Dec 102012

Andrew Bacevich has a post up at Front Porch Republic that made me giddy with the old familiar feeling of “Yes!  Someone on the internet is absolutely correct!”   I’m sure you know the feeling.

I’ll try to explain why this essay did it for me, by commenting on Bacevich line-by-line:

As an independent, I am not especially interested in the fortunes of either party.

Yes!  The preoccupation with party fortunes, Republican or Democratic, has superseded a concern with actual policy.  “War on terror” policies that were anathema to Democrats when pursued by the George W. Bush administration, have become something to defend, now that Obama is pursuing the same policies.  The party cart has been placed before the policy horse.

I am interested in seeing an authentic conservatism have a place in our politics.  Otherwise, liberalism in various guises dominates.   

Yes!  We don’t want either liberalism or conservatism to dominate unchecked by any opposition.  An “authentic” conservatism (as opposed to the dominant pseudo-conservatisms pursued by the Republican party) is indispensable.  That said, the only overwhelming domination by any ideology that I’ve had the experience of living through is that of a particular thread of right-wingism that Bacevich describes a few lines later.

I don’t view liberalism as inherently evil.  It’s liberals rather than conservatives who have advanced the cause of racial and gender equality – a genuine accomplishment. When it comes to social justice, again, it’s liberals not conservatives who have made a difference. That said, liberalism needs a counterweight.  Its excesses need to be checked.

Yes! Don’t let any self-professed conservative tell you otherwise — racial and gender equality has been the exclusive project of the left, period.  Every liberal should proudly take credit for this, and every self-identified conservative who appreciates these things should admit that in this, they too are liberals.  Racism and sexism have been the errors exclusively of the right.  But are there liberal excesses?  Compared with liberal successes, they are hard to notice, but I would identify politically-correct speech codes on college campuses as one of them.  On average, though, the threat of liberal excess is dwarfed by the benefits of liberal success.

What passes for conservatism these days in mainstream American politics is not authentic.  When it comes to essentials, it’s not actually all that much different from or better than what passes for liberalism. 

Yes!  I won’t comment on the “authenticity” of mainstream American conservatism, but I agree that the available strains of mainstream liberalism and conservatism aren’t that different from each other.  It’s a sign of the continuing weakness of the left in this country that this disturbing similarity almost always leads to a discussion of what is wrong with conservatism and with the right.  I, however, prefer to blame the left.  The left hasn’t yet articulated what is wrong with Clintonism, let alone made any serious efforts to reject the corporatist/laissez-faire/Robert-Rubinesque philosophy that has dominated the Democratic Party since at least the Carter administration, but which found its greatest success under Clinton.

In recent decades, the Republican Party’s version of conservatism has emphasized three major themes: 

First, in the realm of political economy, Republicans favor small government and unbridled capitalism, looking to the market to solve our domestic problems. 

Second, in the realm of foreign policy, Republicans favor big government and unbridled activism, looking to the military to prolong the American Century.

Third, in the realm of culture, Republicans have spoken in defense of so-called traditional values, making much of their putative opposition to abortion and the defense of traditional marriage.  

Yes!  That just about sums up the “conservative” approach of the Republican Party.  Note, however, that the Democratic Party hasn’t really offered up any strong opposition to these themes, with the possible exception of some of the cultural issues like marriage and abortion.

Republicans have made the first two themes the actual basis for policy.  On the third theme, they have offered little more than symbolism and sanctimonious posturing.  So the real guts of GOP conservatism in recent decades have focused on unleashing the market and the military – less state regulation of the economy, more state resources funneled to the Pentagon.

Yes!  The two most tired political cliches of my lifetime are that we need to free up the market so it can magically solve whatever social problem is under discussion at the moment, and that we need to involve ourselves around the world to defend various good things that we Americans hold dear, and that would disappear without a vigorous (and often military) defense by the USA.  Note that these wouldn’t be such tired cliches if they’d been uttered exclusively by the Republican party.  They’re cliches because the Democrats use them just as indiscriminately as the Republicans.

I submit that neither of these qualifies as a genuinely conservative position.  To the extent that I have accurately characterized the Romney campaign’s position, I am glad Romney lost.

Yes!  I’m glad Romney lost, too.

The essence of conservatism should be to conserve, showing respect for what is good in our inheritance.  I refer both to our human inheritance and our inheritance in the natural world. 

Yes!  This is the reason I love Wendell Berry and don’t have an allergic reaction to the word “Paleoconservative” so long as the racism often associated with self-professed paleos is denounced.  This kind of conservatism is absolutely essential, given that humans are impetuous, greedy, and forgetful, not to mention prone to self-aggrandizement and error.

The market does not conserve.  Capitalism is good for one thing:  creating wealth.  As an arena in which the pursuit of profit takes precedence over all other considerations, the market destroys much of what conservatives should value. 

Yes!  This is the central insight of the whole essay and the single most important reason why there’s a debate at all about whether any particular streak of conservatism is “authentic” or not.  We’ve become so used to thinking of “the market” as a magical talisman that produces nothing but good.  We’ve chosen to forget about or to deny that it can produce bad outcomes and human misery.  While there are always some (ineffectual) liberal critiques of the market focusing on its failure to distribute wealth fairly, there has been a complete absence in my lifetime of an effective conservative critique of the free-market uber alles ideology of the modern Republican party.  Historically, this can possibly be blamed in part on the aftereffects of the conservative battle against state communism during the cold war, but the cold war is over.  Has been for some time.  The choice was never between Ayn Rand and Stalin, however much Ayn Rand (or Stalin) would have wanted us to believe that it was.  Did I mention that humans were prone to be forgetful and prone to error?  This is example #1 of that.  We should stop allowing Hayek to scare us away from Wendell Berry.

Except when used prudently to defend what is truly dear to us, the military does not conserve.  It consumes and wastes.

Yes!  Andrew Bacevich has been perhaps the most effective person working to keep us from forgetting this.

Since the end of the Cold War and especially since 9/11, Republicans and Democrats have collaborated in concealing and ignoring just how much has been wasted through needless and poorly managed wars.  The immediate result has been to victimize the very soldiers whom Americans claim to love and support.

Yes!  One simply has to ask who has been the beneficiary of this collaboration, concealment, and ignoring.  I won’t hazard a guess here; I’ll only say that I don’t believe it has been the vast majority of the American citizenry.  They’ve been screwed for the sake of . . . (not hazarding a guess).

I’m not a politician and have no desire to involve myself in politics in any way.

Hmmm….  Andrew Bacevich not involved in politics in any way?  His many perceptive and well-written books about politics testify otherwise.

That said, my own view is that salvation for the Republican party lies in becoming serious about that third theme rather than merely giving it lip service.

Yes!  Because if one were serious about conservatism, one wouldn’t emphasize the first two themes, of course.

If the Republican Party wishes to represent a conservative perspective, it should advance a serious critique of American culture and then derive authentically conservative economic and foreign policies from that critique.

But that would mean the Republican Party would cease to be the party of the corporate elites and the obscenely rich.  Not likely to happen.

What might that mean?  Several things:

First, conservatives should claim the environmental movement as their own.  Preserving the natural world should be a cause that all conservatives embrace with gusto.  And, yes, that includes the issue of climate change.

Yes!  But that can’t happen so long as conservatives remain in thrall to the idea that the unregulated market produces magic dust that makes everything better.  That can’t happen until conservatives stop being afraid of Stalin under their beds.  Because environmentalism of any kind will require that big corporations be brought to heel, and any thoughts of doing that without the help of the state are delusional.

Second, conservatives should lead the way in protecting the family from the hostile assault mounted by modernity.  The principal threat to the family is not gay marriage.  The principal threats are illegitimacy, divorce, and absent fathers.  Making matters worse still is a consumer culture that destroys intimate relationships, persuading children that acquiring stuff holds the key to happiness and persuading parents that their job is to give children what the market has persuaded them to want.  

Yes!  The tragedy of “social conservatism” in this country is that it’s been exclusively the realm of theocrats who tell us that the Bible (supposedly) forbids gay marriage, and that of course this means the laws of our nation should, too.  That’s all bullshit, and liberals can take the credit for rejecting it as such.  The fixation on denying rights to gays and women (which is what the social conservatives have been fixated on) has prevented conservatives from arguing against the consumer culture (which after all is a by-product of the free-market idolization we’ve been practicing) and making effective arguments in favor of strong families.  As it stands, the strongest pro-family arguments are being made by the liberals who advocate for a living wage and against the disruptive forces of an unrestrained market.  The liberals, though, will only go so far in defense of families, as they have fallen under the spell of unrestrained individualism as much as the most rabid free-marketeer.  The false choice the liberals see is between unrestrained individualism in social matters on the one hand, and a theocratic racist and sexist regime on the other.  It’s their version of the free-market vs. Stalin false choice that the conservatives have fallen for.

Third, when it comes to economics, conservatives should lead the fight against the grotesque inequality that has become such a hallmark of present-day America.

Yes!  Curse that free-market magic dust.  We need a counter-spell to revive the conservative intellect.

Call me old fashioned, but I believe that having a parent at home holds one of the keys to nurturing young children and creating strong families.  That becomes exceedingly difficult in an economy where both parents must work just to make ends meet.

You can call me old-fashioned, too.  So long as by “a parent” you mean “a mother or a father.”

Flattening the distribution of wealth and ensuring the widest possible the ownership of property can give more parents the choice of raising their own youngsters rather than farming the kids out to care providers.  If you hear hints of the old Catholic notion of distributism there, you are correct.

I think we can advocate for this without ourselves being Catholics.  Thank God.

Finally, when it comes to foreign and national security policies, conservatives should be in the forefront of those who advocate realism and modesty.  Conservatives should abhor the claims of American dominion that have become such a staple of our politics.  Saving humanity is God’s business, not America’s.

I’m willing to sign on to an anti-imperialism like this.  I won’t presume to guess what God’s business is, but I agree that American imperialism is a shit-poor way of saving humanity.

Sure, we need a strong military.  But its purpose should be to defend the country, not to run the world.  And anytime Washington decides it needs to fight a war, then popular support should going beyond cheering.  That means higher taxes to pay for the war and an army drawn from all parts of American society – to include Domers – to fight it.

Yes!  The problem is with that phrase “defend the country.”  If you’re a CEO of Boeing or Verizon, defense of the country looks a bit different than if you’re a dentist in Ohio.  I suspect that for a certain segment of our population (much less than 1% of it), we have in fact been “defending the country” all along.  It’s past time to start questioning whether we need to keep deferring to that <1%.

I don’t seriously expect the Republican Party to show the least interest in any such ideas.  But that’s because the actually-existing Republican Party is anything but conservative.

Yes, it isn’t; it is the chief defender of the obscenely rich, and it has been competing for that honor with the Democratic Party for decades now.  Neither of the two parties as they currently exist offer any kind of support for the ideas Bacevich describes here.  Which leads us, of course, to the question of what to do about it.
Dec 062012

My most important trail-running goal for 2013 will be — wait for it — patience.

In other words, I want to improve upon last year, but I don’t expect to suddenly transform into a professional-level runner who wins races at any distance.  That’s just not realistic for anyone with the possible exception of Emelie Forsberg.  So here are a few things I’d like to accomplish in 2013:

1) Run a decent marathon-length race.  What counts as “decent” is that it won’t be like my 2012 Prairie Fire Marathon in Wichita, where I had to walk the last 10 miles of the course.  I’d like to try a 50k or 50 mile race, and I might try one in 2013, but I’m not going to fret much if the ultra distance gets pushed back a year or two.

2) Run the Pikes Peak Ascent or Marathon for the first time since 2001.  I’ll hope to get a good time, but unless I get a better qualifying time between now and next March, I’ll probably have to run those races in the second wave, which makes it a little more difficult.  If things go *really* well, I’d like to get a sub-3hr ascent time on Pikes Peak next year, either in the race or during a training run.

3) Run a race in Europe.  There’s a chance I’ll get to go to Europe next May, and I had initially thought of trying to get a spot at Zegama-Aizkorri.  Now, though, it looks like the timing won’t work out for that race.  So if I do go Europe at all, I’ll try to find another event.  Shouldn’t be that hard from what I’ve heard about the sheer number of races in Europe.

4) Have fun.  This probably means running a lot with my dog.

Dec 062012

The best thing I’ve read on the internet all week comes from Corey Robin’s evaluation of Thomas Jefferson’s response to slavery and, more importantly, to the emancipation of slaves:

With their orientation to the future and acute sense of victimhood, the southern writers adopted an ethos geared less to liberalism or conservatism—ideologies arising from previous centuries of European conflict—than to fascism, the one ism of the twentieth century that could and would make a legitimate claim to novelty.  They beat the drums of race war. Like the Nazis ca. 1940, they offered deportation and extermination as final solutions to the Negro Question.  If blacks were set free, Jefferson warned, it would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one race or the other.”  The only alternative was an “effort…unknown to history.  When freed, he [the slave] is to be removed beyond the mixture.”  Anticipating the writings of Robert Brassilach, the French fascist who argued that compassion meant that Jewish children should be deported from France with their parents, Dew claimed, “If our slaves are ever to be sent away in any systematic manner, humanity demands that they should be carried in families.”  If the slaves were freed, Harper concluded, “one race must be driven out by the other, or exterminated, or again enslaved.”

via Thomas Jefferson: American Fascist? « Corey Robin.

Please read the whole thing.

Dec 042012

Last weekend, The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-mile trail race handed out $10,000 each to Miguel Heras of Spain, and to Emelie Forsberg of Sweden.  It was a controversial race because the lead group of runners including Adam Campbell, Sage Canaday, and Jason Wolfe ran off-course midway through the event in part because of various organizational problems (you can read about it all at iRunFar).  It isn’t too unusual for this to happen in a trail race, but this episode was particularly concerning because it may have cost these athletes significant prize money.*

It used to be that trail racers never won any serious money.  That’s starting to change.  Trail running is still nothing like cycling, where the winners of the top races take home hundreds of thousands of dollars and a serial winner cheater like Lance Armstrong can become a multimillionaire from winnings and endorsements.  But the possibilities for earning money from trail racing have increased to a level where important consequences will follow, or in some cases already have.

Most of these consequences are unalloyed good things.  It has recently become possible for the top trail runners to earn enough money to not have to rely on other jobs and to devote all of their working time to running.  This elite tier of mountain trail runners can and do travel all over the world to compete in races — Kilian Jornet and Mireia Miro can line up at the Pikes Peak Marathon in Colorado; Anton Krupicka and Dakota Jones can race the Cavalls del Vent in Spain, and South African Ryan Sandes can win races in every hemisphere.  These elite runners are supported by sponsors that are spending more money to develop better gear for long mountain runs, and the increased profile of the races means that the gear tested in prototype by the elites is quickly made available in the stores for everyone else to buy, which helps the sponsors earn back their investment.  It’s a virtuous circle.**

Not all of the consequences of the professionalization of trail running are good.  We’re eventually going to have to face the unpleasant consequences of trail runners who dope.

There are always cheaters in every sport, but doping only makes sense under certain conditions which are starting to prevail in elite trail racing.  First, the relative consequences of winning vs finishing in the middle of the pack have to be significantly different.  It’s getting harder and harder to argue that the benefits of winning vs just finishing haven’t become profoundly different in trail running — winners can look forward to sponsorships, international travel, and the ability to quit their day jobs for the sake of running.  Those perks are powerful motivators.  Finish in the middle of the pack, and you can read about your race on iRunFar.  Win, and you can be interviewed by Bryon Powell himself — other people can read about you on iRunFar.

Only the winner gets to wear the Zegama hat (photo: iRunFar)

Second, the margins between winning and losing are getting smaller and smaller.  It used to be absurd to think that there would ever be a sprint for the finish of a long trail race, but it’s becoming more and more common.  Western States 100-mile winners are battling up until the final miles.  Nuria Picas beats Anna Frost by just seconds after 83 kilometers at Cavalls del Vent.  When the difference between winning and not-winning is so small, any little edge that a top runner can get could make the difference between being a Oihana Kortazar at Zegama, who gets to wear the famous Zegama hat, and a Oihana Azkorbebeitia, who ran fast, but not fast enough to get a video of herself on YouTube in the goofy hat.

You may be saying to yourself at this point that it would be absurd to cheat for the questionable benefits that winning trail runners receive, and you’d be right for most values of trail runner.  But then, you’re not likely to be one of the people who will dope in order to win a trail race.  My point isn’t that everyone will dope, it is that the increased competitiveness and money in trail racing will induce more athletes to dope than would have already, and someday one of these athletes is going to get caught burying syringes behind their minivan in the parking lot of a big race.  There is going to be a scandal.

As we’ve seen with cycling, doping scandals have a tendency to taint everyone involved with the sport.  It can take a long time for the organizers and athletes to win back the trust that they inevitably lose (fairly or unfairly) when a successful athlete is caught doping.  Questions are leveled at everyone, even the clean athletes, who may have at one time had a result equal to or better than a disgraced doper.

I would be surprised if doping were a serious problem in trail running now, but I predict that it will, at some point in the near future, become a problem.  I’m not advocating that trail runners get tested now.  That’s expensive, and if not done right, testing is ineffective at actually catching dopers.  An effective testing regimen is also very annoying and intrusive, and trail running hasn’t yet demonstrated that it has a problem requiring such a draconian solution.  But we’re getting there.  Getting there slowly, but we’re getting there.  A few bad apples are going to ruin the pie for everyone — it’s merely a matter of time.  Trail running will eventually uncover a Lance Armstrong and a George Hincapie among its ranks.  It’ll be tragic and disappointing.

But when that time comes, the sport will be much better off if we’ve anticipated the problem in advance, and discussed what ought to be done about it.  Ellie Greenwood may be right: “It’s better we have drugs testing from the get-go, rather than our sport waits until there is actual speculation that drugs may be a problem in our sport.”  If we’re not going to test now, we ought at least to say why, and try to specify when we might start.


* Adam Campbell did point out, though, that the winners earned their places on the podium and that speculation about what might have happened had he not run off course is “pointless and unknowable.”

** None of this would really be possible without YouTube videos — without YouTube there wouldn’t be a single American who would know who Kilian Jornet was, let alone racers like Julien Chorier or races like Zegama-Aizkorri.