October 15, 2007

Why The West Will Win

Posted in Media, War on Terror at 7:20 pm by Caleb Winn

I have written in the past about Neoconservatism, especially the doctrine that we can democratize the world. This is not only, or even primarily, a military conflict. The use of force is like weeding a garden, removing petty tyrants so that democracy may flourish. The real power of Neoconservatism is cultural. America, the City on a Hill, is a beacon of hope that shines the light of freedom and prosperity around the world, urging all nations to follow us in the march toward liberty.

We are now engaged in an ideological conflict against Islamofascism. But just as we defeated communism, we shall be triumphant here as well, not only because of our military superiority, but because of the greatness of the ideology which we embody. The tyranny of the Jihadist’s mosque cannot compete with the greatness of American Gladiators.

Don’t believe me? Well, consider this. After decades of Cold War, American Gladiators debuted in September of 1989. In November of 1989, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. By December of 1991, The USSR itself was no more. The Battle for the Hearts and Minds was fought – and won – with foam jousting batons.

And now the show is coming back! It will be aired mid-season on NBC, hosted by no less illustrious a figure than Hulk Hogan! In the face of such resplendent, all-American Awesome.

So let us continue to oppose petty tyrants. Let us continue to weed this world of tin-pot dictators who abuse and enslave their own people. Let us stand up against evil ideologies.

And let us watch American Gladiators, let the world watch, and see why the West will win.


October 5, 2007

Those Conservative Europeans…

Posted in The Church, The State at 7:34 pm by Caleb Winn

In March of 2006, I was doing some research and discovered an interesting article about global standards on abortion. I was astonished to discover just how liberal America’s abortion laws are, even compared to nations like Britain, Germany, Sweden, and other parts of post-Christian Europe.

A look at access to abortion around the globe:

EUROPE:Most European countries have legalized abortion, with limits. A representative sampling:

    Britain: Available with limits until the 24th week, after that if the pregnancy threatens the women’s life, may cause grave permanent injury to her physical or mental health or if there is a substantial risk that the baby will be seriously handicapped.


    Germany: Available in the first 12 weeks if the woman is in a “state of distress” and undergoes counseling.

    Spain: Legalized in 1985, available in cases of rape, fetal deformation or risk to the mother’s mental or physical health.

    Sweden: Legalized in 1975 and available on demand until the 18th week; after that social authorities must give permission.


    Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea and Mali: Recognize grounds for abortion as saving a woman’s life and protecting her health in cases of rape, incest and fetal impairment, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.


    South Africa: Legal since 1997 on demand in first 12 weeks; from week 13-20 available if a doctor advises and after that only if there is a risk to the woman or fetus.


    China: Legal and common, as government birth control rules limit most urban couples to one child and most rural couples to two. Local officials accused of coercing abortions. Legal ban in place on aborting a fetus because of its sex.


    India: Legalized in 1971 and viewed as a way to curb population growth, although access is limited. Prenatal sex determination tests illegal.

    Indonesia: Illegal in world’s most populous Muslim nation except when the mother or fetus have severe health problems.

    Japan: Widely available since 1948; allowed before the 22nd week if mother’s health is at risk from physical or economic factors or if mother was raped or otherwise incapacitated at time of conception.

    Philippines: Illegal in predominantly Roman Catholic country.

LATIN AMERICA: In predominantly Roman Catholic Latin America, abortion is usually illegal, although many countries make exceptions for when the mother’s life is at risk. An exception is Cuba, where abortion is legal, widespread and free through universal health system for women over 18. There were 52.5 abortions for every 100 births in 2004, according to Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health.

MIDDLE EAST: Abortion is banned in Middle East nations from Morocco to Iran, in line with Islamic Shariah law, which strictly forbids the practice — though most allow it if the mother’s life is endangered. The sole exception is Tunisia, where abortion is allowed on demand during the first trimester. In Egypt, it is allowed before 120 days if doctor specifies reasons requiring it.

Sociologist Peter Berger famously stated that if Indians are the most religious people in the world, and Swedes the least, then America is a nation of Indians governed by Swedes. But when it comes to protecting the lives of the unborn, even Swedes would think that America is a little out there.

October 1, 2007

The Right Must Fight. (2/2)

Posted in War on Terror at 9:18 pm by Caleb Winn

Last week, I blogged about the Neoconservative principles behind the Bush Administration’s War on Terror. Specifically, I looked at Neoconservatism as a way of looking at history, and briefly touched on the role that this historiography may play in Bush’s eternal optimism. In this follow-up post, I’d like to delve into Neoconservatism in greater detail, examining what it mean, why it makes sense, and how it works in the real world. 

The October 2007 issue of Commentary Magazine examines the nature and ascendency of Neoconservatism in greater detail. Though the whole article is well worth reading, it is rather long. In particular, though, I think it would be useful to reference their definition of neoconservatism in order to have a more robust understanding of what exactly it entails. The author outlines four basic traits of neoconservative foreign policy; which are as follows:

What Neoconservatives Believe

  1. Neoconservatives are idealistic moralists. They do not subscribe to the doctrine of Realism. They don’t want to create a “balance of power” by reaching compromise with oppressive regimes. They want to bring down communism (Reagan’s “Evil Empire”) an the totalitarianism of rogue nations (Bush’s “Axis of Evil”). They believe that America has a moral obligation to confront tyranny. They believe that the United States is locked in a battle between Good and Evil, and understand foreign policy as a part of this global ideological struggle.
  2. Neoconservatives are internationalists. They tend to favor international cooperation wherever possible, whether through NATO, the UN, or some other international organization. More broadly, they recognize that the events of one nation or region are not isolated to that nation or region, and that freedom and tyranny tend to spill over into surrounding regions. Thus, they reject isolationism and seek to proactively confront threats abroad, rather than waiting for them to gather insurmountable strength.
  3. Neoconservatives are hawkish. They believe that military action is often necessary to break down repressive regimes that suppress ideological transformation.
  4. Neoconservatives are democratic apologists. That is to say, they see the ideas of Freedom and Democracy as inextricably linked. They do not support benevolent dictatorships, but want to establish real self-governance around the world, because Democracy is the only real guardian of Freedom, and the only really moral form of government.

These four basic principles of Neoconservative foreign policy are unmistakably the guiding forces behind Bush’s foreign policy, and his vision for a democratic Middle East. Since September 12th, 2001, President Bush has argued that the United States is locked in an epic struggle against an evil ideology that despises freedom, that we must work proactively to defeat this ideology internationally, that we must do so through our military might, and that we will achieve long-term victory through the Democratization of the Middle East. In President Bush’s vision, the hearts of men and women yearn to be free, and the good ol’ US of A must throw off the tyrannies that prevent their freedom so that they may join the ranks of Democratic nations and promote global peace, stability, and prosperity.

Why Neoconservatism Makes Sense

  1. This is a moral struggle, and we are on the side of the Good. America is not perfectly Good, and our enemies are not perfectly Evil. But the fight against Communism was a moral struggle against a truly Evil Empire, who trampled on human rights and murdered countless millions. The fight against Islamo-Fascist Terrorism is a moral battle as well. Saddam Huessein was a ruthless and immoral man. The Taliban was a tyrannical, brutally repressive government. We ought not stand aside and allow their ideology to fester.
  2. This is an unavoidable global conflict, whether we recognize that or not. Islamo-Fascist Terrorists attacked the United States in New York in 1993, in Saudi Arabia in 1996, in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, and in Yemen in 2000, all before the September 11th attacks. We cannot pretend that we will be left alone if only we keep a low profile. The strength of Islamo-Fascism in one nation threatens to spill over into others. And the establishment of Freedom can open the people’s eyes to an alternative. This is first and foremost an ideological battle, and it is one which must be waged globally if we hope to succeed.
  3. Military force is often necessary to remove tyrants. Creating a popular demand for democracy does little good if the people are precluded from self-rule by violent dictators. The global spread of freedom necessitates the overthrow of brutal dictators, even through military power. The people of Afghanistan could not be free as long as they were held under the boot of the Taliban. The military power of the United States, working with NATO allies, enabled them to pursue freedom. An entire nation held hostage was delivered.
  4. Democracy is the best way to preserve freedom and human rights. We may attempt to establish puppet leaders and benevolent, pro-US dictators, but this is often times not really a moral improvement. If the goal is to promote the global recognition of human rights, then we must move being the strategic interests of Realpolitik and strive to offer people a real chance at self-governance.

Neoconservatism represents truly noble goals, and attempts to deal head-on with some very real problems. But is it a tenable solution? Policy, and especially foreign policy, is not really very abstract. Ideas are tested in the Embassies and on the battlefields, and not ultimately in the classrooms or journals of academia. So to really grasp the strength or weakness of Neoconservatism, we need to analyze its basic tenets in light of reality.

Why Neoconservatism Might Just Work

  1. Freedom is more attractive than tyrrany.

    Those who oppose the United States do so with rabid ideological fervor, but they have little to offer the average person on the street. If given the choice between the tyranny of sharia law and the freedom of Western-style democracy, few would choose the former. If this really is an ideological struggle, we are on the winning side.

    The transformation of the Anbar province of Iraq is a good example of this. Though once an extremely hostile and violent place, Anbar has become a major success story in the War in Iraq. The common people have turned against the Al Qaeda-in-Iraq insurgency, cooperating with the United States and working toward a Democratic future. Many have scoffed at the idea that the United States can claim credit for the progress in Anbar, since it is the result of a change in the hearts and minds of the local people. But really, isn’t that the point? The transformation of Anbar shows the universal appeal of Democratic freedoms, and shows what can happen once a people reject tyranny.

  2. The Domino Effect Cuts Both Ways.

    Abhorrent ideologies like Communism and Islamo-Fascism may spread regionally, but freedom can do so as well. Success in one region provides an example and a model for those in surrounding areas, and creates and intellectual basis for future transformations.

    Early signs after the invasion of Iraq were very promising. The high level of voter turnout within Iraq itself was amazing. More interesting, Democratic progress in Iraq led to local elections in other nations in the region, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Democratic progress in Iraq created a demand for increased democratic representation among the people throughout the region. A successful democracy in Iraq would be a “City on a Hill” that exposed the tyranny of its neighbors, increasing the people’s desire for liberty and spreading the ideological seeds of Democratization throughout the Middle East.

  3. Ideological and Military Progress Go Hand-In-Hand.
  4. Unfortunately, the Democratic gains in Iraq have not continued to flourish, or if they have they have been overshadowed by dramatic military losses. Sectarian violence has cast a shadow over many parts of the nation. The insurgent forces have waged an effective war against coalition troops, and sectarian violence has threatened to rip Iraq’s fledgling national government to pieces. This has outstripped the people’s desire for stable, democratic government.

    The ideological conflict is really the key to winning the military conflict here. If the people reject extremism and embrace national harmony, and if we have the troop presence to support them, we can stamp out the conflict. The power of the insurgency is in their ability to recruit from disaffected Iraqis, and to strike and then retreat to friendly shelters. If Iraqi people become less disaffected, and if the friendly shelters evaporate, the insurgency will dwindle and die. Commentary Magazine puts it this way:

    What is apparent is that most Iraqis want democracy, but their wishes are hostage to a sizable minority of violent recalcitrants, backed by outside force.

    This is where the success of Anbar may be encouraging. When the democratic majority turned against the violent minority and assisted the United States in rooting them out, they came to enjoy a far greater measure of peace and stability. This may serve as a model to other regions in Iraq.

    The troop surge shows signs of progress. Allocating more troops, and embedding them within Iraqi neighborhoods, has decreased U.S. deaths and diminished sectarian violence. If we do not cut our losses and run away, we may yet stem the violence long enough to see the people of Iraq re-assert their desire for peaceful, stable democracy.

  5. Democracy Really Does Work.

    It seems as if the Iraqi people are committed to a national, democratic government. Though there are a number of political benchmarks to be met, the people themselves have overwhelmingly participated in national elections, and almost universally oppose partitioning the country into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish territories. This is especially interesting given the amount of sectarian violence. The people’s commitment to national unity belies the sectarian killings, and gives credence to the argument that a violent minority is exerting power against the wishes of a more peaceful democratic majority.

Success in Iraq, and in the global War on Terror, is far from certain. The Neoconservative vision of regional transformation may be irreparably damaged by the success of Islamo-fascist terrorism. Our ideological strengths may be obscured by military defeat, as in Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War. This is a generational struggle, and there will surely be many failures along the way, even if success is eventually attained.

But those claim that the War on Terror is nothing more than a bumper sticker, or say that Islamo-fascist terrorism should be treated as a simple police action, are missing the bigger picture. At its core, this is an ideological struggle between Freedom and Tyranny. It is a moral battle between Good and Evil. It is a battle worth fighting, and one which the enemies of Freedom will continue to fight whether we oppose them or not. We must use our military might to defend our own Freedoms and to extend those same Freedoms to those who are kept enslaved by petty tyrants and repressive ideologies.

The triumph of Good is not assured, but the greatest weapon in our favor is the natural thirst for liberty etched into the heart of each man and woman, if only we can fight to give them the chance to be free.

September 26, 2007

The Right are Mighty? (1/2)

Posted in War on Terror at 10:31 pm by Caleb Winn

… with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations. ~ Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865.

The Rise (and Fall?) of Neo-Conservativism

President Bush campaigned in 2000 as an isolationist, who did not believe that it was the U.S. responsibility to be global peacekeepers or policemen. After 9/11, however, all of that changed. Since that fateful day, the U.S. has pursued an aggressive foreign policy, not only defending our economic and security interests, but actively seeking to institute democratic regimes around the world, beginning in the Middle East, with Iraq. This belief – that the projection of U.S. Power can promote global stability by planting the seeds of Democracy in foreign soil – is the doctrine of Neo-Conservativism. To quote Bush’s 2nd Inaugural:

The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. ~ President George W. Bush, January 20, 2005.

From 2002-2004, it seemed as if the Neo-Conservatives ruled Washington D.C. Their idea of promoting Democracy through the military might of the United States was the guiding force of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy. Their ideas predated the Bush Administration, but after 9/11 their promise of global peace through universal democracy and freedom seemed to be the answer to the most pressing questions facing America. A global rebirth of freedom would, they argued, promote the security interests of the United States! After years of supporting tin-pot dictators in defense of national security, here at least we could unite our ideological commitments with our pragmatic concerns! As President Bush said in his Second Inaugural, “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”

The American people stood firmly behind it as long as it looked like it would be successful. For all the talk of “values voters” deciding the election, it’s worth noting that Bush made gains over his 2000 numbers in virtually every single demographic group. While so-called “values voters” were important, most non-evangelical voters supported Bush in greater numbers than they had in 2004, because they stood behind their wartime President.

However, as the war has dragged on and more Americans have died overseas, the people of these United States have lost their stomach for the conflict. As an intellectual force, Neo-Conservativism is out of fashion. But it still reverberates within the halls of the West Wing, and Bush’s policies and attitudes toward the War in Iraq reflect this still today.

In the face of plummeting public support for the War in Iraq, the Bush Administration has stayed the course, seemingly inflexible, unchanging, and unwilling to learn from their mistakes. Bush seems unflappably optimistic, convinced that temporary set-backs will not forestall eventual U.S. victory and the democratic transformation of the Middle East. Many consider this a mark of stupidity. In reality, this optimistic outlook makes perfect sense within a Neo-Conservative intellectual framework.

In short, President Bush and his Neo-Conservative advisors are confident that we will win, because we are right.

The (Inexorable?) End of History

It is impossible to understand Neo-Conservative doctrine without doing so in light of the post-Cold War environment. Many leading NeoCon thinkers and officials were movers and shakers during the West’s prolonged conflict with the U.S.S.R., and their ideas were formed against that historical backdrop.

This historical perspective is really crucial because Neo-Conservativism depends on a certain linear view of history. In the minds of Neo-Conservativism, history is not a random series of events, the conjunction of this person and that in a particular time and place, write large over millennia. Rather, Neo-Conservatives tend to hold to a more Hegelian dialectic view, that history has a story, a purposefulness, an “end.” (That is, a telos, not a literal termination point.)

Probably the best example of this view is Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End Of History, And The Last Man. In it, he maintains that the 20th century was a grand ideological battlefield, on which political systems were developed, tested, and discarded. Monarchy, Facism, Totalitarianism, Communism, and Democracy have all had their day in the sun. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama argues, the verdict is definitively in: Liberal Democracy wins. The ideas that individuals have certain inalienable rights, that governments exist for the people, and that the state should derive its power from the consent of the governed, is Fukuyama’s “End of History”.

Ideological Inevitability

This perspective leads to a couple of implications:

First, President Bush understands the battle with Islamo-facism as an ideological conflict, rather than a merely military action. Success doesn’t come through killing our enemies or conquering their lands. Success in this conflict through conquering their hearts and minds. The War in Iraq isn’t about beating the insurgents physically. It’s about discrediting their system of thought in the eyes of the Iraqi people, and providing enough stability and security to allow the Iraqi people to establish self-governance based on freedom and human rights.

Second, President Bush believes that Democracy will – must – win this conflict. The success of Liberal Democracy is inevitable given human nature. It’s not necessarily that God is watching out to make sure that the Good Guys win. Rather, mankind naturally cries out for freedom, and given the ideological choice between the two, Freedom will always prevail. As President Bush said in his recent speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars:

The greatest weapon in the arsenal of democracy is the desire for liberty written into the human heart by our Creator. So long as we remain true to our ideals, we will defeat the extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will help those countries’ peoples stand up functioning democracies in the heart of the broader Middle East. And when that hard work is done and the critics of today recede from memory, the cause of freedom will be stronger, a vital region will be brighter, and the American people will be safer.

To Be Continued…

This provides the intellectual framework within which we should try to understand Bush’s foreign policy, especially the War in Iraq. But what are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach? And how is it working out in the real world? I will explore these more specific, practical question in greater depth soon.

September 21, 2007

The Rationality of Irrational Investments

Posted in Economics at 10:23 am by Caleb Winn

In his recently-released book, and in interviews to promote said book, retired FED Chairman and economic “maestro” Alan Greenspan takes a swing at the irrationality of investors, specifically during times of rapid economic growth or decline. Money-quote:

Greenspan also turned to psychology and anthropology for explanations of economic irrationality. The erratic behavior of investors during and after bubbles—excessively exuberant on the upside, unwarrantedly pessimistic and fearful on the downside—continuously confounds economists. . .“There’s a long history of forgetting bubbles,” he writes. “But once that memory is gone, there appears to be an aspect of human nature to get cumulative exuberance.” When the bubble inevitably breaks, as reality fails to meet expectations, “the result is a dramatic 180-degree switch from exuberance to fear.”

These “bubbles,” such as the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s and the housing bubble that has recently begun to deflate, can cause rapid economic growth, but at the expense of fiscal stability. Investors all jump onto the same bandwagon, driving up prices and pouring in money until it reaches a level that is simply not sustainable. Investors are [i]too[/i] excited during times of rapid growth, and [i]too[/i] fearful during times of rapid decline, and these wild shifts in moods only exarcerbate the problems of investment bubbles. From a macro-economic perspective, this just doesn’t make sense.

Greenspan’s conclusion from this is that investors are irrational, acting emotionally, and not intelligently. In summarizing his position, MSNBC writes:

The ultimate rationalist seems to have concluded that fear, resistance to change, exuberance and human limitations play a bigger role than expected in economic development. And he recognized that economists have proven so human—i.e., fallible—in their forecasting because the force actually driving the economy is humans who are prone to act on emotion rather than reason.

Part of the problem here is that investors are pursuing short-term personal gain, and give little thought to how their actions impact the broader economic health of the U.S.. From a macro-economic level it makes little sense to create and sustain bubbles, or to yank out assets when the bottom falls out of the investment sector. As far as Alan Greenspan is concerned, that is foolish bevaiour because it is not good for the economy overall.

But for the individual investor, it is hard to resist the benefits of an investment bubble even if their actions will hurt the broader economy in the long-run. No individual investor has enormous control over the economy, and so no individual investor feels a sense of responsibility for the overall economic health of these United States. Any given individual investment has no real impact on the broader economy, but can have a huge impact on the investor. Each investor has an incentive to take a slice of the pie, but no responsibility for it, since they are only one tiny part of a much broader economic system, and their choice won’t make any real difference one way or another. Because of this, investors make their choices on the basis of rational self-interest, seeking to maximize personal profit.

So while this investment pattern seems irrational from a macro-economic perspective, it may be the product of perfectly rational individual decisions. The problem lies in the fact that the decision is replicated millions of times, and what makes sense for the individual becomes catastrophically unsustainable for the economy as a whole.

September 17, 2007

Politically confused.

Posted in Politics at 10:49 pm by Caleb Winn

I am a Republican, and loyally so. I have great affection for the Grand Ol’ Party. I love Ronald Reagan, and think that Democrats are, by and large, the “bad guys.” But these emotional attachments don’t necessarily translate into corresponding policy views, which leaves me wondering where I lie.

The nature of partisan politics

The party establishments tend to hold opposing and divergent views on almost everything. This is caused by their divergent constituencies, and is dramatically worsened by fierce antagonism between the parties, which accentuates those differences and makes compromise virtually impossible.

The GOP establishment depends on corporate fat cats, upper-middle-class suburbanites, rural rugged individualists, and angry evangelicals for support. In order to win in primary elections, Republican candidates have to adopt positions that appeal to these voters, sounding ‘tough,’ ‘fiscally responsible,’ and ‘values-oriented.’ A “real” Republican must be pro-life, pro-gun, anti-illegal immigration, hawkishly pro-war, anti-environment, and no matter how low taxes are already, they can always be cut again!

Democrats, on the other hand, must answer to a myriad of interests all their own. Labor unions, feminists, environmentalists, the GLBTetc lobby, anti-war doves, and the urban poor, especially among minorities. This leads to a whole host of policy commitments that most democrats must honor if they hope to be successful. While some pro-life, pro-gun Democrats may be successful in Congressional elections in states like Tennessee, they often find themselves snubbed by their national caucuses, and could never succeed at the national (Presidential) level.

To make matters worse, these groups don’t really like each other very much, which leads to reactionary policy-making. If the Democrats propose an idea, Republicans will often oppose it regardless of its merit, or vice versus. Additionally, niche groups within the party will adopt the political views of the party that extend beyond their niche, so that evangelical Christians borrow the economic policies of the corporate fat cats, simply because the opposing economic views are held by the “other team.” For this reason, people whose moral convictions cause them to be pro-life are also, by extension, anti-tax, anti-welfare, and pro-gun. We have these bizarre groupings of tangentially-related interests in place of a consistent political ideology, wherein the economic libertarians are married to the socially fascist, and the social libertarians are in bed with the economically socialist.

So where does that leave me?

I am a very partisan man. I really do like the Republican party. At some level, politics is an exciting game, and I want “my team” to win. But while this makes for engaging (if sometimes soul-destroying) political showmanship, it almost certainly makes for bad, inconsistent policy. The fact of the matter is, I am not in lock-step with the GOP. On a whole host of issues, I might break ranks with my party and try to find common ground with the Democrats. On some issues, I just think that the Democrats have it right, and the GOP needs to get its head on straight.

So how does that work? As a political non-entity outside of the power and influence of the Beltway, I suppose it doesn’t matter what I think. I can borrow ideas from both sides without anybody really caring. And when it comes to selecting a candidate, I just have to choose which issues I care about more passionately. Do I suppose the candidate who shares my social views, or my economic views?

It’s just a darn shame that a candidate can’t succeed in this political climate without spreading divisiveness and vitriol. It’s a shame that a candidate can’t transcend constituencies and seek meaningful compromise on important issues. Well, maybe he can, but we’ll see how successful he is.

Policy laundry list

Economic policy

I am in favor of a guest worker program (call it “amnesty” if you want), with or without securing our borders.

I am opposed to universal health care, especially of the nationalized variety.

I do, however, support Bush’s plan to make all medical insurance costs tax-deductible, whether through an employer or not, and may even support a Massachusetts-style plan to mandate health care coverage, with limited government subsidies.

I also support Bush’s approach to social security reform, though I may also consider lifting the $90,000/year cap on FICA-eligible earnings in order to increase the pot. Regardless, the Democratic head-in-the-sand approach to Social Security reform is as shameful as it is asinine.

I think that sometimes we honestly just need to raise taxes, or at least stop cutting them. Deficits are sad.

Social policy

I am ardently pro-life. This is a (the?) big one for me.

I don’t have a problem with affirmative action, gay marriage, or sex education in public schools.

I don’t believe in an innate right to bear arms, and generally favour gun control, though it’s probably best left to localities where possible since NYC and KY have rather different threats and needs.

I oppose the death penalty, Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, and a whole host of other wrong-headed anti-crime bills that are based more on anger than on common sense.

Security policy

I am opposed to torture in all instances, and support the legal rights of the very worst in society.

I hold to a fairly Neo-conservative foreign policy, and think that withdrawing from Iraq would create a situation so violently awful that it would make Darfur look like Disneyland.

I think that the UN is generally a good thing.

I believe that Globalization leads to greater security through greater economic interdependence, provided that our bilateral investments are diversified.

I believe that the United States probably isn’t doing enough to engage in the ideological, intellectual struggle against Islamo-fascism.

In conclusion

I support John McCain for President, because he isn’t a partisan hack. The man is the Real Deal, a principled Statesman who holds firmly to his beliefs even when it hurts him politically (see immigration reform), and is willing to stand up for what’s right to Democrats and Republicans alike (see torture). But he is a man who is willing to meet in the middle, to try to reach meaningful bipartisan compromise on the details wherever possible. He’s a man who understands what is at stake in the Global War on Terror, and can be trusted to be an effective Commander-in-Chief.

Sadly, I suspect that a Statesman cannot succeed in the modern political climate.

August 17, 2007

Honest Abe vs. Tricky Dick: Ambition and the American Presidency

Posted in Philosophy, Politics at 12:40 am by Caleb Winn

As alike as they are different

Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon had a lot in common. Both were Commanders-In-Chief during bitter and divisive wars, and both left an indelible mark on the nature of American government. Both Presidents dramatically increased the power of the Executive Branch during their tenure in office. And yet these two men represent the best and the worst of the American Presidency. Abraham Lincoln is as revered as Richard Nixon is reviled. The former fought for lasting justice, freedom, and equality for America, while the latter resigned his office in disgrace.

This is most perplexing in light of the overwhelming personal similarities between the two characters. They possessed many very similar personality traits, and were driven by many of the same motivations. Most relevantly, both men were motivated by deep struggles with depression to pursue a life of ambition.

Bound together by the common thread of melancholy

As Joshua William Shenk argues in his book: Lincoln’s Melancholy, Lincoln was a well-known depressive during his life. He suffered at least two major depressive episodes. Especially as a young man, these bouts of depression were very acute, causing him to say things like, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.” He also wrote melodramatic poetry about suicide, and his friends took his discussion of suicide seriously enough that for a time they kept him on “suicide watch” and refused to let him be alone.

But even after his two chronicled Major Depressive Episodes, Lincoln continued to struggle with feelings of chronic depression. (Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Team of Rivals, argues that Lincoln was simply “melancholy,” rather than clinically depressed, but for our purposes, the distinction is relatively unimportant.) Throughout Presidency, Lincoln would often seem to buckle under the stress and strain of life. As he faced dwindling support for the War from Congress, even among his own party, Lincoln remarked darkly, “They wish to get rid of me, and I am sometimes half-disposed to gratify them.”

This sort of statement might have been transcribed straight from the White House tapes of President Nixon, if only it had included a few choice expletives. In fact, it sounds a great deal like Nixon’s proclamation after his failed 1962 gubernatorial bid, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Like Lincoln, Nixon was a deeply unhappy, insecure man. Even his most loyal staff members, such as Chief of Staff Haldeman, and senior advisor man Henry Kissinger, often referred to him as child-like, and described nights in which the President would call numerous times to seek reassurance that a speech had gone well, and that he had support of the American people. In at least one point during his Presidency, Nixon grew depressed and physically exhausted to the point that senior staff members considered it an issue of grave concern. Robert Dallek’s biography Nixon and Kissinger describes Nixon as “an introspective man whose inner demons both lifted him up and brought him down.”

One particular story illustrates this idea very well, and is worth developing at length, because it really highlights the deep insecurities that drove Nixon to pursue political power. On May 9th, 1970 — a mere 4 days after the Kent State University incident in which four student protesters were killed by National Guard troops– Nixon spontaneously visited the Lincoln Memorial at 4:30 in the morning. There, he met with a group of college students and tried to engage them in conversation about foreign policy. When they would not come around to his viewpoint, he instead began to talk with them about sports. One of the students described the President’s speech and conduct as “absurd.” And, according to Nixon and Kissinger, “as he [Nixon] left, he implored the students not to hate him.” There has, perhaps, never been a greater example of the pathetic hunger for approval that sometimes drives the ambitions of men.

A shared response: ambition as an anti-depressant

It is important to understand this hunger for approval and meaning if we are to truly understand the nature of political ambition. For both Nixon and Lincoln, the melancholy temperament that depressed their spirits also drove them to pursue their political ambitions. As is so often the case, it was their dissatisfaction that drove them to pursue greatness. Becoming President of the United States was their way of giving direction, purpose, and meaning to their lives. In many ways, personal, political ambition was their cure for depression.

Nixon sought to compensate for his insecurity through attaining personal power and prestige, in order to appear tough and in control. He personalized major policy issues, making important decisions based on whether or not his actions would show that “the man in the White House is tough.” He spent his first four years preoccupied with securing his own re-election. He was hungry for a reputation as a foreign policy expert, often using less qualified subordinates so that they would not out-stage him or steal any of his limelight. And years after he left office, Nixon continued to crave the respect and approval of his successors. For Nixon, ambition was a way of earning the happiness and love that he could not find for himself.

Lincoln similarly responded to his depression by pursuing greatness. During a particularly intense period of depression, a close friend named Joshua Speed told Lincoln that he must either improve, or die. Lincoln responded by saying that he could kill himself, but he wanted to leave a mark on his generation, and “so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow men,” and that this was that he “desired to live for.” His thirst for power was a direct answer to his deep melancholy.

A dangerous path to walk

How could two men so similarly ambitious pursue that ambition in two deeply divergent ways? And what is it about the nature of human ambition that causes some men to be destroyed by it while enabling others to transform the world for generations? At first glance, ambition seems like an intrinsically dangerous character quality. While it may not always be dangerous to the self, it poses great threat to social stability and political order. Lincoln himself argued in 1838 that the greatest threat to the American experiment was surely the ambition of great men, for they will place personal gain over political principle, and do anything necessary to achieve notoriety. He writes:

 Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.   

 Why Lincoln succeeds where Nixon fails

This last sentence highlights the difference between the destructive ambition of “Tricky Dick” Nixon and the noble ambition of “Honest Abe.” Ambition is dangerous when it exists for its own sake only, and is not restrained by principle or nobility of character. But while personal ambition can be a seductive foe, Lincoln escaped its clutches. I believe that he did this in three ways: 

1) Lincoln transformed personal ambition into transcendent purpose.

There was a reason for his Presidency beyond his own re-election. Lincoln writes, “Slavery is founded on the selfishness of man’s nature – opposition to it is his love of Justice.” Shenk concludes, “He looked at imperfection, and sought redemption.” 

This was not always the case. When he first began to pursue political ambition as a young man, he did so for his own sake. When he expressed his desire for greatness to his friend Joshua Speed, he said that he wanted to “link his name with something.” This is a personal, non-specific ambition. Lincoln’s initial motivation, at least, was not to “preserve the union” or “free the slaves.” He wanted to do “something.” great. These important cause were the means of fulfilling his ambition, but he was not ambitious because of them. 

But although he was initially motivated by a desire for personal greatness, Lincoln found that the magnitutde of the cause in which he was engaged eclipsed his own personal ego. He began selfishly – perhaps all great men do – but he ended nobly. Through depersonalizing him ambition, Lincoln was able to hold power with humility, and accomplish far more than Nixon ever could. By maintaining an external focus, by pursuing a goal higher than himself, Lincoln largely escaped the seductions of ambition.

2) Lincoln was willing to sacrifice personal success for the success of his transcendent purpose.

In many ways the controversial and unpopular policies that he pursued were detrimental to his own ambition. But he did them anyway, because his personal popularity was less important than the preservation of the Union, and eventually the abolition of slavery.

Having studied the abolitionist movement in England, Lincoln realized that he may well have undertaken a task which would be impossible to complete in a single lifetime. Upon this realization, Lincoln remarked, “I can not but regard it as possible that the higher object of this  contest may not be completely attained within the term of my natural life.” This did not discourage him, however, nor did it cause him to give up the fight. Since  his purpose was external to himself, because he gave himself to the service of a cause, instead of selecting and discarding causes to serve himself, he was content to see failure in his lifetime in the hope that Justice would be done in the end. 

3) He did this by understanding his calling in the context of divine sovereignty.

Many historians, Joshua William Shenk included believe that Lincoln was a fatalist, who expressed belief in the “Doctrine of Necessity” – all things which will happen, will happen, and must happen. This was a view that he developed in his youth, and appears to have never abandoned.

But as he progressed in years, and especially into his Presidency, this “Doctrine of Necessity” took on new meaning for Lincoln in light of his growing belief in a personal God. Lincoln’s friends and visitors during his last few years reported that they often found him in prayer, or studying scriptures. He seemed to be especially fond of the book of Job, which shows that temporal hardship and suffering can have a deeper, spiritual significance that we cannot understand. His 2nd Inaugural Address really highlights this point – for Lincoln, human life could only be understood in the context of a transcendent divine will, though that will is often difficult for men to understand.

His own words and writings really attest to his belief that his life and work were a part of God’s sovereign plan. He was known to say that he was merely an “instrument” playing a part in “so vast, and so sacred a trust” that “he felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow.” He really did seem to disregard his life for the sake of his life’s work. When his friends expressed fear that he might be assassinated, he responded, “God’s will be done. I am in His hands.”

This resignation and self-sacrifice would not have been possible if he did not believe that he was in God’s hands, working His will. It was this belief in the transcendent will of God that enabled Lincoln to de-personalize his ambitions and give himself to a cause that transcends personal success. His increasingly firm belief in the providence of a benevolent God enabled him to combine his fatalism with a sense of hopefulness, and gave him the strength to press on. Within this context, his personal responsibility was understood as part of a whole that was greater than his own successes and failures. Instead of hungering for personal glory, Lincoln now said, “I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty. . .” 

As different as they are alike

Both Lincoln and Nixon sought to leave a mark on the world, but Nixon did so for his own sake, and Lincoln did so for the sake of the world. Nixon’s ambition was conceived in his own ego, while Lincoln’s was conceived in liberty. Nixon was dedicated to his own success; Lincoln was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. And long after Nixon’s greatest achievements have been forgotten, people around the world will continue to celebrate the legacy of Lincoln: a nation by the people, of the people, and for the people, that shall not perish from the earth.

That is what separates great Presidents from terrible ones, and turns ambition from a fatal flaw to a noble blessing. 

July 31, 2007

Lincoln, suicide, and the War in Iraq

Posted in Politics, War on Terror at 10:19 pm by Caleb Winn

I’ve been reading through a truly amazing book called Lincoln’s Melancholy, which considers our 16th President’s lifelong struggle with depression, and the impact that it had on his life and work.

The book is interesting for its portrait of Lincoln as the victim of chronic depression. It reveals that Lincoln spoke often of committing suicide, and considered the subject seriously enough that he refused to carry a pocketknife out of fear that he might end his life in a moment of exceptionally dark despair. His friends put him on “suicide watch” on several occasions, worried that he might take his own life. He even appears to have written poetry about suicide, in which his first-person narrator acknowledges the terror of hell, but concludes that an eternity of damnation will only help him forget that he is damned while yet living, and calls his knife “my last — my only friend!” as it draws him from life to death.

The author points out that Lincoln’s explicit acknowledgment of Hell makes this a peculiar statement for a potential suicide. A true suicide doesn’t really give serious consideration to where he or she will go after death. Indeed, the point of suicidal depression isn’t to go to anywhere. The point is simply to go away. Quoting psychologist Edwin Shneidman, the author writes, “The single most dangerous word in all of suicidology is the four-letter word only,” as in “only one thing to do … only one way to get away from it … jump off something good and high.” There is no complicated, rational weighing of costs vs. benefits. The suicide is overwhelmed with a myopic understanding of his or her own misery, and unable to consider alternatives. The pessimism of melancholy leads to the despair of depression, and “cognitive restriction” renders the sufferer incapable of complex rational thought about how to improve his or her position.

This concept, especially the idea of “cognitive restriction,” is incredibly useful for understand Lincoln’s role in the Civil War, and perhaps in framing the debate over the War in Iraq.

Lincoln was President during the darkest time in American history. No period before or since presented such an enormous challenge, and no enemy before or since posed such a great threat to the future of the American experiment. If ever there was cause for a President to despair, it was the near-loss of the Civil War. And yet Lincoln, fully cognizant of the challenges ahead, pressed on. In many ways, his pessimistic, melancholy attitude served him well. He possessed a level of “depressive realism” that enabled him to recognize the real threats facing the Union, and this awareness enabled him to confront those threats head-on instead of hiding behind a veil of deluded optimism. Although he understood the gravity of his task, and although this understanding was indescribably discouraging at times, Lincoln did not experience “cognitive restriction”. He weighed options carefully and deliberately, neither overcome by despair nor blinded by foolish hope, and a led a nation forward through her darkest hour.

This stands in stark contrast to the leading voices in the debate over the War in Iraq. Anti-war Democrats are unwilling or unable to rationally consider alternatives to the status quo. The rhetoric of the anti-war movement is predominately depressive and reactionary, focusing on how miserable the current predicament is, but offering few positive steps to alleviate our national suffering, or the suffering of the people of Iraq. The liberal consensus calls for withdrawal, but does not consider the implications or consequences of such a retreat. Their thinking on the issue is binary: the choice is to remain, or to leave. To remain is an unacceptably bad fate, and so the only alternative is to pull out now. There is no real consideration of the likely outcome of such a withdrawal. There is no discussion about whether post-occupation Iraq will be better than the status quo. The anti-war movement is not moving forward towards any particular goal — certainly not toward peace. They merely want to move away from the insufferable state in which we live, and the only way to do that is by giving up. Psychologically speaking, this reeks of the “cognitive restriction” of a suicide, whose thoughts are so dominated by an obsessive awareness of misery that escape becomes the only possible choice, even if the so-called escape leaves the person worse off than ever before.

Surely there must be a middle ground between the Administration’s blind, unwavering optimism, and the Democratic Party’s cognitive paralysis. Surely there must be a path that takes us between ignorant bliss and depressive suicide. Where are the leaders who can understand our challenges, but not be incapacitated by despair? Where are the leaders who can recognize the difficulties that lie ahead, and summon the fortitude to press on and overcome them? Where is our Abraham Lincoln?

And would we recognize him if we saw him?