Tuesday, October 11, 2005

No Booty Shaking Allowed

In a fine article at Evangelical Outpost Joe Carter cites the Texas cheerleader "booty shaking" legislation to make the point that conservatism isn't really so much about small government as it is about healing sick societies. The heart of his post is this passage:

I believe this example provides an opportunity to clarify a misunderstanding about conservatives and our attitude toward legislating issues of morality and "taste." While resolving disputes over the locus of autonomy, responsibility, and sphere sovereignty of institutions is essential, conservatism isn't, as is commonly misperceived, about "small government."

When it comes to government, conservatives are admittedly somewhat clueless. Unlike libertarians, liberals, socialists, Marxists, and other advocates of utopian political philosophies, conservatism has no idea how to build a healthy social and political structure. We do know, however, how to recognize a sick one. Just as physicians define bodily health as the absence of sickness, conservatives view the absence of sickness as the primary gauge of the health of the body politic. Our political objective, therefore, is similar to that of medical doctors -- eliminating sickness.

The late media critic and educator Neil Postman used this same medical analogy in describing the proper role of teachers. In his essay "The Educationist as Painkiller", Postman proposes that educators don't try to make students intelligent, because we don't know how to do that, but instead try to cure stupidity in "some of the more obvious forms, such as either-or thinking; overgeneralization; inability to distinguish between facts and inferences; and reification, a disturbingly prevalent tendency to confuse words with things."

"Stupidity is a form of behavior," adds Postman, "It is not something we have; it is something we do." The presence of stupidity can therefore be reduced by changing behavior. As a guiding political philosophy, conservatism plays a similar role in society as Postman's paradigmatic teacher. Conservatives, in essence, prescribe procedures for avoiding moral stupidity.

His analysis of what it is conservatives seek to accomplish is interesting. It's true that, as a general rule, bloated governments are symptomatic of a sick society. Consider for example the great harm done to the poor in this country by addicting them to the vast welfare state that subsidized and perpetuated all manner of social dysfunction from the sixties to the nineties. It doesn't follow, however, that there should never be instances, e.g. disaster relief, conservation of historical sites or biologically significant lands, or homeland security, when government takes on a larger role in society. Nevertheless, it requires great care and discernment to assess where and in which way government should be granted power to grow and act, and the way is fraught with many perils.

Carter suggests that it may perhaps be counterproductive for conservatives to argue adamantly that government should be kept as small and unintrusive as it can be, consistent with its role in national defense. After all, conservatives want the government to be intrusive when it's a matter of regulating pornography or sleazy television programming. By what principle do we call on government to protect us from the assaults of the concupiscent juveniles who write television scripts but insist that government stay out of other areas of our lives?

So the question, especially in light of President Bush's exercise of "compassionate conservatism" and his indulgence of deficit spending, is whether conservatives should rethink their traditional view of government. Mr. Bush has certainly given us occasion to begin that reassessment.

The fear that people like me have in saying all this, though, is that once we allow our ideological tether to slacken we risk losing the security and consistency afforded by a well-anchored set of guiding principles. Even worse, we risk, heaven forbid, becoming moderates.

"Sexist" Conservatives

Laura Bush is a lovely woman, but she's not helping to soothe the rift between her husband and his staunchest supporters over the last few years by accusing those supporters of being sexist because of their opposition to Harriet Miers' candidacy for the Supreme Court:

First lady Laura Bush joined her husband in defending his nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday and said it was possible some critics were being sexist in their opposition to Harriet Miers.

"That's possible, I think that's possible," Mrs. Bush said when asked on NBC's "Today Show" whether criticism that Miers lacked intellectual heft were sexist in nature. She said Miers' accomplishments as a lawyer made her a role model to young women.

Mrs. Bush's statement was thoughtless. The critics of the Miers nomination are not opposed to having a woman on the court and indeed would love to see Priscilla Owen, Janice Brown, Edith Jones, or Alice Batchelder nominated. Their objection to Miers is rooted in the fact that she's an unknown at a time when there are at least a dozen exceptional candidates whose judicial philosophy and acumen have been demonstrated for all to see. The president has asked us to trust him, and conservatives want to do so, but they also want the best qualified people appointed to the court that Mr. Bush can find, and the White House has given us no reason to think that Ms Miers belongs on that list.

Unlike his conservative critics, perhaps, the president is not overly impressed by scholarly credentials. That is not to say that these are not important to him, but rather to say that they're not of primary importance. He's a man who places more weight on an individual's personal character and virtues and believes that Ms Miers' possession of such assests more than compensates for any shortage of judicial experience or expertise she might suffer. Unfortunately, assessments of character don't lend themselves to quantification and they strike many as vague and subjective, so the administration is unable to mount a compelling rationale for its selection. That's why Bush has to ask that we simply trust him.

The critics respond by noting that there are plenty of candidates out there from which the president could have chosen who have both character and an impressive paper trail, and they are dismayed that he declined to pick from that group. Nor are they shy about giving voice to their disappointment. Unlike the critics, though, we think it to no good purpose to be too critical of the president's nominee until the hearings.

If she's impressive the criticism will appear foolish, if she's a dud then there will be time to call for her defeat on the Senate floor - although defeating her will surely be an uphill battle. If she ultimately turns out to be David Souter in heels then conservatives may justly join with liberals in decrying George Bush's historical legacy and the magnificent opportunity he squandered despite his campaign assurances to the contrary.

See Captain's Quarters for some thoughtful analysis of Mrs. Bush's comments and the Miers nomination.

Niggardly Americans

According to an article in the Independent Online Pakistanis criticize the U.S. and Britain for a niggardly response to the disaster created by the recent earthquake:

Western governments rushed to step up their pledges for the earthquake relief effort after their initial response to the disaster was condemned as slow-moving and financially inadequate.

The United States, which was under pressure to increase a pledge of $500,000 (�280,000) considered almost derisory by many Pakistanis when it was made over the weekend, announced it intended to give $50m in emergency aid.

The gesture, intended to make up for the resentment caused by an initial pledge which, along with the British offering of �100,000, was labelled as "peanuts" by Qazi Hussain, the leader of the Pakistani opposition party Jamat Islami, was greeted as a major boost to the struggling relief effort.

This just shows what ingrates Americans are. After Pakistan rushed so much aid to our Gulf coast in the wake of Katrina you would think we'd be more forthcoming. Just because Pakistan looks the other way as hatred of America and Americans is offered up as regular fare in madrassas and mosques is no reason why we shouldn't have had relief supplies on the way even before the earthquake hit.

We should do what we can, of course, but it certainly diminshes one's desire to sacrifice for another when the other demands that you do it and then criticizes you for not doing it on his time schedule and not giving right away what he thinks you ought to give. We're tempted to say to such as Mr. Hussain that maybe he should just hit up his fellow Muslims for the relief his countrymen need. They're much more generous than Americans, and we're sure that they'll flood the country with all the help Mr. Hussain could ask for.