of secret votes, and just maybe, be beholden to people like you in the traditional media for getting it there.

And besides, you tell yourself, it’s all for the good of the country . . .
While I believe there is probably truth both in this explanation and in the problem of “liberal media bias,” let me propose an alternative hypothesis just for fun: the media are scripting the story of Barack Obama according to the celebrity template – build him up and tear him down. They resist any attempt to examine the celebrity’s shortcomings at this stage of the story because they know that the first act must end in triumph. Obama must win the election and perhaps even move into the White House before negative information can be entertained. The media have invested too much in this narrative to risk endangering the dramatic impact with a premature scandal. But, should Obama become President, I predict that before the end of his first term someone in the media will break away from the pack and launch the scandal storyline. That’s just what the media do to celebrities.

And that’s what usually happens to messiahs, as well. In fact, there are great similarities between the messiah storyline and the celebrity storyline – that’s the whole premise of Jesus Christ, Superstar.

I will leave you with this Tleilaxu epigram from Frank Herbert’s 1969 novel, Dune Messiah:

Here lies a toppled god –
His fall was not a small one.
We did but build his pedestal,
A narrow and a tall one.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Political Parties

In my last post, I recommended Jonathan Haidt’s essay, “What Makes People Vote Republican?” Haidt took it for granted that Republican equates to conservative – i.e., that Republicans value loyalty, authority, and purity, while Democrats do not. This comports with the commonly agreed upon usage of the major media and party leaders today, but a little history will show that there is nothing inherently conservative about the Republican Party.

A century ago, the Republicans were the progressive party. They stood for three things: 1) Negro rights, 2) individual liberty, and 3) corporate profits. They were the party of the educated urban elite – and those who aspired to that status. They wanted to reform society to free individuals from the stultifying effects of the old boy networks that controlled local governments, community and family life, and American culture in general. The Democrats, by contrast, as the beneficiaries of those old boy networks, generally favored maintaining the status quo. They advocated what we in the 21st century might charitably call family values and strong communities. All in all, we might go so far as to say the Republicans were liberal and the Democrats were conservative. (If we wanted to stereotype them in the most negative way, we might depict the Republican as a portly banker in a frock coat who takes glee in foreclosing on mortgages; and the Democrat as a southern sherriff putting away his sheet after a night of cross-burning.)

So how did the parties get switched around? Well, in some respects they didn’t. The Republican Party’s advocacy of low taxes and limited government follows logically from its historic mission. There is really nothing conservative about these policies – they are essential elements of classical liberalism in the tradition of John Stuart Mill. Among the Founding Fathers, these same policies were advocated by the “liberal” Jefferson against the “conservative” Hamilton. The Democrats’ concern for the welfare of the working classes, meanwhile, is in continuity with their historic concern for immigrants in the north and farmers in the south.

But, starting with FDR, the Democrats embarked upon a slow march to the left throughout the 20th century. To deal with the Great Depression, President Roosevelt borrowed some ideas from the German and Russian totalitarians – it looked like the wave of the future, and it was widely thought to be a necessary evil at the time. The growth and centralization of federal government power created its own constituency for extending that growth still further. The Democrats became quasi-socialist in practice, if not in name. Because they were imposing major changes on society, they labeled themselves “liberal,” which was seen as a good thing; and they branded all of their various opponents as “conservative,” which was commonly understood as a bad thing. Those who opposed socialism at home and communism abroad began drifting Republican, and the GOP began to live up to its new conservative billing in some respects.

Still, in Haidt’s moral dimensions, the Republicans were probably no more conservative than the Democrats. As late as the 1960s, Democrats were uniformly opposed to abortion (Jesse Jackson called abortion “genocide against the black race”), while the individualistic Republicans were divided on this issue, to the extent that they cared about it at all. It was not until Roe vs. Wade and George McGovern’s nomination for President that the Democrats made their decisive obeisance to social liberalism, which alienated much of their conservative working-class constituency.

Meanwhile, the Republicans had been reorganizing and redefining themselves. William F. Buckley, Jr., made conservatism intellectually respectable, and Barry Goldwater’s candidacy for President brought it out of the closet. But it took Ronald Reagan to make it politically viable. He welded together all of the disparate groups that the “liberal” Democrats had derided as “conservative.” By this time, the label "conservative" was no longer seen as derogatory (except by liberals, who were increasingly out of touch with the electorate), so Reagan encouraged everyone who had been labelled as “conservative” to wear the label with pride and unite against those who called themselves “liberal.” The economic conservatives who opposed big government and excessive regulation could join with the social conservatives who opposed indecency and abortion because they both opposed communist imperialism abroad. It was in the Reagan era that the Republican Party became truly conservative.

And that was probably the high-water mark of conservatism in the GOP. Apart from judicial appointments, there is nothing particularly conservative about the Bush administration. Haidt’s moral conservatives are a captive minority in the Republican Party. Many of them are uncomfortable with party leaders who have reverted to the old-fashioned Republicanism of individualism and big business. Some of them might even long for the return of the old pre-McGovern Democrats.

Today, neither major political party is ideologically coherent. The Democrats pose as friends of the poor and working classes while capitulating to the demands of their corrupt, wealthy backers and pandering to every special interest they can fit into the party tent. They have compromised on every issue but one – a woman’s right to abort her baby whenever and however she wishes – much to the consternation of many an old-line liberal Democrat. The Republicans, meanwhile, trumpet family values while facilitating the efforts of Madison Avenue to undermine those values in favor of an exploitive, individualistic consumer culture.

While Jonathan Haidt’s article gives valuable insight into the phenomenon of moral conservatism, I’m not sure how far it goes in answering the question its title poses. It might explain why some people vote Republican, but Republicans of that sort have declined in influence and waned in their loyalty to the party. In their view (or perhaps I should say our view), the Republicans might still represent the lesser evil, but in the era of Bush and Cheney, not always by much.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Moral Psychology and Politics

Some months ago in one of my “reading list” posts, I pointed my readers to the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. My friend Bill, who gave me the original tip on Haidt, recently sent me a link to Haidt’s article, “What Makes People Vote Republican?” To liberal academics, who rarely encounter anyone unlike themselves (except for undergraduates, most of whom can be easily manipulated, intimidated, or dismissed), this seems to be a real puzzle. Not surprisingly, these academics have no trouble producing self-serving theories that explain away behavhiors they disapprove of as irrational, misguided, or just plain stupid. (This obviously does not apply to economists, as our discipline requires us to assume that people always behave according to rational self-interest.)

Haidt takes his fellow liberals to task for their (literally) two-dimensional definition of morality and the resulting mischaracterization of how conservatives think. He himself overcame his knee-jerk disdain for his opponents in the culture war while doing research in India. The “liberal” attitudes that came to him so naturally in the context of his own academic-American culture were impossible to reconcile with the life of his friends in India, “a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society.” As he came to know and like his friends in India, he developed greater empathy for their culture.

Eventually, Haidt produced an inclusive definition of morality that evaded the ideological biases of previous definitions: morality is any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible. He found five moral dimensions that are hard-wired into human nature as it has evolved over the millennia: 1) harm/care, 2) fairness/reciprocity, 3) ingroup/loyalty, 4) authority/respect, and 5) purity/sanctity. While liberals think entirely in terms of 1 and 2, conservatives are more holistic, operating in all five moral dimensions. Conservatives understand the concerns of liberals because they also value the things that liberals value. But liberals do not understand conservatives because the last three dimensions simply do not register with them as things that anyone would be sincerely concerned with.

I highly recommend the article. There is a link on the page to a longer article in a similar vein, in which he challenges the simplistic atheism of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris: “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.”