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Archive for September 2009



Separation of church and state

Church leaders in Los Angeles are calling for illegal aliens to be included in the government health insurance plan, a position echoed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  A free dialysis clinic in Atlanta whose clients are overwhelmingly illegal aliens provides a glimpse of the potential costs, which the New York Times does not fully clarify.  The clinic has been trying unsuccessfully to close for years, unable to sustain its $2 million annual losses.  Atlanta has scores of commercial dialysis centers, but its illegal patients cannot afford them and they say that they could not get comparable care in their home countries.  Perhaps rather than asking American taxpayers to foot the bill for what would be a flood of new illegals coming to take advantage of their new entitlement, the Catholic Church could help defray the costs itself  (though its resources are admittedly already rather strained).




Political hermeneutics

In his new book, Why Are Jews Liberals?,

[Norman] Podhoretz describes how liberal Jews—rabbis and worshipers alike—routinely cherry-pick passages from the Torah to buttress favored social policies,

writes Wall Street Journal reviewer Richard Baehr.

It has been my impression that virtually all people who believe in the divine provenance of the Bible routinely cherry-pick passages that accord with their own mores.   But I may well be mistaken and would certainly have to defer to the experts.  In any case, the patriarchal, pre-capitalist, tribal society of ancient Israel is so fantastically remote from our own era that it is not immediately obvious to me that Reaganite supply-side conservatism is more in accord with the Torah than FDR’s New Deal.  The hermeneutical challenges in deciding how the human authors of the Old Testament would have regarded a public option in health care, say, dwarf those of first discovering, then applying, the “original intent” of the Constitution.   But again, I may be wrong.




H.P. Lovecraft – Greek or Roman?

A few days ago on NRO’s Corner, John J. Miller and I had some exchanges about the ever-fascinating (“more fun to read about than he is to read,” observed an emailer) American-Gothic writer H.P. Lovecraft. Among the follow-up emails, here is one arguing that H.P.L. might have found Secular Right at least partly congenial.


I apologize for bringing something up almost a week after the topic appeared in the Corner. And it’s entirely possible some devoted Lovecraft fan beside John Miller has already sent you this material. However, I wanted to send you some quick, random thoughts on H. P. Lovecraft’s pessimism.

First, Lovecraft’s biographer, S. T. Joshi, has written a book on just this topic:  H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West. (As far as I know, Lovecraft never met Mencken, but Joshi has done work on both.)  [Added by J.D.:  Joshi is also the compiler of Atheism: A Reader.]

I won’t go into the evolution of Lovecraft’s political thought. Miller has the conclusion basically right even if the back story is more complicated. And Jonah could explain to Joshi why Lovecraft going from an admirer of Mussolini and Hitler (though the stories of a Jewish neighbor who had gone to Germany seem to have damped that enthusiasm) to supporting Roosevelt is not that complicated. (Lovecraft even used the phrase “fascistic socialism.”)

I think Lovecraft’s pessimism took several forms. First, his basic stoic, atheist outlook convinced him nothing ultimately mattered. That position seemed to carry over into a belief that ethics was a matter of aesthetics and not any universal absolute. Traditions gave life meaning. For Lovecraft, that meaning was in following certain cultural patterns:  “For example, I never cheat or steal. Also, I never wear a top-hat
with a sack coat or munch bananas in public on the streets, because a gentleman does not do those things either. I would as soon do the one as the other sort of thing — it is all a matter of harmony and good taste.”

Life’s pain was curbed by tradition:  “So I believe that the soundest course for a man of sense is to put away the complexity and sophistication of an unhappy age, and to return into the seclusion and simplicity of a rural Squire; loving old, ancestral, and quaintly beautiful things, and thinking old, simple, manly, heroick thoughts which — even when not true — are surely beautiful because they bear upon them so much of the ivy of tradition.”

The best squaring of his belief in some objective values and his relativism is:  “Thus I am a complete sceptic and a thorough conservative at the same time. My attitude toward a traditional value is to hang on to it (as an aesthetic act) as long as possible, if it is not positively anti-social as judged by the most genuine and permanent factors in human happiness and welfare.”

Lovecraft valued the traditions of a colonial New England gentleman, in its landscape and architecture. The “machine-culture” of the modern world threatened that culture as did immigration. In one sense, Lovecraft was an anti-Semite, but only towards Jews he thought threatened his New England and wouldn’t assimilate. He didn’t consider his wife, a foreign-born Jew, to be one of that type though.

Lovecraft, as an aesthete aristocrat, preferred the Greek world of beauty and harmony to that money-grubbing, utilitarian Roman world.

In art, Lovecraft was no fan of his literary contemporaries, though he read them. (Here is his poem “Waste Paper,” a parody of Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”) Lovecraft cared only about beauty and not coherence. But
beauty he found lacking in Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Eliot,and Hemingway. Joshi concisely sums up Lovecraft as channeling his idol Poe in saying science (and he conceded the above writers may be psychologically valid in their descriptions of minds) was for truth, art for beauty.

Joshi concludes his book with Oswald Spengler’s influence on Lovecraft and says Lovecraft saw four forces of decline:  democracy, capitalism, immigration, and mechanization. Lovecraft wrote on the new world emerging:  “Of course it will be a kind of ‘civilisation,’ in the loosest sense of the term; but it will be no civilisation of ours. We can’t look forward to it with any more sense of personal pride or pleasure than we could look forward to the triumph of any other alien civilization on territory which has known our own.”

Joshi sees — and you sense this having read Lovecraft’s fiction — Lovecraft’s work as being a “fiction of decline.”

So, yes, Lovecraft was a pessimist and a conservative of a certain sort.

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What Michael Steele should have said:

Gadfly Michael Meyers celebrates the presidential hook shown to New York Governor David Paterson as the demolition of the cordon sanitaire that has protected mediocre New York black politicians.   What’s next? Meyers asks:

We can only imagine, only hope, what postracial judgments await. It could be only a matter of days before Obama calls House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and lowers the boom on Rangel, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, too, because, as Obama will put it to Pelosi: “Being black is not enough: The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee has to pay his taxes and be above ethical reproach and not constantly under investigation. For the sake of the party and for the sake of Democrats to maintain some semblance of credibility, Rangel must step aside.”

Perhaps that’s wishful thinking. But a postracial American can live in hope.

No sign, however, that Obama’s color-blind booting of Paterson has undercut the conceit that white criticism of Obama is race-based; NPR this morning earnestly pursued the “racist pushback to Obama” story from Selma.  And still no sign from the authors of that conceit how we distinguish legitimate criticism of a black president from race-driven criticism.  Steve Chapman has an excellent column in the Chicago Tribune on the American tradition of hating presidents, white or, now, black.  I have to say, though, for me, the more strident the rhetoric against a perceived political enemy, the more it produces the opposite of its intended effect.

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The rise of the Secular Left

From American Nones: The Profile of the “No Religion” Population:

The proportion with “No Religion” has gone from 9% in 1990 to 15% in 2008. In most ways those with “No Religion” have become more like the general population since 1990, but not politically (the American population is less Republican than in 1990 because of a movement to Independents, but the seculars have shifted to the Democrats).

H/T Talk Islam

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The Right plays the race card

Right-wing criticism of Obama is not racial, but Obama’s kick in the pants to New York Governor David Paterson apparently is.  Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele told CBS on Sunday:

I found that to be stunning, that the White House would send word to one of only two black governors in the country not to run for re-election.

Republicans denounce identity politics, except when they engage in it themselves.  Steele is claiming either that Obama is going after Paterson because he is black or that Obama should not go after Paterson because he is black.  The first proposition is ludicrous, the second, poisonous.  Steele strikes me as intermittently unhinged, but his exploitation of identity discourse here is hardly sui generis.  Sarah Palin parroted Hillary Clinton’s feminist blather in announcing her vice presidency: “It turns out that the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.” Her supporters regularly accused her critics of being anti-woman.  I wouldn’t have been surprised, therefore, to have seen Limbaugh or some other Republican luminary, instead of Steele, play the race card against Obama for his anti-Paterson campaign. 

Is it too much to hope that Republican criticism of Obama stay within a zone of rationality and dignity?  Yes, the Democrats demonized Bush, but that doesn’t mean that Republicans have to respond in kind.  Why not be icily factual and coldly respectful, rather than hysterical and hot-headed?  Both parties seem to have forgotten the Clinton and the Bush eras.   Democrats, in portraying right-wing hyperventilation over Obama as a manifestation of covert  hostility to blacks, forget the insane Clinton conspiracy theories that grew like kudzu even in the highest reaches of Republican opinionizing.  Only this year has the right-wing obsession with the Clintons appeared to have finally and thankfully petered out.  But Republican pundits, in portraying Obama as an unprecedented danger to the country—on Wednesday, Mark Levin announced: “We’ve never been in this situation before at least in modern times . . . They intend to use the system against you”–forget their own dire warnings about the Clintons as the end of civilization. (more…)

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Contingency & the nomination

earlystatesIn the comments on the post about Mike Huckabee winning the “Values Voter Summit” strawpoll there’s a lot of fear. I’m generally sanguine for two reasons:

1) A lot changes between now & then.

2) Populist candidates usually can’t override the veto of the elites (arguably Goldwater in ’64 and McGovern in ’72 were recent exceptions).

But as others noted below, Huckabee has a “structural” problem: he seems a regional evangelical candidate. In fact, Mitt Romney had the inverse problem, he tended to win outside the South and among non-evangelical conservatives. The combination of Romney + Huckabee, winner-take-all, and McCain’s strength in a few key states, resulted in the unlikely outcome in 2008. So it isn’t as if everything is predetermined, the combination of these candidates resulted in an equilibrium whereby John McCain gained the Republican nomination.

Some of this is probably just the candidates in that race, but it might also be the primary schedule. To the left are the breakdowns from a Pew survey from 2008. If South Carolina was the first primary a social conservative candidate would probably start out strong, with “momentum.” As it s, rather atypical (for the nation) New Hampshire gets its say first.



Teen pregnancy, individual level variation

Someone else has done the GSS data-digging, and it looks like teen pregnancy is correlated with: 1) higher religious fundamentalism, and, 2) lower religious attendance. To see the full data & analysis you’ll need to pay $10. I want to dig a little deeper at the county-level data, though these findings are consistent with a robust trend of lower SES correlating with stronger & more literalist religious beliefs combined with weaker or more sporadic institutional affiliation.



Oh Well

He’s still around…

Mike Huckabee cruised to an easy victory in a presidential straw poll taken among attendees at a social conservative conference, beating a group of four other Republican contenders by an over two-to-one margin.



Fair Enough

Via the London Times:

HELPING terminally ill and incurably disabled patients to commit suicide is set to be decriminalised in Britain under guidance to be issued this week.

Those who assist a friend or relative to end their lives on compassionate grounds will not be prosecuted, under guidelines to be announced by Keir Starmer QC, the director of public prosecutions.

However, it will still be a crime to act as “ringleader” or “organiser” of the death of a person who has been “vulnerable to manipulation”.

The guidelines are expected to make clear the difference between someone “assisting” and someone “encouraging” a suicide.

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