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Huh... didn't expect to see *this* in Pat Buchanan's Wikipedia entry:

"He is a 4th cousin twice removed from Marilyn Manson."

I guess it makes sense, though, I had heard Marilyn Manson's parents were religious fundamentalists.

I've been just devouring books and Wikipedia articles on politics lately. It appears to have become my latest perseveration topic.

Yesterday I read a whole lot of stuff on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That's such a huge one, I have come back to it many times, but there always seems to be more of the story to dig up.

A few months ago, I watched a BBC miniseries documentary called The Power of Nightmares, on the intersection of two different political movements, neo-conservatism and Islamism, and how despite being very similar in some ways they came to be mortal enemies, and jointly constructed many of the myths that helped fuel the War on Terror during the Bush administration. Actually, I think they go a little bit too far in it, saying even that Al Qaeda was a myth that both sides helped construct, and that no such organization ever really existed. It's true that they both exaggerated the scope and power of Al Qaeda as a threat to the Western world, and if you listen carefully to the details of what they claim, that's possibly all they really mean, however I feel like it is a bit dishonest to put it in such an extreme way like that. All told, it was the most interesting documentary I've ever watched, and should be required viewing for anyone who has something to say about the War on Terror. However, I'm suspicious as to the accuracy of some of the more extreme things they say in it and I do see it as one-sided and exaggerative.

Very similar to the feeling of The Power of Nightmares, I've just started reading a book by Noam Chomsky called Understanding Power. In some ways, he goes even further in his criticisms of US foreign policy, but in other ways I think he's a bit more careful with the facts. I have a similar reaction to him though--extremely interesting, and hard to dismiss, but surely he is exaggerating and a bit paranoid. I need to read more to be sure of that though. Some of the things he says (especially about the media) definitely have the feel of a conspiracy theory to me, although I can't actually pinpoint in what way it would count as a conspiracy theory, and he explicitly rejects most leftwing conspiracy theories, including for example JFK's assassination.

For fiction, I've started reading Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, something that I have meant to pick up for a long time but finally got around to it.

A couple weeks ago I finished listening to the Books-on-Tape version of Joe Klein's Politics Lost, which was nothing eye opening but it was a nice window into the game that politicians play, from a Washington Insider who was directly involved with a lot of the political strategists and pollsters for many years, and eventually quit after being asked to help with one too many attack ads. The main point of his book was to say that politicians should be more "human", taking more risks in what they say and voicing more of their own personal opinions instead of just sticking to the scripts of whatever their strategists determine will maximize their numbers in the polls or their chance of beating their opponent. I'm not sure I agree entirely with that point, though, for a couple reasons. Most of the examples he gives are like Sarah Palin using "You Betcha!" a lot (although this was written before that campaign so he doesn't use that one specifically). Judging by what he says, I think he would have loved her campaign--it was exactly the kind of thing he was calling for. Yes, it makes her seem more human and in Joe Klein's analysis that's what matters for getting votes more than your stance on the issues. But I'm not sure it really means the politician is more genuine. It seems like just another way of playing the game--at least for the strategist who would suggest a candidate who does things like that. And sometimes risky things are risky to say for a good reason... possibly because they are offensive to a lot of people. It's not always right to take risks, nor is it always the best strategy. On the one hand, he quit politics supposedly because it was too mechanical and too dirty, but on the other hand he seems to think he knows how to do it better, but I'm not sure he does.

After Politics Lost, this week I started a new Books on Tape. I'm almost halfway through John Bolton's "Surrender is Not an Option : Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad". I picked this one because I've been reading a lot of leftwing viewpoints lately, and I figured I should make sure I don't just drown in leftwing propaganda, in case the rightwing has something valid to say once in a while. Unfortunately, if this guy is representative of how the right thinks, I feel like they just don't have anything intelligent to say at all. But it's still interesting to me to listen to, because he was the US ambassador to the UN, as well as Undersecretary of State, involved in a lot of important negotiations with foreign countries and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, although fundamentally he seems like he's just a boneheaded "America, fuck yeah!" idiot. I keep thinking that somewhere in the book he's going to present some kind of argument for why what he did at one point or another was the right thing to do, but he never does... all he ever says is things like "so of course I thought what the liberal beurocrats wanted was stupid and would tie America's hands, so I opposed it." (that's not a direct quote, but that's basically the flavor of most of his dialogue. He narrates it himself, with a bit of a hick accent which makes it all the more funny.) The most disturbing part so far is when he brags about how the proudest moment of his career was when he was able to officially "unsign" the US's support for the International Criminal Court. He explains that the ICC was set up to be able to try individuals for Crimes Against Humanity, but his personal view is that such a thing might be awefully inconvenient for Americans leaders--so he retracted our previous support for it! And of course, this was just a few years before the War in Iraq started, when we started violating Geneva Conventions and torturing prisoners and stuff.

He then goes on to discuss his next big project, which was negotiating with Russia to weasel our way out of the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty we'd signed with them a long time ago, so that we could build a new missile defense system. This was just before 9/11 and it looked like nobody was going to let him do it, but then suddenly 9/11 happened and his dream came true, and the Russian military leaders said "ok, well I guess you can go ahead and start building you ABM system back up, since you have a pretty good excuse... we just need to figure out a way to convince our people that's a good thing, which they're kind of dead set against for some reason." If that hadn't happened, he was considering resorting to a strategy Donald Rumsfeld suggested to him, which was to just meet with the Russians and say "oh by the way, we weren't obeying the stupid treaty anyway, because we've already started building up our missile defenses secretly anyway, so it's null and void!! Now you can break it too... knock yourself out." I swear, listening to this guy, I see very little difference between him and Stephen Colbert, he's almost a self parody. I guess I should have known that, considering the title of his book was "Surrender is Not an Option". Only a true conservative would be proud of *not* considering all the options.

Bolton's book is entertaining and educational from a sheer "OMG I cannot believe they think that way" perspective, but I'm still hoping that somewhere out there, there is some conservative who has articulate views on politics that I can read. It's suprisingly hard to find. My best guess is maybe Christopher Hitchens. I'm not sure he counts as a conservative, supposedly being a fan of Che Guevera, but I did read an article by him criticizing Michael Moore's film Farenheit 9/11 that seemed well written, and he has been a pretty vocal supporter of the War on Terror and the War in Iraq. Other people I have in mind as possibilities are Max Boot and Thomas Sowell. I'm not sure Boot has actually written any books, maybe just articles. But I find it especially intriguing that he has encouraged other neocons to "come out of the closet on imperialism" and to reclaim the word imperialism as the positive word that he sees it as.

P.S. Oh, I almost forgot--I also watched that documentary called Astroturf Wars. Pretty disappointing though. The best part was the clip about American Majority that I already posted to my lj. If you're really bored, you might consider watching it. There are some humorous clips of tea partiers saying stupid things like "Obama is a radical Communist, he's worse than Hilter, he says he wants to destroy the world!" (that's an exact quote), but other than that it's really kind of a waste of time. They hardly make much of a case, and the case they do make is for something not all that surprising or disturbing--namely, that many rich Republicans have been funding tea party rallies.

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( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
easwaran
Nov. 8th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
It's interesting to think of neo-conservatism and Islamism as similar in some ways. I guess they're similar in that they bot believe that one form of social organization is optimal, and that it needs to be spread around the world, with force if necessary. But given that liberal democracy and theocracy are fundamentally opposed viewpoints, it's odd to think of them as similar.

As for Hitchens, he's probably best classified as a neo-con. I believe many if not most neo-cons (at least in the first generation of them) were Trotskyists, and definitely quite liberal in most ways, except when it comes to the means by which countries around the world should be converted to liberal democracy. Hitchens also just loves being contrarian - I think sometimes he chooses a position that contradicts positions he's held before, just to throw people off.
spoonless
Nov. 9th, 2010 01:06 am (UTC)

It's interesting to think of neo-conservatism and Islamism as similar in some ways. I guess they're similar in that they bot believe that one form of social organization is optimal, and that it needs to be spread around the world, with force if necessary. But given that liberal democracy and theocracy are fundamentally opposed viewpoints, it's odd to think of them as similar.

Right. Some things are similar while other things are obviously not. This documentary dwells on the similarities, but it also points out some differences. I would highly recommend giving it a view some time, despite the one-sidedness of it I do feel like I had a lot of "aha" moments where more of the context and history of both of those groups became clear.

I think the root of the similarity is that they both originated as reactions to multiculturalism. The views of the neoconservatives seem more sophisticated, but the basic worry that both of them had was that people in their society were starting to lose faith in the traditional ideals and values of their culture and wander off into muddy waters where right and wrong turn into more gray than black and white, and truth is culturally relative instead of simple, objective, and absolute.

As described in the documentary, assuming they aren't misrepresenting it, the main thrust of neoconservativism was a frustration with the relativism that liberal thought had led to. The solution to relativism and postmodernism, according to early neoconservative intellectuals like Leo Strauss, was to create powerful and inspiring myths that would unite the nation together in solidarity and give them a common purpose. The main "myth" that resurfaces a lot in the documentary is the idea that America is a unique nation, destined to fight evil and banish it for good from the world. This supposedly was intentionally constructed by the neocons to help people feel solidarity and have more of a purpose in their lives (along with, of course, a return to traditional religious myths, although to a lesser extent than the Islamists preferred). It goes over how in order to keep the myth going, they needed an enemy, and at first the Soviet Union served the purpose, but once it fell they had to search around for a new one to fill the role. Meanwhile, the Islamists had also focused their efforts on fighting the Soviet Union, and when it fell, they also had to find a new enemy to fight. So they were both looking for the same thing, and found each other. And adding to the similarity, they both claimed that they were the ones responsible for toppling the Soviet Union to further their cause (because they both fought them in Afghanistan together), and both insisted that the other one had nothing to do with it. The film points out that in reality, neither of them had much to do with it, the Soviet empire crumbled mostly because it was falling apart economically from within.

(I've noticed on the Wikipedia page, after viewing it, that some neocons have criticized the film for its emphasis on Strauss, saying he wasn't the main founder of neoconservativism just one of many thinkers who inspired it.)

(continued...)
easwaran
Nov. 9th, 2010 02:12 am (UTC)
Interesting to see the relation to the USSR as a supposed connection between the two groups, though I don't know how much of an embellishment it is.
easwaran
Nov. 9th, 2010 02:15 am (UTC)
Also, interesting to see the relation to relativism and multiculturalism. One interesting strain I see in the current political right (in particular, the Sarah Palin/Christine O'Donnell element of it) is their extreme embrace of relativism and multiculturalism. For instance, they think that parents should be allowed to decide what their own kids believe, so they can take them out of sex ed class or whatever if they think it's inappropriate. Also, they think that elites shouldn't be allowed to decide what scientific facts are true or not, and that representing one's own beliefs is more important than trusting authorities.
spoonless
Nov. 9th, 2010 03:06 am (UTC)
Hmmm... that's very interesting to me, I had not noticed that aspect of the current extreme right (relativism) but I can kind of see what you mean. I'm not sure I agree though I'll have to think about that.

I think there are a number of issues that the far right and the far left agree on. I've been reading a book by Chomsky, as well as watching a documentary on him (that I forgot to mention in my post) called Manufacturing Consent. Especially in the documentary, he sounds very similar to a lot of the people I've heard on the far right. Only every now and then when he brings up complaints about capitalism do you suddenly realize he's not a far rightwinger.

So it sounds somewhat plausible that maybe on the far right and the far left you have a certain kind of relativism, and among moderates (liberals or neoconservatives, basically the Republicans and Democrats who are the most "washington insiders" rather than grassroots folks) objectivity is praised more. And it makes sense that if your views are extreme and out of synch with what most of society believes, you'd go for some kind of relativism.

But I'm still a bit skeptical that people like Sarah Palin are really relativists. I think you might have to separate out moral truths from ontological truths here. Maybe what the far right believes is that your values and moral convictions are more important than facts about the world, and as long as you believe in some set of truths about the world that does a good job of backing up your moral convictions (which are absolute and somehow handed down by God) then you're justified. The mainstream looks at it in reverse, where you get your values in part through your understanding of the world which is more primary.

When religious fundamentalists talk about "faith" I think part of what they mean is that you have a choice in whether to believe in religion, and the right choice is to take the leap and believe. This would indicate some kind of relativism. But on the other hand, they also claim to believe in absolute truth, of divine origin. I'm going to have to think a lot more to know for sure how to fit these together. One possibility is that they have just never thought it out well enough to be consistent.

Edited at 2010-11-09 03:10 am (UTC)
easwaran
Nov. 9th, 2010 03:25 am (UTC)
I don't think that Chomsky is any fan of relativism. At least in the televised Chomsky-Foucault debates, Chomsky is definitely defending objectivity while Foucault is pushing a sort of relativism based on power structures. Or at least, that's what I recall from watching part of it a while ago. (As a side note, I think it's amazing that those debates happened and were televised! I'm glad that YouTube exists so we can see it now.)

I think that relativism and realism exist in varying forms in all parts of the political spectrum. Many moderates embrace some form of relativism too, as in the conventional journalistic formula that says that for every issue, both sides deserve to be covered, and neither side deserves to be endorsed. A realist would say that for some issues, one side clearly does deserve to be endorsed, and that for many other issues, there are far more than two sides. You also get a sort of relativism in the moderate ecumenical view that "all religions are equal roads to the truth", which really doesn't make much sense at all, unless you read "truth" in some very non-literal way.
spoonless
Nov. 9th, 2010 04:17 am (UTC)
Oh, awesome. Chomsky's part of that clip (without Foucault) is in Manufacturing Consent, the movie I'm about to watch the second half of tonight. I had no idea it was part of a debate with Foucault!

Any idea what they were debating? They way I view it, the only thing they really disagree on in that clip, is that Chomsky thinks he knows what the ideal utopian form of government should be whereas Foucault is more humble and admits he doesn't. I see it as two different kinds of foolishness though.

While I don't know a huge amount about anarcho-syndicalism, the basic idea has always seemed pretty silly to me, something that would involve too much of a power vacuum and result in some kind of oppressive force taking over, whether it be an internal beurocrat, a charismatic union member, or a foreign power. It's always struck me as funny that anarcho capitalists and anarcho-syndicalists both think the right solution is to abolish government, but they both have very different ideas about what would rise up in its place. And I've always thought the anarcho capitalists were more reality-based in thinking that corporations would be what would very naturally take the place of government if it went away. (of course, in the end either one corporation or a small oligopoly would effectively win the battle for power and become no different from a government anyway, so the anarcho capitalists are also foolish.)

Foucault on the other hand, also seems foolish... for saying let's attack everything and propose nothing as an alternative. But it's a lesser foolishness than the rest I think, at least more honest.

You're probably right about every side having a different mixture here and there. Incidentally, when I mentioned Chomsky it was because there were a lot of other similarities between him and the far right I noticed, not relativism in particular. I hadn't thought about that in particular... I guess I would have expected that there were some of the far left (Marxist-Leninists in particular) who would be more objectivist (perhaps why it is so easy for them to transition to being neocons?) while left-anarchists would be more subjectivist.
spoonless
Nov. 9th, 2010 03:34 am (UTC)
Ah, I just had an insight on how to understand the far right with respect to relativism.

I think you're right that they do believe in relativism and that's something I hadn't really appreciated before. I think the reason it seems paradoxical is that it's easy to confuse absolute truth with objective truth (at least it is for me, maybe not for a philosopher) since they are sometimes used interchangeably in ordinary speech.

I think what the far right believes in is absolute subjective truth. (And perhaps also the far left.) Then maybe neoconservatives believe in absolute truth that's a bit more objective, liberals and believe in non-absolute truth but are more moderate as to whether truth is objective or subjective... and the far left believes in non-absolute fully subjective truth.

Actually, I don't quite like these categories now that I've written them out... I think the remaining problem is that here I'm ignoring the distinction between ontological truth and moral truth. For example, I think libertarians would tend to be on the far subjectivist side regarding moral truth, but more on the objectivist side about ontological truth... whereas leftists would be on the subjectivist side about both.
spoonless
Nov. 9th, 2010 04:27 am (UTC)
Oh, one more thing about the relativism of the right.

I said I hadn't noticed that before, but there was one time where I really noticed it big time, and it took me by surpise. It was when Bill O Reiley had Richard Dawkins on his show, and Dawkins gave him his usual spiel about how religion was stupid and not consistent with science. O Reiley's response shocked me... he said something like... he didn't think science could prove or disprove whether Jesus died for his sins, so therefore he was free to believe that he did. And when Dawkins said he didn't think that was true, O Reiley said "well, it's true for me, it may not be true for you." And then Dawkins said that was ridiculous, and that facts couldn't be true for one person and not true for another. =)

So it seems there really is a current there about relativism.

Edited at 2010-11-09 04:30 am (UTC)
spoonless
Nov. 9th, 2010 01:06 am (UTC)
Another similarity the film draws on, which is probably weaker than the rest, is that--according to the film, the Islamists viewed themselves as the avante guard, a sort of intellectual elite. They thought they could see the truth, while the masses were blind and lacking purpose or values. Only through their help could they be guided towards a purposeful life that had meaning. The Islamists thought that the main truth that the masses didn't see was they were too enthralled with the material world, which was an illusion. In the case of the neoconservatives, at least at first, they were perhaps less insistent that they actually *knew* the truth (in the case of religious stuff) and more saw it as a useful fiction to give the masses. However, as time went on, many neoconservatives got confused and began to believe their own myths more literally. (Or perhaps it was new generations coming in, not realizing how they got started.) So at least in the case of some neocons, they actually started to agree that part of the problem with liberalism is that there was too much focus on the material world. Personally, I think it might be better to separate out the original neoconservatives from regular conservatives that just get swept into the neoconservative circles and end up believing many of the same things, but perhaps more literally.

For example, this guy John Bolton, whose book I'm currently making my way through, has many beliefs in line with neoconservativism (such as being moderate on social issues but wanting to vastly expand the military and use it for good in the world), but it's clear that at heart he is really just a regular conservative who met a lot of neocons who gave him more justifications for the intuitions he already had. He worked on Barry Goldwater's campaign when he was in high school, and his parents were traditional conservatives (his father was a firefighter, and he was the first generation to graduate college). He mentions that many of his friends "drifted off to the left" while he was in college at Yale, but he held on to his values. He also mentions how angry and embarassed he was that Yale had invited a bunch of liberal antiwar activists to speak at his graduation, and he was going to have to bring his nice conservative parents there and they would have to listen to their nonsense.
easwaran
Nov. 9th, 2010 02:11 am (UTC)
That's an interesting way to read Islamism as similar to Strauss. I've heard criticisms of Strauss' readings of Plato, where he argues that there is some sort of outer message as well as an esoteric message that only the elite can recognize, and the thought that modern elites should treat the political body the same way. Of course, I've only heard this caricature from Brian Leiter's blog, and he clearly hates Strauss, so I don't know how accurate it is. At any rate, it certainly goes against some aspect of the love for democracy that neo-cons are supposed to have.
spoonless
Nov. 9th, 2010 02:46 am (UTC)
Personally, from what I have read both of what neocons say and of what their critics say, I've never really bought that neocons love democracy.

I think they love free market capitalism, and that's what they are interested in spreading. And they like to use the word "democracy" as a euphemism for it because it sounds a bit better.

They seem to hate democracy when it comes to things like the UN. They'd rather have the US dictate all the terms and have every other country just obey, instead of being subject to the whims of the masses. Similarly, whenever it has come to a conflict between a democratically elected socialist and a more authoritarian capitalist, they've sided with the capitalist. Jeanne Kirkpatrick made this more explicit with the Kirkpatrick doctrine, in arguing that it was worth supporting authoritarian dictators as long as you could avoid Communists taking over. (Of course, she did justify it by also arguing that Communists tend towards totalitarianism which is a more extreme form of authoritarinism.)
easwaran
Nov. 9th, 2010 02:55 am (UTC)
Of course, I think some of this (or at least the rhetoric behind it) is that nations can be democratic, and part of respecting the will of the people involves giving states full sovereignty. International bodies like the UN almost by definition are non-democratic, because they have no mechanism for establishing representation of people living in non-democratic nations. At least philosophically, it seems that neo-cons should be happy with a one-world government, provided that it has proper liberal guarantees of fundamental rights, and proper representational procedures at all levels. (By contrast, many libertarians could never be happy with such a situation, because they think there is a fundamental right to leave the state you live in if you'd rather live under different rules.)

Of course, the Kirkpatrick doctrine goes against some of this love for democracy. Perhaps the idea is that any of these sorts of electoral results aren't "really" democratic, and instead represent people voting their fears, or for populist ploys, rather than their real interests? Of course, once you start pushing that idea (which I'm broadly quite sympathetic to, though probably not in the same situations they care about) the notion of democracy becomes much less clear.
spoonless
Nov. 9th, 2010 03:17 am (UTC)

Perhaps the idea is that any of these sorts of electoral results aren't "really" democratic, and instead represent people voting their fears, or for populist ploys, rather than their real interests? Of course, once you start pushing that idea (which I'm broadly quite sympathetic to, though probably not in the same situations they care about) the notion of democracy becomes much less clear.

I think what someone like Chomsky (or the producers of The Power of Nightmares documentary) would say is the exact opposite of what you're saying here. Neoconservatives are only in favor of democracy as long as the people are voting for their fears and fed various fictions by the elites in order to ensure they vote the right way. If it came to a situation where people *really* had a choice, they would not support it. Of course that's the most cynical way of viewing it, and probably no neoconservative would agree with that way of saying it.
easwaran
Nov. 9th, 2010 03:25 am (UTC)
Good point!
spoonless
Nov. 9th, 2010 02:36 am (UTC)
Christopher Hitchens has got to be one of the most pompous bastards alive:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6d7fHvHXeiQ

But it sure is fun to see him get waterboarded:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=icxz3LuvHVM

I have to give him props for going through that, and for being honest about it afterwards... it sounds like it sort of changed his mind on the issue.
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