Sep 102013

It’s downright unfashionable to have to be rescued. But is it wrong?

Mountain and wilderness people of all sorts — including climbers, backpackers, trail runners, hunters, skiers, photographers — are almost universally proud of their self-sufficiency in the backcountry. They’re used to talking about risks from weather, getting lost, falls, avalanches, wild animals, lightning. They’re familiar with all kinds of traditional and exotic gear and methods designed to minimize these risks. They sometimes sneer (I have, and I’m far from an expert mountaineer) at the casual tourists who set out each summer from roadside trailheads in jeans and hoodies, a bottle of Coke and a pack of cigarettes, thinking that it will take them only about an hour to climb that mountain that looks so close, but who quickly become dehydrated, get caught in a thunderstorm, become hypothermic, get lost, and need to be rescued. “We,” these mountain people think, “aren’t even close to being that stupid.”

And yet, even expert mountain people occasionally get in over their heads and need to be rescued. If these experienced people are smart, they’ll swallow their pride and embarrassment and call for assistance. That’s what Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg just did while climbing the Aiguille du Midi last Saturday.

Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg (photo:

Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg (photo:

Jornet and Forsberg apparently got stuck on the Frendo Spur in running shoes when the weather worsened and decided to request assistance from the Chamonix mountain rescue team, the PGHM Chamonix Mont-Blanc. From reading various accounts of the event, it appears that they decided that further climbing was unsafe once they had unexpected delays in the ascent and the weather got worse. By all accounts I’ve seen, the rescue was done safely and professionally. Emelie Forsberg describes events like this:

Kilian and I went out climbing on Frendo Saturday morning. We had checked the weather, checked the route and we had in our mind that we could do the epron pretty fast. We estimated the time with the experience we had before. We know that we can move pretty fast in that kind of terrain.
We went climbing in a good pace. And when we reached the icy ridge we had only been out for a few hours. I thought to myself that woooha this must go really wrong if we don´t make it up there before 5 pm.
After the icepart we decided to go more in the rocks instead of the most common way up that was on the steep ice. That was in our plan the whole way, because we didn´t bring the proper gear for the ice. And that we knew before we started.

On the rock, I started to became a bit stressed. I was finding a way up that was a bit loose and I also didn´t have the best feelings after the icepart where I hurted my foot.
We took time climbing up, rappelling down, trying to find another way and so on we did for a while.
I became so cold and I couldn´t focus my thought very well. I was stressed and felt captured. We started to talk about possibilities. Rappelling down or try to do the last part even if we didn´t know if we could reach the summit that way or the last way out; call the rescue.

Kilian Jornet says this about their rescue:

On September 7th, I had planned a mountain route on the north face of the Aiguille du Midi (France), the so-called Frendo spur. This was a route that I had already done twice before on my own with only the minimum of material. I do this type of outings frequently, alone or accompanied, as they are both the basis of my training and of my free time.

I was accompanied by Emelie Forsberg and we were both equipped with light materials (short sports leggings, fine down jackets and trainers). We set off at dawn from Plan d’Aiguille, at 8:30 am to be precise, planning to return some 4 hours later, which was the time we estimated the journey would take. We had checked the weather forecast the day before, which announced bad weather as of 5 pm, and we both carried rock climbing materials (a set of friends, climbing chocks, 60m of rope …) and also ice climbing equipment (2 ice axes each, technical crampons and ice screws).

We started off at a good pace along the route, and at 9 am we started to climb roped together. At 12 we were about an hour from the summit. There, on the last stretch of the climb, we took a wrong turn and when we realized what had happened, we abseiled down to get back on the right path, losing about 3-4 hours. About 50m from the summit, my companion had a problem, and it was at that moment that we decided to call the PGHM (high mountain rescue team), aware that the weather would worsen in an hour’s time. We decided to make that call so as not to take a greater risk. At that altitude, it was me who had more experience and so I was responsible for the safety of my fellow climber. We were not exposed to serious risks because we were roped together and had the chance to abseil down if rescuers had been unable to reach us.

The rescue team told us that, due to the weather, a helicopter could not be used, and they would reach us on foot taking the Aiguille du Midi cable car and then abseiling down the 50m that separated them from the top of the Aiguille. It took 4h for the team to arrive at the scene after the call was made. From there, in a very professional and secure way, we were taken to the top of the Aiguille, from where the cable car took us down to Chamonix. We didn’t suffer any injuries or major consequences, apart from suffering a bit from the cold.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the mountain rescue teams for their work, which is always so professional and efficient.

This is a warning that the mountain is a hard and dangerous place, even when precautions are taken. One must be humble in the mountains, because a high price can be paid for our failures, especially when travelling light. We must accept and be aware of the risks that we are prepared to take individually and with the people who accompany us, depending on our physical and technical skill and also our experience.

As is usual when a rescue like this takes place, there’s been criticism of Jornet and Forsberg’s decisions. In retrospect, there were plenty of things the pair could have done differently to avoid the predicament they found themselves in. Most of the criticism has been aimed at their choice of gear — running shoes and light clothing. The most aggressive of the critics implicitly or explicitly accuse Jornet and Forsberg of moral malfeasance, of selfishly choosing to take risks that, once things went bad, put their rescuers in danger and imposed costs on the public. Commenting on Emelie Forsberg’s blog, Alex Fernandez writes:

I have deep respect for what you do, you and Kilian. Very inspirational. BUT the main question here is : where ends everyone’s passion and wishes ? Wanna move fast & light in moutains ? Being rescued has a price. You put the PGHM guy’s life at risk, just because you wanna move light and fast, and moreover, at the expense of every french resident. We don’t have to pay the bills for your passion.

There is something to this argument. Where does the freedom to choose our path in the mountains butt up against the imperative not to burden others tasked with rescuing us from mistakes and misfortune? What costs, what risks, should we incur to support the passions of climbers like Jornet and Forsberg? In a perfectly-realized libertarian world, none. Ideally, we each would face the consequences of our own choices in the mountains alone. We would never call for rescue, realizing that this would be imposing risk and cost upon the rescuers. As a close second-best alternative, if we did request a rescue, we would reimburse the rescue group after the fact for the costs they incurred while rescuing us.

I’m sympathetic to this argument, but it does have limits. First of all, it’s not always clear what counts as a “mistake” in the mountains. What looks a priori like a reasonable decision will become, a posteriori, an obvious mistake if things go bad and you need to be rescued. In retrospect, every person that needs to be rescued did something (or failed to do something) that would have prevented their need for rescue. In this sense, the fact of being rescued inevitably reveals a mistake. But, a priori, most people make decisions about risk that look reasonable. They anticipate the weather as best they can. They plan their route as best they can. They account for dangers and risks as well as they can. But it is a fact about traveling in the mountains that all risk cannot be eliminated. And protecting against some risks often increases your exposure to other risks. A classic example is the tradeoff between “light and fast” vs “heavy and slow.” If you take less gear, you gain safety because you can travel faster, and every mountaineer knows that safety is often found in speed — get where you’re going before the weather changes. But of course, if you get caught out in deteriorating conditions, you’ll be in more danger if you don’t have a lot of gear to keep you warm or finish your climb.

The Frendo Spur (photo:

The Frendo Spur (photo:

Secondly, the suggestion that every rescue unjustly burdens the rescue service or imposes unfair risks upon rescuers just isn’t true. Every professional rescuer, such as those with the PGHM Chamonix Mont-Blanc, willingly chooses to join the team and to respond to calls for assistance. Many of these professionals derive immense satisfaction from using their considerable technical skill to rescue people. That’s why they volunteer or are hired for these services. No one forces them to do it. They understand, as every mountaineer does, that if people travel in the mountains, people will require assistance in the mountains. There is nothing unforseen about the risks these rescuers are taking.

And the costs that the rescue group or general public incur for these rescues are the foreseeable other side of the coin of the benefits these people obtain by encouraging  people to travel in the nearby mountains. The village of Chamonix, for example, derives immense economic benefit from their location at the foot of Mont Blanc, precisely because it’s such a good spot for mountain enthusiasts from around the world to visit, spend time and money in the local hotels and restaurants, between excursions into the mountains where risk is unavoidable. Chamonix is so popular precisely because of people like Jornet and Forsberg who, daily, are making journeys into the mountains and exposing themselves to the risks that go along with this. In fact, the notoriety and fame of Chamonix is disproportionately augmented by the bold and risky exploits of world-class runners and climbers who draw press coverage for their exploits, more so than the average tourist who rides to the top of the Aiguille du Midi in the telepherique.

It’s not a bad idea, of course, for rescuees to give back to the mountain rescue groups that help them. But it’s a tougher case to make that this should be required by law or by morality. There are cases where people show bad judgment when calling for a rescue. If you go hiking in the Grand Canyon and get thirsty, it’s not reasonable to call for a helicopter to fix the problem. But these stories are rare — most people of all experience levels try to be self-sufficient and to minimize risk. If you are human, and you go into the mountains, you will eventually need to ask for some help. It’s not a moral failing.

Sep 072013

Malcolm Gladwell continues to argue against the ban on performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in elite athletic competition. Since he is such an intelligent person and such a good writer, he should be held to a much higher standard than he’s managed to meet so far.

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

One of the problems with Gladwell’s New Yorker article questioning the ban on doping in sports was how vague it was. He strongly hinted that he was in favor of legalizing performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) but chose not to say so directly. Fortunately, he has removed all doubt about his position in a follow-up interview.

In the interview, we learn that Gladwell is in favor of “bringing PEDs in out of the cold” by “liberalizing” the rules against PED use. He supports legalizing and then regulating PEDs according to “medically appropriate principles.” He is also in favor of bringing “total transparency” to elite-level competitive sports by instituting “complete bio-passports for everyone” documenting the PEDs each athlete is taking and what the effects have been on, for example, their hematocrit levels.  According to Gladwell, his proposals will help to remedy the terrible unfairness that exists now, where athletes born with unfavorable genetic characteristics are not allowed to use all of the miracles of modern pharmaceutical science to remedy the disadvantages they face when competing against others with natural genetic gifts.

But won’t the average athlete then feel pressured to dope? asks the perceptive and probing interviewer. “I would never imagine that [PED use] would spread to weekend warriors,” replies Gladwell. Practically begged by the interviewer to acknowledge that critics of Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong are correct to condemn these athletes as “cheaters” who willfully flouted the rules against doping, even though those rules might not seem rational to him, Gladwell declines to do so. He prefers instead to call A-Rod a “rebel.” At the end of the interview, Gladwell plays the “that’s-just-the-way-it-is” card, suggesting that our current ban against PEDs is equivalent to pretending that we still live in the nineteenth century.

Does Gladwell imagine that this last barb will sting? If so, he’s mistaken. His entire position is nonsensical at best and for me at least, aesthetically (athletically?) ugly. Some of his critics have suggested that Gladwell’s value system is “messed up,” but that’s actually just fine. His logic is a complete mess.

Item 1: Imagine that we do what Gladwell suggests and legalize all “safe” forms of doping, regulating it according to “medically appropriate principles.” We collect and publish biopassports on all elite athletes, including whatever measurable physiological parameters Gladwell wants to include — hematocrit, VO2 max, lactate threshold, length of Achilles tendons — whatever. What will have changed? There will still be regulations prohibiting “unsafe” PED use that doesn’t adhere to “medically appropriate principles,” and these regulations will need to be policed. There will still be “rebel” athletes like Armstrong and A-Rod who will disagree with where the line has been drawn, and take it upon themselves to surreptitiously cross the line without admitting it. (Will Gladwell then be willing to call these athletes “cheaters”?) There will continue to be technological innovations that allow athletes to artificially increase some parameter that isn’t measured by the biopassports of the time. I can think of several plausible scenarios off the top of my head. How about glycogen storage? Will we measure that in the biopassport, and can we feasibly measure it? What about lung function? What about when a lab comes up with a pill that allows athletes to do the mental things that Gladwell recognizes are so important for elite athletic success but are nevertheless functions of genetic inheritance that Gladwell finds so unfair? Will we (can we?) assign athletes a “willpower” number, a “concentration” number, a “smile all night and focus on your own race a-la Rory Bosio” number for their biopassports? What should we do about the innate intelligence that allows athletes to strategize during a match, to learn from past competitions, and to outthink opponents? What if there were a pill that allowed all of us to become, like Rafael Nadal, the “Leonardo da Vinci of tennis“?

My point is that since Gladwell is still willing to say that he’d draw a line between permitted and forbidden PEDs, the regime that he advocates won’t be any different for the things that mattter to Gladwell than the one that exists now. Natural differences will still exist and will still make competitions “unfair.” If Gladwell imagines that technology can level the natural differences that make up the “great menagerie” and which prevent athletics from being a “contest among equals,” he’s going to have to go a lot further than allowing PEDs. Surgery for everyone to make their calves the same length. Frequent, documented VO2 max testing for all athletes. To imagine trying to eliminate natural differences between athletes is to reject it as impossible. The simple difficulty of distinguishing between differences arising from factors that Gladwell presumably can tolerate (better training, more willpower) from differences that are randomly assigned by genetic luck is enormous and will resist Gladwell’s liberalized PED-with-biopassport system. And so long as there are prohibitions, there will be athletes like Armstrong and A-Rod who will lie and cheat to get around them. These athletes will be “rebels” against Gladwell’s regime of rules, too, but at what point will Gladwell be willing to condemn them as cheaters?

Gladwell’s athletic PED-driven utopia will remain a fantasy. So the practical issue that requires debate is: Gladwell thinks the place where the line between permitted and forbidden athletic augmentation is currently drawn, isn’t drawn in the right place. He wants to draw one someplace else in order to permit more PEDs. But is he persuasive about the need to do this? No he isn’t.

Item 2: If Gladwell has an irrationally rosy view of what PEDs can do to eliminate natural differences between athletes, he has an equally rosy view about the consequences of liberalization for non-elite athletes. As a non-elite athlete myself, I can speak from personal experience that so much of athletic culture arises out of attempts of weekend warriors to emulate the elites. I’ll spend $170 for a pair of Salomon S-Lab Sense trail running shoes because that’s the shoe that Kilian Jornet wears! And Salomon knows this; their enormous budget for athlete sponsorship depends on this being true. Whatever your sport of choice, you don’t have to think for more than a second to know that this is true. Tennis? You want Rafael Nadal’s racket. Cycling? If you could drop five figures in cash for one of the bikes Mark Cavendish uses, you’d do it. We already rush out to the store to buy Udo’s Oil because our favorite runner is adding it to their cottage cheese — if that runner was publicly adding microdoses of epo, only the financial burdens would keep the weekend warriors from using it, too. And anyone who’s seen some fat corporate lawyer pedaling along Lake Michigan in Chicago on a Saturday with his corpulent self perched upon the same bike model Chris Froome rode up the Alpe d’Huez will realize that this financial barrier doesn’t apply to all weekend warriors. Would it really matter if everyday schlubs were taking epo? Maybe, maybe not, but Gladwell is prosaically wrong when he says that they won’t.

Item 3: The safety of PEDs isn’t a binary thing, such that one set of PED regimens are safe, and another set are unsafe. Gladwell imagines that we should permit “safe” PED use, but how do we identify which uses are safe? There are no clearly agreed-upon “medically appropriate principles” that separate reasonable, prudent use of PEDs from unreasonable and imprudent. Like all drugs, the magnitude of the risks from PEDs exist on a spectrum, and the point at which anyone draws a line between “safe” and “unsafe”, “medically appropriate” and not, is always going to be somewhat arbitrary. Gladwell in his interview mentions the current UCI cutoff for a rider’s hematocrit level in cycling – 50%. There is a limit because in the recent past riders have died after their blood sludged in their vessels and stopped flowing because their hematocrits were so high. So the UCI drew an arbitrary line at 50% hematocrit and declared that riders would not be permitted to race if their hematocrit was higher than this. That doesn’t mean that a 50% hematocrit is “safe” while 51% is “unsafe.” 50% is safer than 51%. It is more dangerous than 49%. The safety and risk profile of elevated hematocrit levels is gradually sloping, not binary. The UCI’s limit is, inevitably, an arbitrary one. Perhaps it’s appropriate and perhaps not, but it is arbitrary, and reasonable people will disagree about where to draw the line. If Gladwell is unsatisfied with the current limits, he can’t just say “increase the limit until it becomes unsafe.” He’s got to make the more difficult argument that the inevitable loss of safety he’s proposing will be worth it. He hasn’t made this argument.

Item 4: “Fairness” in sports isn’t the kind of “fairness” that Gladwell says he wants. Gladwell’s use of the word “fair” when applied to sports is very odd. To say that a sporting competition is “fair” usually means that all of the competitors are required to play by the same rules. That they all know what those rules are and that they all abide by them. Gladwell, by contrast, thinks that natural differences in athletic ability between athletes renders the competition “unfair.” This is true in a simplistic sense, and we already do a good job of correcting for this. Sumo wrestling contests between 350-lb men and 35-lb girls are “unfair” in this sense. It is “unfair” to expect a 50-year-old runner to outsprint Usain Bolt over 100 meters. We have age-group awards in marathons because we understand that our athletic ability waxes and wanes over the course of our lives, naturally. We have weight classes in boxing to ensure that fighters with roughly equal physical attributes fight each other. But we don’t prohibit on grounds of “unfairness” someone with a naturally low percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers in their legs from sprinting against Usain Bolt. We’re prepared to say, simply, that this guy just isn’t as good a sprinter as Bolt is, not that Bolt wins “unfairly.”

Our common understanding of what “fair” competition means makes sense. Lance Armstrong was the perpetrator of “unfair” competition when he chose to race the Tour de France using dope. He was not the victim of unfairness because his un-doped hematocrit may have been less than Jan Ullrich’s or Iban Mayo’s.

Gladwell is in a tiny minority of people who evidently derive no pleasure from seeing naturally-gifted athletes demonstrate their natural advantages in competitions against other gifted athletes. It’s a beautiful thing to watch Usain Bolt run precisely because of his natural gifts of speed, which Bolt has augmented to the maximum possible level with training. When I watch Bolt sprint, I’m not rueing how unfair it is that some other sprinter wasn’t born with the same combination of fast-twich muscle fibers, oxygen-utilizing capacity, leg shape, and lung size of Usain Bolt. I feel sad for Malcolm Gladwell that he, apparently, fails to see beauty in Bolt’s running, and sees unfairness instead.

Item 5: Seriously Mr. Gladwell, the nineteenth century? This is the kind of rhetorical device that makes me cringe, and someone with the intelligence and insight of Malcolm Gladwell shouldn’t stoop to using it. Obviously, it’s untrue. Because we prohibit some technologies that improve athletic performance and prohibit others, does not mean we’re somehow anti-technology in general, or that we prefer to live in the past. Even Malcolm Gladwell, presumably, would retain some limits on PED use, and not allow athletes to use any and every technology to help them win, but that doesn’t mean Gladwell is some kind of Luddite. Obviously, neither are Gladwell’s critics who would like to retain the current bans on PEDs in sports.

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

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.

Nov 072012

I’d like to vote for a Republican

Since everyone else is giving the Republicans advice today, it probably won’t hurt to add my two cents.

First, note that I have never voted for a Republican in a statewide or national election.  So you might want to discount my advice as coming from someone who is unlikely to vote Republican in the future.  That would be fair.

But note also that I am not a reliable Democratic voter.  I voted for Ross Perot in 1992.  I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000.  And I did not vote for Obama in 2012.  I’ve never particularly thought of myself as a Democrat, and I always thought it would be great to be able to vote for a Republican.  But I never have.

Why?  Ever since I’ve been politically aware, the Republican party has been the party of:

Anti-intellectualism.  If you have been a science-denying, bury-your-head-in-the-sand, magical-thinking kind of candidate, since at least the early ’80s when I became politically aware, you have been a Republican.  We saw it most clearly this time around in the “skewed-poll” kooks and the troglodyte (that word is so appropriate) “legitimate-rape” Senate candidates, but in the past this anti-intellectualism has manifested itself as climate-change denial and advocacy of “prayer-based” solutions to practical policy problems.  On the left, there are a few chakra, aura, and seance types mulling around, but they don’t have any influence in the Democratic Party on a state or national level.

Racism.  Ever since Nixon’s southern strategy, endorsed and exploited by Republican icon Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party has been the party of choice for America’s white racists.  Why?  Tacit acceptance of racist candidates.  Standing idly by while entertainers like Rush Limbaugh fire up the “base” with racist drivel.  Sure, there are racists who don’t vote Republican, chiefly non-white racists, and non-Republican candidates who pander to them, but on balance, most of the time, if you’ve wanted to cast a vote against racism since the time of Nixon, you’ve voted against the Republicans.  To this day, the Republican Party is the less vigorous of the two major parties in opposing racism.

Anti-environmentalism.  Nothing about conservatism as a political philosophy obligates conservatives to be anti-environmentalists.  The Republican Party has nevertheless been reliably and implacably anti-environmentalist since at least the Reagan administration.  I think this stems from the party’s deep opposition to “regulation”, which, itself, is another reason the Republicans have never been able to win my vote.  Regardless of the motivation, I’ll not vote for an anti-environmentalist candidate, and this has meant that I haven’t been able to vote Republican even once during my lifetime.

So my advice to the Republicans: you don’t have to abandon conservatism.  You should, however, think about denouncing anti-intellectualism, anti-environmentalism, and racism.  I would be happy to vote for your candidates if you’d take those three steps.

UPDATE: John Scalzi gives his advice here.  I agree, especially with the telling to fuck off of Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist.