Over at the Globe and Mail, I look at the efforts of the Republicans to become a more multi-racial party. I had to cover a lot of ground in 900 words. Those who want to read the earlier, longer version (or “director’s cut”) can do so below:
Historical memory might be on the wane elsewhere but it is very much alive in South Carolina, a state whose expansive cotton fields and stately plantations memorialize the paradox of a genteel civilization built on centuries of slavery and segregation. So the world perked up to the news earlier this week that Tim Scott, an African-American legislator, won the primary to be the Republican candidate in the state’s first district, beating Paul Thurmond, a son of the late Strom Thurmond, the fabled segregationist who represented the state as a Senator from 1956 to 2003.
Dave Weigel is leaving the Washington Post after some creep leaked off-the-record comments he made on a private list-serv. Matthew Yglesias and Adam Serwer have both written superb blog posts that pretty much say everything that needs to said on the matter. But I want to make a few points that need to be stressed in the strongest possible terms.
1. Dave Weigel is a great reporter who has covered a tough and important subject (the conservative movement) with fairness and intelligence. The real losers in all of this are the readers of the Washington Post, who will no longer benefit from his intelligent and informed reporting.
2. Whoever leaded those private emails is a lowlife. The leaked emails were deliberately choosen in a way to make Weigel look bad and hurt his career.
3. In the back of all this controversy was a kind of conservative identity politics. Some conservatives are upset because Weigel is covering the conservative movement but he’s not part of it. Conservatives usually decry the sort of sort of identy politics that requires only blacks to write about blacks or gays to write about gays, but some conservatives have adopted the same ethos.
4. Every good reporter has private communications — letters, emails, conversations — that make them look opinionated. That’s because any good reporter is a lively and engaged human being with a strong point of view. It’s an absurd form of positivism to require reporters to be a blank slate — no such reporter could possibly exist. The merit of a reporter’s writing is to be judged by whether his or her articles are factually accurate, bring new facts and arguments to light, and advance the conversation on a topic in a meaningful way. By that criteria, Weigel is a superb reporter while some of his critics (notably Jeffrey Goldberg) are far inferior. Yglesias is especially good on this point.
I have an essay about G. A. Cohen in the June issue of the Literary Review of Canada. Here’s the opening paragraph:
Gerald Allan Cohen was a product of the lost world of Canadian communism. His working-class parents were Jewish Marxists who toiled in Montreal’s garment trade. In 1945, When Cohen was four years old, they enrolled him in the Morris Winchevsky School. Morning classes were taught in English and covered conventional topics. But in the afternoon the language of instruction switched to Yiddish, and the lessons included the history of class struggle. One day in 1952 Quebec’s Red Squad raided the school, hoping to find communist literature. The political innocence of Cohen and his classmates was preserved by a quick-thinking teacher who put on a happy voice and clapped her hands as the police arrived: “Children, the Board of Health is inspecting the school and you can all go home early.” Cohen and the other delighted students ran outside, unaware they had McCarthyism to thank for their freedom.
Below is a fascinating interview of Cyrus Habib by Chesa Boudin; I am reprinting it from The Rhodes Project. I am proud to count Cyrus as a friend, and I have also had the pleasure of meeting Chesa on a few occasions. Apologies for my obscure Hegelian pun in the title of this post.
Chesa Boudin earned two master’s degrees from Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship (Illinois, Merton and St. Antony’s, 2003). In April 2009, Scribner published his latest book, Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America. He is currently in his second year at the Yale Law School.
Cyrus Habib (Washington and St. Johns, 2003) an interview
At the Bon Voyage Weekend in September 2003, my class of newly-selected Rhodes Scholars descended on the Jury’s Hotel in DuPont Circle. Cyrus Habib (Washington and St. Johns) was easily the best dressed member of the group. His Armani tie complimented his tailored shirt and crisp pinstripe suit. He had a penchant for details – manicured fingernails, a unique wrist watch, cufflinks, and matching accessories. No matter the setting, he had on perfect designer sunglasses and would often switch between several in the course of a day. This focus on the aesthetic may seem odd for an intellectual powerhouse like Cyrus – or for the introduction to this interview. However, his attention to visual detail is particularly noteworthy because Cyrus is completely blind.
As a child Cyrus was diagnosed with Retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the retina. In his case it struck one eye, and then the other. He was lucky to receive world-class treatment that prevented the cancer from metastasizing to his brain; he was unlucky in that it left him with no eyesight whatsoever and unable even to distinguish light from dark. Unlike someone blind from birth, Cyrus has an abundance of vivid visual memory from before he lost his sight. Since Cyrus lost his vision in 1989, he imagines everyone today with mullet haircuts and plaid polyester pants. While he can no longer see red or green, he has an acute visual image of those colors and knows not to mix and match them except during the Christmas season. And if Cyrus has a conversation about a skyscraper or a forest, he can actually picture the subject in his head, rather than understanding or imagining it through verbal context as someone blind from birth would have to do. These memories, combined with an uncanny sense of physical space allow him to navigate the world so smoothly that on first encounters he often passes as not being blind at all. Yet for the last twenty years his brain has not accumulated any new visual memory, leaving space to develop in other areas – his sense of smell and hearing, his memory, and his ability to master complex information quickly epitomize the word “extraordinary.”
I want to revisit something Charles Murray wrote in response to the firestorm that followed David Frum’s firing from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). “AEI has a culture, the scholars are fiercely proud of that culture, and at its heart is total intellectual freedom,” Murray argued. “As for the reality of that intellectual freedom, I think it’s fair to say I know what I’m talking about. I’ve pushed it to the limit. Arthur Brooks is just as adamant about preserving that culture as Chris DeMuth was, and Chris’s devotion to it was seamless.”
In his various shoddy books and essays, Murray likes to do thought experiments.
Let’s conduct one such experiment right here.
Suppose Murray spent a month reading the writings of economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, James Mirrlees, and Robert Solow. All of these writers a 1) social democrats of one form or another, and 2) much more highly regarded in the social sciences than Murray himself (all of them are Nobel prize winners and widely cited in the scholarly literature).
Once upon a time, Norman Podhoretz admired intelligence. Podhoretz’s best book, Making It, is a non-fiction bildungsroman, the story of how an uncouth Brooklyn boy learned to love literature and high culture, eventually becoming a formidable critic and editor. The book is filled with tough-minded but loving portraits of Podhoretz’s teachers, especially Lionel Trilling and F.R. Leavis. Podhoretz was a scholarship boy, someone whose gift for words transported him out of his humble origins into the heady world of Partisan Review and the New Yorker.
Here is Podhoretz’s account of his first visit to the home of Lionel Trilling: “Everything there was easy and informal – even, I thought, rather surprisingly bohemian – and no one seemed to care whether my tie was on or off. It was an atmosphere in which I could loosen up, and after a swim and several martinis, I began talking my head off abut Cambridge, about Leavis, about Europe, and even, finally, about my secret uncertainties….Yes, of course, he [Trilling] said, he understood exactly what I meant, and proceeded – with a witchlike precision which the hesitant style of his speech and the diffidently soft quality of his voice left one unprepared for and somehow surprised by, even though one knew he was Lionel Trilling and one of the most intelligent men in the world – to tell me what it was I had been trying to say.”
In Yiddish, “frum” is a word denoting someone who is religiously observant and pious. David Frum is not, as far as I can tell, a frum in the literal sense but he has been a leading frum of the American conservative movement. Like the theologies of most religions, modern conservative thought is a farrago of inconsistent, ad hoc positions: “national security” (i.e., a foreign policy of militaristic nationalism), “traditional values” (i.e. 1950s-style patriarchy and heteronormativity) and “free enterprise” (i.e., the hegemony of corporate capitalism in the economy and society). Like a prize yeshiva student, Frum has faithfully adhered to even the most esoteric of the 613 commandments of conservatism and at times has been a more hardline frum than the chief rabbis themselves (i.e., he criticized Reagan for being a foreign policy squish when the Gipper decided, quite wisely as it happens, to negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev).
Because of his long history of ultra-orthodoxy, Frum’s firing from his cushy sinecure at the American Enterprise Institute has provoked a tremendous amont of chatter. To switch religious metaphors, it’s as if a cardinal who had long been groomed to assume the papacy had been excommunicated. What’s shocking is that Frum was fired not over a major issue of doctrine but rather a relatively trivial question of tactics. He thought that the Republicans shouldn’t have opposed Obama’s health care reform effort outright but that they should have tried to water it down by co-operation. The American conservative really has become a fanatical sect that won’t tolerate even the smallest dissent from orthodoxy, not just in thinking but even in the minutiae of behaviour.
I had an unexpected bout with a ruptured appendix — mine, unfortunately — late last week, and as a result ended up missing several days of work. Having returned to the office on Wednesday, I immediately began to reconstruct my schedule of tasks and appointments. If you glanced at my Outlook calendar, you’d see what a Herculean effort this implies. But for all of the tiresomeness of this chore, the one oddly pleasant part of it was (and always is) the postponement of events into the future.
A Catholic school in Boulder, Colo., has refused to re-enroll a child in its preschool program because the student’s parent are lesbians.
Officials at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School, acting at the direction of the Archdiocese of Denver, last week told faculty members that the child would not be readmitted to the church school because of the sexual orientation of the child’s parents.
A fast heads-up that Alaska-based writer Charles Wohlforth has a new book coming out on June 8 called The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering our Ability to Rescue the Earth (you can read an excerpt here), which focuses on the relationship between the possibilities and limits of human nature, and the scale of the environmental crisis we now face. Wohlforth is a man worth following; his last book, The Whale and the Supercomputer, remains one of the best books I’ve ever read on the environment. I reviewed it for the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2004, using words that seem even more relevant amid today’s artificial tempest over the IPCC’s methodologies:
In [computer-based climate] models, the number of possible variables is near infinite, while our understanding of the natural processes underlying each variable is in its infancy at best. Meanwhile, the unrelenting logic of chaotic systems, which declares that one can’t possibly predict the future state of such a system without being impossibly accurate about its initial starting conditions, leaves science at a loss. […]
This uncertainty, of course, has spawned endless scientific and political debate about the existence and nature of climate change. But Wohlforth wisely points out that though we can’t create models that eliminate (or even reduce) the number of uncertainties, we can at least choose to “rank important certainties above trivial unknowns.” After all, we do understand the dynamics of the mechanism that causes global warming, and we do understand the importance of greenhouse gases as a determinant of our planet’s temperature, an importance second only to the sun. The global climate is like a massive machine with banks of labeled dials. We can’t know for sure what the machine will produce when all the dials are turned in different directions, but we do know that we’re deliberately cranking the second-biggest dial — the one labeled “atmospheric CO2 content” — far beyond any previous setting. And in doing so, we’re performing an irreversible experiment with the only planet we’ve got.
The Fate of Nature can of course be pre-ordered on Amazon. If I end up reviewing it for one of the tree-based papers, I’ll be sure to let you know.