Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

I learned of a new author, Andrew Alexander, the same year he died. I came across him because of a book he wrote on the Cold War, America and the Imperialism of Ignorance: How America Won the War and Lost the Peace – US Foreign Policy Since 1945. I’ll add that book to my reading list for all Americans, even if Oprah doesn’t include it in her book club list.

Alexander was highly critical of Cold War policies and propaganda (and its continuing influence), having seen it as some combination of ignorance and delusion. But he was no radical activist, academic revisionist, or dogmatic ideologue trying to defend left-wing politics. Besides being a respectable editor, journalist and columnist for The Daily Mail, he was a Tory conservative (and once a Conservative candidate), Thatcher neoliberal, right-wing British patriot, and hardline anti-communist. As Simon Jenkins at the Guardian puts it, “No one could possibly call him leftwing, let alone a pacifist appeaser. He has no illusions about the evil of Stalin or Mao, any more than he has about Saddam and al-Qaida.” David Duff, in an Al Aribaya News article, states it simply when he calls Alexander “a crusty Tory of the old school.”

Alexander’s social circle included many in the British political and economic elite. He wasn’t some nobody attacking his perceived superiors in hoping to make a name for himself. His career has been well established for a long time. His is not an angry commentary from an outsider, but a set of long considered concerns directed toward his own ideological peers and associates. He makes this clear in the dedication to his book: “To my numerous friends in the Conservative Party whose relentless belief remains to this day that the Cold war arose from the aggressive ambitions of the Kremlin, thwarted by the bold response of our American friends. Their refusal to contemplate any other explanation has spurred me on in this, my survey of US foreign policy over the last sixty-five years.” His book was an offering to friends, not an attack against enemies. It was his love of country that made him take this issue so seriously, as he worried about the costs wasted and damages done.

It is interesting to read the views of someone like him. It is hard to imagine a conservative of that variety in the mainstream media of the United States. From a Guardian article more than a decade old, he offered this gem (The Soviet threat was a myth):

“One can, of course, understand why few in the west want the orthodox view overturned. If that were to happen, the whole edifice of postwar politics would crumble. Could it be that the heavy burden of postwar rearmament was unnecessary, that the transatlantic alliance actually imperilled rather than saved us? Could it be that the world teetered on the verge of annihilation because post-war western leaders, particularly in Washington, lacked imagination, intelligence and understanding? The gloomy answer is yes.”

That is a damning conclusion, especially considering it comes from a conservative. To give some perspective, here is a passage from his book’s first chapter, The Flawed Cold War Orthodoxy (Kindle Locations 137-154):

“A wider look at history shows that a strongly interventionist US foreign policy is nothing new – though the current power to intervene globally is. A century ago, an American incomprehension of the outside world was exemplified by President Woodrow Wilson, so determined to remake countries in the American image after the First World War. His mixture of benevolence and ruthlessness may be summed up in a dispute with Mexico in 1913, when he announced ‘I will teach the Latin-Americans to elect good men’ followed by bombarding the town of Vera Cruz. His gunboat diplomacy intensified such feelings of nationalism and anti-Americanism that Germany hoped to make Mexico an ally in an attack on the USA in 1917 – famously exposed in the Zimmermann telegram, decoded by London.

“In 1945, the USA dedicated itself in Wilsonian language to bringing ‘democracy and freedom’ to the countries occupied by the Soviets at the end of the Second World War. The goal was high-minded. But there was a puzzling refusal to acknowledge the Soviet claim that two invasions by Germany in twenty-seven years made the firm control of Eastern Europe essential to Russian security. Truman insisted on seeing the Soviets as the determinedly expansionist enemy of the free world almost from the day he assumed office. They were, he said, ‘planning world conquest’.2

“The United States over which he presided had emerged from the Second World War with a military and economic supremacy unparalleled in history. Of the three powers which defeated the Axis alliance, the USA was unique in ending the war wealthier than when it began. By contrast, Britain’s income was down by a third with much of its overseas assets sold to buy armaments from the USA. In the case of Russia, which had been responsible for destroying the vast bulk of Hitler’s forces, the loss of income was immeasurable. Soviet statistics, always dubious, have never provided a wholly reliable picture of national income. But the scale of the devastation, involving at least twenty-two million and possibly twenty-seven million military and civilian deaths, speaks for itself.

“There was in fact no evidence in 1945 that the Soviet Union had a sinister plan to conquer the West. The threat perceived by Truman and others was imaginary – though no less powerful for that – stoked up by years of fearing the deadly spread of Communism.”

Alexander is able to write with such authority because he has gone to the direct words of Stalin and others. Mining records that weren’t available to earlier historians and journalists, his writings on the Cold War includes many telling quotes. What becomes clear is that Stalin was simply another nationalist despot with nationalist concerns. He worried about his own power and position, and of course he took seriously his role as leader of the country he ruled. He was a Russian nationalist, not an ideological communist and Trotsky internationalist (Stalin, by the way, assassinated Trotsky). Alexander states this in no uncertain terms (Kindle Locations 195-202):

“Given the German invasions, it would not have mattered whether the government in Moscow had been Communist, Tsarist or Social Democrat. It would still have insisted on firm control of these countries through which invasion had come; and bound to regard with deep suspicion any attempts to prevent it. In any case, Moscow could never forget that it was British and French policy in the interwar years to make Eastern Europe a barrier against the Soviet Union, even to consider – crucially – allowing Hitler a free hand against Russia. Colonel, later President, de Gaulle noted that even after the start of the Second World War:

“Certain circles saw the enemy in Stalin rather than Hitler. They busied themselves with finding means of striking Russia, either by aiding Finland or bombarding Baku or landing at Istanbul, much more than in coming to grips with Hitler.”

There is an intriguing insight about Stalin and non-Russian revolutions. Alexander explains that (Kindle Locations 161-165):

“Stalin’s attitude to the so-called world proletarian revolution is essential to understanding his personal and political motivation. He was, like the despot throughout the ages, principally concerned with his own survival rather than with ideological issues. He abandoned the grand global ambition of the world proletarian revolution in 1924 when he proclaimed that, henceforth, the aim was to be ‘socialism in one country’. To believe that he remained at all times a devout ideologue is to misread his character.”

One suspects those who saw Stalin as an ideologue were maybe projecting their own dogmatic tendencies. These Western ruling elites wanted an ideological war, whether or not Stalin wished to participate. “The determination of the West to see every Soviet move as explicable in terms of the pursuit of the world proletarian revolution provides one of history’s great ironies: the West took Communist doctrine more seriously than Stalin” (Kindle Locations 180-181). These ideologues were eventually able to force the hand of the Soviets to join this game of ideological battle, as they insisted on goading the Soviet government into aggression. In discussing the “European powers’ readiness to follow the American lead,” Alexander makes the point that “ironically…” (Kindle Locations 114-121),

“the launch of the Cold War by the USA did in due course bring into existence the very danger which had been imagined. It made frantic defence measures seem sensible. Threatened by President Truman, Russia responded by a vigorous programme of rearmament and an even tighter clampdown on Eastern Europe. With the refusal of the USA to respond to peace initiatives launched by the Soviet leadership on the death of Stalin in 1953, the Kremlin fought back under the new and more assertive leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. American and Western power in general was challenged wherever it could be found. It became rational to talk of a Communist threat and of the danger of a Soviet Union with a nuclear armoury. What was inaccurate was the assumption that a new military threat had come into being when the wartime allies finally came face to face in Germany.”

I sometimes find myself talking about the Cold War. I’m on the tail end of the Cold War generations, when that era was winding down. It’s just a childhood memory to me, mostly as portrayed in the fictionalized accounts of Hollywood movies and tv shows. I sense how different older Americans often respond to Cold War history. What to me just seems like propaganda to many who are older seems tangibly real. The ideological terms of capitalism versus communism so fully define and determine their sense of reality.

I found it interesting that even the Soviets talked about defending freedom and democracy from American greed, immorality, and destructiveness. Both sides were often making similar arguments. I’ve come to the conclusion that it never was about ideology. You can see evidence of that in how easily formerly communist Russia and Maoist China have come to embrace variants of capitalism.

It seems to me that the greatest threat to the United States has always been fascism, not communism. You can also see the evidence of that in how easily this country has taken on forms of crony capitalism, corporatism, and inverted totalitarianism. But it isn’t an ideological issue, per se. It is partly just about power and in the US power has always been tied up with capitalism, not any opposing ideologies. Even the most left-wing progressivism in the US merely sought to reform capitalism and did so to protect against anything further left.

Plus, I see the cultural angle being so much more important. That is seen with Stalin. He was a Russian nationalist, first and foremost, through and through. The United States has never been an ethnically homogeneous country like any of the communist countries or, for that matter, any of the traditionally fascist countries. Diversity has been a great protection for the US against the worst forms of authoritarian takeover.

In terms of Russia and Eastern Europe, there was never much of an issue, since only a small part of America’s population comes from that part of the world. The main reason fascism was a threat in this country wasn’t even the dominance of plutocratic capitalism, but because so many Americans came from countries that became fascist. Many German-Americans, the single largest ancestry in the US, proudly marched in the streets carrying flags and banners with the swastika. The characteristics of the American people that resonated with fascism were cultural rather than ideological. Even ignoring ancestry and issues of national loyalty, this resonance included America’s populist folk religiosity, a defining feature of fascism and quite opposite of official communist ideology. The same social and political forces that brought fascism to Europe also brought the German Bund and Second Klan to America.

Yet we go on arguing about ideology. It never was about ideology. It still isn’t. So many ideological debates ring hollow. Like the Cold War, the culture wars were simply a spectacle of distraction. Most Americans agree about most things. There is no grand ideological conflict in America, although there is a class war between the economic elite and everyone else (Joe Bageant made the argument that 60-70% of Americans are actually working class, those with little economic freedom and self-determination), but a class war in raw form is still not directly an issue of ideology. There certainly isn’t any threat of communist takeover. Even Bernie Sanders is simply a moderate mainstream social democrat and not a radical dogmatic ideologue.

I doubt the ideological Cold War will end until the last person with living memory of that era has left this earth. It has been such a powerful force in ruling over our collective psyche, strangling our ability to imagine anything else. We can only hope that with historical distance its grip will loosen and its influence fade.

Early Cold War Liberalism

Most of the Negroes I know do not believe that this immense concession [Brown v. Board of Education] would ever have been made if it had not been for the competition of the Cold War, and the fact that Africa was clearly liberating herself and therefore had, for political reasons to be wooed by the descendants of her former masters.
~ James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (from Corey Robin)

The following two passages are from quite different writings. But both describe the early Cold War atmosphere. It is strange to read about that long ago time. I only have a childhood’s glimpse of the ending of the Cold War. The generation following mine has no living memory at all of that era.

The first passage below is from Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream. She wrote the book in the late 1940s, but the foreword wasn’t written until later and published in the second edition in 1961. The Cuban Revolution had just happened and there now was a Communist government at America’s doorstep. That worried her.

This was a Cold War wake up call for Americans, from conservatives to liberals, Lillian being the latter. Communism was no longer a distant political system to be debated as abstract theory. Four years after she wrote in distress about Communist influence, the 1965 Civil Rights Act was passed. The Cold War forced the hand of the political elite, for fear of what would happen if the Civil Rights Movement became further radicalized.

The second passage is from John Hartley’s introductory essay (“Before Ongism”) to a work by Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy (from the 30th Anniversary Edition). Hartley puts Ong’s academic work into perspective. Ong was beginning his academic career just as the Cold War started, following the Second World War. That was a new era for America, then a rising global power.

In the 1940s, the CIA was formed and the FBI took on a greater role in national security.The Cold War was seen as a potential total war and one of the emerging weapons was propaganda, media manipulation, and an oppressive variety of culture war. In the 1950s, Americans fell under influence of domestic covert operations like that of CIA’s Operation Mockingbird and FBI’s COINTELPRO. Also, America came to be dominated by McCarthyism. The Civil Rights Movement, even as it was having legal successes, was increasingly targeted. It was seen as a breeding ground for Communists and radicals.

American universities were a battleground. Long before the protests of the 1960s, the CIA and FBI were focusing intently upon academia, both in looking for threatening activists and for potential recruits. The CIA was also interested in shaping academia and its influence. The CIA used its funds to promote particular artists, writers, and thinkers. Some professors were even spymasters.

This was the world that Walter J. Ong entered. There is no evidence that he knew about any of it, but it certainly shaped everything around him. The US government understood that ideas had power. Lillian Smith wasn’t part of that Cold War academic world, but she did have a 134 page FBI file. She was considered dangerous because she wielded ideas to promote change and all change was deemed dangerous to those in power.

The mid-twentieth century was a time when liberalism, both as a liberal ideology and liberal arts, was simultaneously striving and constrained. It was being carried along by far greater historical and political forces.

* * * *

Killers of the Dream
by Lillian Smith
Foreword (1961)
pp. 15-17

And its relevance for this hour we are living in astonishes me. For what was based on intuition, on a kind of prophetic guess, is now boldly actin itself out on a world-size stage. I had felt the curve of approaching events but I could only warn, I could not prove. And now here it is: the new African nations, the hatred of colonialism, and the Communists’ shrewd exploitation of this word so fatefully tied to “the white man” and to Western democracy—and to everyone’s future.

When I wrote those chapters I was afraid—I am more afraid, today—that we may not break our bondage to past errors in time to win the confidence of young nations who need our help. And whom we desperately need. I watched with a sense of horror—I am still watching—the hands of the Southern clock (and the American clock) move with the death-slowness while the world clock speeds along as if stuffed with the energy of a rocket.

And now, there is Cuba. Ninety miles away, a Communist government. How could it have happened! Why are we so blind to each disaster as it begins slowly, slowly, and then rushes toward us! Is it complacency? But what causes this kind of complacency, so unreal, so without substance? Why are we suppressing anxiety, denying danger? Why apathy—when we desperately need moral energy? Why flabby spirits when we need iron strength?

Colonialism was once a harsh exploitation of peoples; today, it is a symbol stalking the earth. And men live and die by their symbols. To Asia and Africa—and Cuba, yes—the word means shame and degradation, it means dehumanization, poverty, pain. And here, in this great country whose people love freedom and respect men as human beings, colonialism’s twin brother, segregation, not only lives but wields power, and earth-shaking decisions are made by its followers. But the new nations of Asia and Africa are making earth-shaking decisions, too; they have it within their power to do so not only in the United Nations, not only in secret sessions with Russia and China, but in the secret rooms of the people’s memory.

Why can we not see the pattern laid out so plainly before our eyes? Ghana . . . Mali . . . Guinea . . . Tanganyika . . . Kenya . . . Liberia . . . Nigeria . . . Mauritania . . . Republic of Chad . . . Republic of Niger . . . Angola . . . Southwest Africa . . . Nyasaland . . . Southern Rhodesia . . . Northern Rhodesia . . . Mozambique . . . Sudan . . . Somalia . . . Central African Republic . . . the Congo . . . Bechuanaland . . . South Africa . . . Malgasy . . . Basutoland . . . Swaziland . . . Gabon . . . Republic of Ivory Coast . . . Senegal . . . Ethiopia . . . and others and others. Mixed together, as I have jumbled them here, the free and the not yet free, they are Africa below the Desert, Africa in struggle with itself, Africa smeared by old bleeding memories, reaching out for a future called “Africa for the Africans” which may turn into mirage because of a too urgent hunger to become. Too urgent? Yes. For starvation can be exploited by unscrupulous leaders; it is easier to arouse hatred of others than love for one’s own freedom and future; it is easy, to, for these leaders in their difficulties to appeal to color just as southern demagogues did when the South was in chaos after the Civil War. We should not be surprised if we hear in African accents words about Black Supremacy, just as we still hear in southern accents words about White Supremacy. The fine concept of the human being may get lost in the shuffle and we may face  a black racism just as white racism is disappearing. this is possible although it would be tragic error.

But whatever wisdom or irresponsible ambition their leaders may show, these new nations need us: our financial and technical aid, our moral support, our acceptance of their citizens as human beings.

But we cannot give them support or acceptance, no matter how eloquently we may offer it, until we rid our own country of racism and its primitive rites of segregation. The President may try, the State Department, the USIA and Peace Corps may try, but no matter what they do or say, the offer of help and friendship will be without psychic and moral substance as long as we practice segregation here at home. And at the critical moment, many of these nations, too, will turn to communism, rejecting what they call “white democracy.”

Our President and his executive office can achieve much; and the State Department is not without the means to persuade; and the Peace Corps, with its young members’ person-to-person contacts which transcend governmental activities, will be of service in overcoming misconceptions and resentments. But to change our foreign relations wsith asia and Africa our symbols must change. For neither we nor they are animals: we live by our symbols as do they: we cannot change their feelings about us as long as we are acting out, symbolically, the concept of White Supremacy in schools and parks and movies and churches and buses and restaurants.

Why don’t we see this? Is there a tendency to blindness in those who overvalue their whiteness? Sometimes, I think so; even in those who cannot be called racists there is blindness. If we were not blocked off by our racial feelings would we not realize that segregationists, South and North, are our country’s dangerous enemies, even when unwittingly so? Would we not realize the threat they are to our survival as a strong free nation? For the sake of a mythic belief in the superiority of their “whiteness”—a strange mad obsession—they are willing to drag us to the edge of destruction because they have actually lost touch with reality. Think of the irony, the terrible absurdity of those racist U.S. Congressmen investigating everybody’s subversive acts but their own—when it is what they are doing by their blunt, stubborn refusal to give up segregation that is pushing us closer and closer to disaster.

* * * *

Orality and Literacy: 30th Anniversary Edition
by Walter J. Ong
“Before Ongism” by John Hartley
XVII-XVIII

Without wanting to overstate it (as American supremacism, for instance), there is a vein of political philosophy running through the literary-historical scholarship of mid-century America. The mood extended well beyond Harvard. Across the country, literary scholarship seemed determined to give substance to Walt Whitman’s post-Civil War vision for America’s “democratic vistas”; 13 a vision newly urgent in a post-World War II world. Richard Altick at Ohio ( The English Common Reader, 1957) and R. F. Jones at Stanford ( The Triumph of the English Language, 1953) come to mind. 14 Most notable, perhaps, was Yale, where American Studies was established in the same period, not least for political reasons. American Studies was:

an enterprise that would be, among other things, an instrument for ideological struggle in what some among them termed the American crusade in the Cold War, and what others among them saw as virtually a second civil war. (Holzman 1999: 71)

A leading figure in this enterprise was Norman Holmes Pearson, who, like Perry Miller at Harvard, was a secret agent for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) – precursor of the CIA – during World War II. Where Perry’s protégés at Harvard included the Jesuit priest Walter Ong, Pearson’s at Yale included James Jesus Angleton, who learnt there the craft of practical criticism of decontextualised documents. Angleton went on to apply it as chief of counter-intelligence at the CIA, where he remained for a generation (Holzman 2008). While at Yale, as Terence Hawkes has pointed out, Angleton was much influenced by the New Criticism, especially as practised by William Empson (1930), whose theory of the irreducible ambiguity of expression served Angleton well in his search for double meanings as evidence of Soviet “double agents,” within the CIA itself. His obsessive search for spies turned to domestic suspects during the Johnson and Nixon presidencies, among them the liberal and countercultural elite of American society, including Martin Luther King and Edward Kennedy. Hawkes draws the parallel between literary criticism and counter-intelligence:

When agents may be recognized as “turned”… they themselves become “texts” which demand complex analysis. A sensitivity to ambiguity then becomes a crucial weapon. The improbable but undeniable impact of modern literary criticism on practical politics has no better model, and Angleton later described his work in counterintelligence as “the practical criticism of ambiguity.” (Hawkes 2009)

Strangely, it seems, the study of rhetoric, of literary theory, and the practical criticism of arcane texts at Ivy-league colleges, intersected both personally and institutionally with the career of high-stakes political Americanism during the crucial period of its global ascendancy. As a Jesuit, presumably Ong was not involved in the counter-espionage shenanigans of active spy-masters like Perry, Pearson and Angleton, but he was brought to prominence in an intellectual environment where literary history, linguistic analysis and an expanded doctrine of the USA’s “manifest destiny” were brought into alignment.

American Eyes On Cuba

Reading the below passage, I was reminded of the Cold War attitude and actions toward Cuba. This included the failed invasion and nuclear showdown during Kennedy’s administration.

There has been a longstanding antagonism between the US and Cuba. The US relationship to Cuba has involved paranoia, intrigue, and acquisitiveness. This has also involved conflict in both places, especially conflicts related to race and slavery, but also regional and partisan conflict in the US and class conflicts in Cuba.

The difference back then was that the feared superpower was the Spanish Empire, instead of the Soviet Union. Still, it was the same basic jostling for political power, imperial expansion, and military positioning.

* * *

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War
By Leonard L. Richards
Kindle Locations 2109-2145

Upon arriving in Madrid, Soulé immediately alienated the Spanish government. He denounced the monarchy and cavorted openly with revolutionaries. He got into a duel with the French ambassador after one of the ambassador’s guests made a disparaging remark about Mrs. Soulé’s plunging neckline. For this affront the ambassador suffered a debilitating leg wound. From the outset, Soulé also made it clear that his mission was to acquire Cuba by hook or by crook. By this time, moreover, the Spanish, as well as every other European power, had heard that Quitman was raising troops to invade Cuba.

In September 1853, the Spanish government responded. It appointed the Marqués de la Pezuela captain general of Cuba, a post that put him in command of both the military and the government, with orders to take steps to defend Cuba. In December he issued decrees that among other things cracked down on those illegally engaged in the slave trade and gave citizenship rights to blacks illegally imported before 1835. At the same time, he recruited free blacks into the militia. Coming from a government that had no interest in abolishing either slavery or the African slave trade, Pezuela’s policy of “Africanization” made it clear that he was willing, if necessary, to use black troops against Quitman’s invaders and against any Cuban planter who sympathized with them.

Pezuela’s policy was also risky. It sparked fears of slave rebellion throughout the white South and calls for reprisals. It also aroused militants in the Mississippi Delta. They wanted action quickly. In response, the Louisiana legislature demanded “decisive and energetic measures.” Quitman, however, was unwilling to move until he had three thousand men, one armed steamer, and $220,000 at his disposal.11

Meanwhile, the Pierce administration decided that it might be possible to purchase Cuba if firebrands like Quitman were temporarily restrained. On April 3, Secretary of State William L. Marcy sent new instructions to Soulé, authorizing him to purchase Cuba for up to $130 million. If Spain refused, Soulé was then to concern himself with the problem of how to “detach” Cuba from Spain.12 Eight weeks later, the administration announced that it would prosecute all men who violated U.S. neutrality laws. The New Orleans grand jury then required Quitman to post a $3,000 bond guaranteeing his adherence to the neutrality laws for the next nine months. In the interim, in Cuba, Pezuela arrested more than a hundred pro-American planters and put some to death. Later that same year, Pierce called Quitman to Washington and showed him evidence that Cuba was strongly defended.13

Meanwhile, in Madrid, Soulé had no luck trying to buy Cuba. So the Pierce administration decided to let him confer privately with the other ministers in Europe—James Buchanan at London and John Y. Mason at Paris—and decide if it was feasible to persuade Spain to sell Cuba to the United States. Meeting in Ostend in October 1854, the three diplomats put their names to a dispatch that came to be known as the Ostend Manifesto.

The dispatch was a bombshell. Written mainly by Soulé, it urged the United States to immediately buy Cuba at any price up to $120 million. It also proclaimed that if Spain refused to sell and if its possession of Cuba seriously endangered the “internal peace” of the slave states, then the United States would be justified in seizing Cuba “upon the very same principle that would justify an individual in tearing down the burning house of his neighbor if there were no other means of preventing the flames from destroying his own home.”14

News of this saber-rattling manifesto sent shock waves through the Northern wing of the Democratic Party. They had just suffered huge election losses that fall. They had entered the election holding ninety-three seats in the House. They now had only twenty-two.15 What, many asked, was the Pierce administration up to? Didn’t they realize that the “burning house” rhetoric would provide Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune with even more ammunition to attack the party faithful? One Democratic newspaper after another thus distanced itself from the manifesto, even branding its authors “brigands” and “highwaymen.”The Pierce administration also ran for cover, disavowing the proposal and letting “the three wise men of Ostend” fend for themselves.16

That December, enraged by the reaction, Soulé resigned as minister to Spain. Several months later, in April 1855, Quitman gave back to the Cuban junta the powers it had bestowed upon him. No longer did either warrior have much hope of acquiring “the pearl of the Antilles” to offset the addition of California as a free state.

JFK’s Ideology: The Real Debate

(Part four of four: one, two, three, and four)

Before I offer my conclusion, let me begin with the last thoughts of S. Freeman from our dicussion. In response to what I’ve written so far, he stated the following:

You are correct to say that perceptions of ideologies change. I do not believe ideologies themselves change much beyond being refined or some of their principles being reinterpreted to gain a clearer understanding of the ideology. However, as noted, people start using terminology (ideology) in different ways so a word (liberal, democracy) no longer means what it originally meant. This, at least in part, is a failure of our educational institutions. I also think these changes are not accidental, but often are deliberate to confuse and mislead people. Republicans are, and have been since the 1960’s Lockean Liberals on economic issues. They are very poor Burkean Conservatives on social issues. I say very poor because their positions on social issues contradict several Burkean principles. Thus Republicans are something of a blend of Burkean Conservatism and Reactionaries on social issues. I was in a debate at a university with one of these guys on Columbus Day a year ago. He strongly argued most amendments to the Constitution were unconstitutional, specifically including the 13th Amendment. To which I responded by saying, “then, slavery still should be legal, and African Americans still should, or at least could, be slaves. He said, while he personally opposed slavery, that was the intent of the authors of the Constitution, and therefore, it was/is wrong for government to outlaw slavery. He’s considered a conservative, but that is not Conservativism; that’s reactionaryism.

Democrats are Lockean Liberals on social issues, but not on economic issues. They lean toward Burkean Conservativism in the sense they (seek to) implement policies that disproportionately favor the propertied class and maintenance of a fundamentally anti-democratic oligarchy in the name of democracy.

People would have a MUCH clearer understanding of the political system, of politics in general, and of the ideological orientations (including the basic conservatism of Kennedy) IF people did not work constantly to muddy the meanings of ideological terms, and if we did a much better job teaching ideology in our education institutions.

With his assassination, JFK  can feel like a useful unchanging marker by which to measure and judge. But we can’t get around how the distance of time has made his image hazy in our minds. Our views of JFK may say more about us than about JFK. That may bother Freeman more than it bothers me. In my liberal-mindedeness, such uncertainty feels less disconcerting and troublesome. It is just the way the world is.

Crazy as I am, I see the real debate only beginning as the superficial debate is ending. The debate never was about JFK, not on a fundamental level. What was actually being contested was not just JFK’s ideology or even ideology in general but our shared sense of human nature and social reality. It’s not only about who gets to define the terms of the debate for even more importantly is who gets to define the parameters of meaning, define how and why it matters at all.

In the discussion of JFK’s ideology, I only came across one analysis, imperfect as it is, that gets close to this deeper vein of thought. John C. Goodman (in Was Kennedy a Conservative?) says that, “An ideology is a set of ideas that cohere.” He continues:

Socialism is an ideology. So is libertarianism. Suppose I told you that socialists believe the government should nationalize the steel industry and the auto industry. You would have no difficulty inferring what their position is on nationalizing the airline industry. Right? Suppose I told you that libertarians believe in a free market for tinker toys and ham sandwiches. You would have no difficulty inferring that they also believe in a free market for Rubik’s Cubes.

Sociologies are different. They represent a set of ideas that are often incoherent. These ideas are likely to come together not because of reason, but because of history or happenstance. Not only do the ideas not cohere, they may be completely contradictory.

The problem with Goodman’s analysis is that he is using this description of sociologies as a way to dismiss them. He is more like Freeman in wanting absolutist, self-contained ideologies. An ideology ought to be precisely what it is and nothing else. The fact that actual existing politics rarely if ever meets that standard really irks this kind of person. It seems wrong and unacceptable. Ideologies should be clearly stated and purely expressed.

In the above article, Goodman was quoting himself from his own blog (a practice that I fully condone). His attempt to discern why a sociology is not an ideology followed what amounts to a complaint about what gets called “modern liberalism”:

Let’s put this a different way. Given that liberalism is the dominant political ideology and given that it largely replaced 19th century classical liberalism, is there a place I can go to find why the proponents think it’s so much better than the ideology it replaced? If the answer is “no,” why is that?

The answer, I believe, is that liberalism is not an ideology at all; it is a sociology. The same may be said of conservatism. (Incidentally, Friedman did not call himself a “conservative;” he called himself a “classical liberal.”) I’ll save the conservatives for another day.

Goodman doesn’t come off as very well informed. He dismisses that liberals today have a coherent vision. He dismisses without even seriously considering the case of what liberals actually believe. Many liberals have presented coherent ideologies of liberalism, but Goodman is entirely clueless of this (as some commenters noted in his blog: John Walter and MarkH). In my discussion with Freeman, I made the point that liberalism, including classical liberalism, is a lot more complex than those on the right would like to admit — as I explained it:

This demonstrates the problematic analysis of separating so-called classical liberalism and so-called modern liberalism. Modern liberalism began to form centuries ago. And classical liberalism didn’t take on its modern meaning until the twentieth century. A bit of a confusion in labeling, I would say. It is a modern confusion, though, and isn’t how those in the past would have thought about these ideological worldviews and tendencies.

It is better to think of such distinctions in terms of the Enlightenment. Paine was in the Radical Enlightenment tradition begun with Spinoza. Burke followed Locke’s tradition which is called the Moderate Enlightenment or the Counter-Enlightenment. The Enlightenment most clearly started with Spinoza, but for the British and Americans the Enlightenment they are familiar with is that of Locke. Jonathan Israel writes of this distinction in several books.

When Corey Robin refers to reactionary conservatives, he is speaking of the Counter-Enlightenment. Its proponents took on a lot of the same ideas and tactics as the radicals, but they used it to defend the social order against the radicals who challenged it. At the same time, these reactionary conservatives attacked the old order (the ancien regime) for its failure. So, it was a desire to replace an older hierarchy for a newer and better one.

Still, in separating the wheat from the chaff (in Goodman’s analysis), an important point can be brought forth, whether or not Goodman intended it. He is right to speak of ideologies and sociologies as two separate factors, although from a social science perspective they are a lot closer than he would find comfortable. In fitting his analysis to the social science research, his analysis needs to be reversed. There are many liberal ideologies and, to generalize a bit, only one liberal sociology (a very broad liberal-mindedness that can accompany an endless number of ideologies, including those not typically considered ‘liberal’; for example, I’ve met many liberal-minded libertarians and a significant number of relatively liberal-minded ‘conservatives’).

Liberalism is and always has been a general category and a relative term. The word itself has a fairly old etymology preceding and so not limited to specific ideologies. There is no getting around that broader meaning which is better captured by social science than political science.

So, what does the social science research show?

I’ve covered this territory many many times. For my purposes here, let me keep it simple.

First, here is my standard caveat. Liberalism and conservatism aren’t necessarily the same thing as liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness. I don’t want to absolutely equate these. However, to the degree their is any consistency and coherency to ideologies, it is because they are built on fundamental factors of human nature. Speaking of liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness is the best proxy we have in referring to a very basic distinction that we intuit.

With that in mind, the best broad descriptor I’ve so far found that strongly correlates to this distinction is that of Ernest Hartmann’s boundary types: thick and thin. As a way to bridge the sociological and political, I’m reminded of Thomas Sowell’s constrained vs unconstrained visions (not precisely the same as thick and thin but closely related in concept). What I sense in the motivation of Goodman and Freeman is a seeking to constrain ideology, to make it sit still and be a single thing, forever unchanging (i.e., give it thick boundaries). Because human morality is limited and inevitably fails because of foibles of human nature (as is suggested by many conservatives), we must constrain ourselves (and constrain others) to social orders based on constrained and constraining ideologies. That is the only purpose an ideology can or should serve.

In this manner, conservatives are tempted to define liberalism according to their constrained vision and hence to limit liberalism to a conservative-minded framework. They refuse to let liberalism speak for itself or to let liberals define themselves, refuse to allow liberalism be unconstrained according the nature of liberal-mindedness. This is how conservatives end up wanting to claim both conservatism and liberalism by claiming they are simultaneously true Burkean conservatives and true classical liberals, everything else being false idols (RINOs and mere sociologies).

This seems to be the motivation for some conservatives wanting to claim all the great liberals from the past. This strongly conservative-minded type wants to force everything and everyone into their constrained vision of an orderly reality, an orderly view of human nature, an orderly defining of ideologies. The past is safe because, as Mark Twain notes, even the radicals are safely contained within their own deaths. Past figures, no matter how while alive they may have challenged past constraints, can’t challenge the constraints of the present for their voices have been permanently silenced. Hence, they can now be made into saints and worshipped. As for the living, radicals and liberals can’t be trusted for they refuse to limit themselves to the constrained demands of conservatism. Living liberals must be dismissed while dead liberals are available as necessary to be sanctified.

To reinvent JFK as a conservative is the attempt to make past liberalism safe, cleansed of its radical challenge to authority, social order and the status quo. Moderate as he was, even JFK was too dangerous for the conservatives of his times. He pushed a blatant progressive agenda. But in the liberal movement forward, with the increasing liberalism of the population and of society, the further distanced we become from the past the more it appears conservative relative to the present. All the past becomes frozen in place, all the dead actors forced to play their roles like puppets in the conservative morality tale.

For further reading on this topic from my blog (in order of date of posting):

Is Classical Liberalism Liberal?

Liberalism: Label vs Reality (analysis of data)

Deep South, Traditional Conservatism, & Future Possibilities

Deep South, American Hypocrisy, & Liberal Traditions

Jonathan Haidt’s Liberal-Minded Anti-Liberalism

Conservatism & Liberalism: What is their relationship? What do they mean?

Haidt’s Moral Intuition (vs ethical reasoning)

Haidt & Mooney, Moral Foundations & Spiral Dynamics

Liberalism: Weaknesses & Failures

The Enlightenment Project: A Defense

Criticizing Mooney’s Praise of Haidt

Republican Liberalism

Re: The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives

Liberalism, Enlightenment & Axial Age

Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination

Ideologically Confused Partisans

More Thoughts on Ideological Confusion

JFK, Little Bit Muddy: A Liberal Definition of Liberalism

(Part three of four: one, two, three, and four)

All of that was just preamble for what most intrigues me about such endless debates.

What gets me thinking about all this are the underlying issues, the fissures forming. This situation of conservatives defending a liberal like JFK demonstrates how much these labels have changed. As I’ve often noted, the entire political spectrum of the American public has shifted under our feet. This changing social reality sends all the politicians and pundits into a high-drive frenzy, not unlike the strange behavior of animals before an earthquake.

JFK was a pragmatic moderate. I must admit that I don’t get the equating of moderateness/moderation solely or even primarily with conservatism. Certainly, JFK hasn’t changed in the last 50 years since he died. It is the political context that has changed. Older conservatives are discovering the entire world they once knew is fast disappearing. In response, they latch onto any figure that symbolizes America’s past glory days. Having died in office, JFK makes the perfect screen to project upon. His bipartisan tendencies toward compromise (typical of Democrats) lacked ideological purity and so it is easy to cherrypick, as Stoll does, the aspects one likes while disregarding the rest.

I touched upon my core understanding in a comment to Klobas’ review:

Besides, even liberals become more hawkish during hawkish times, as research has shown. Following 9/11, liberals who saw more repeated video of the attacks early on became stronger supporters of the war hawk policies of the Bush administration. Those liberals who initially only heard radio reporting remained more skeptical/wary/resistant of hawkishness. […] 

It is irrelevant that JFK went part of the way with the war hawks. Liberal Democrats went part of the way with the war hawk Bush administration, but that didn’t mean that all the Democrats were really conservatives pretending to be liberals. Obama has followed the Bush war policies without much change, but that doesn’t mean Obama is a conservative pretending to be a liberal (although I’ve always questioned to what extent Obama is a liberal since he has never identified as such; nonetheless, the real issue is that conservatives consider Obama a liberal despite is not being a dove).

JFK wasn’t any more of a war hawk than many other Democratic presidents and politicians. I don’t know if that necessarily makes him a liberal, but it is hard to see that as evidence of him being a conservative.

My worthy opponent in that discussion, S. Freeman, made a decent argument to the contrary and he does so with an amusing story:

Parts of your response remind me of the story of Little Johnny and the mud puddle. Little Johnny asks his mother if he can go out to play with Little Billy. Little Johnny’s mother says no because they are about to go off, and Little Johnny already is dressed. Ultimately, she relents with Little Johnny’s solemn promises to be careful and stay clean. A few minutes later, Little Johnny returns, covered in mud from his waist down. As his mother scolds him for breaking his promise and getting into the mud, Little Johnny explains he and Little Billy were running when they saw they were running toward a large mud puddle. In trying to avoid the puddle, their feet got tangled up and both boys went flying. Little Johnny’s mother was not impressed and continued to scold, to which Little Johnny said, “But Mother, I just fell half way into the mud puddle. Little Billy is fell completely in and is covered in mud from his face to his toes. The point is, while Kennedy may not have “gone all the way” with the war hawks, and while there may have been many war hawks at that time (I was alive then, and remember those times well, including Kennedy’s highly incendiary rhetoric and his baiting Khruschev at their summit. Your argument is Kennedy only got a little bit muddy while the warhawks were covered completely in mud. It may to you and to other readers, but to me, it just does not pass the “mud” test. Had he been less reckless, less belligerent in both rhetoric and action, I might agree with you. But Kennedy, in his less than 3 years in office, had more confrontations with the Soviet Union than did Eisenhower in his entire 8 years in office. Kennedy’s hands just are not as clean as you tend to present them.

That way of looking at the world demonstrates a fundamental distinction between liberalism and conservatism, specifically in the context of liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness. As a liberal-minded fellow, I don’t think in dualistic terms of either muddy or not muddy. There is a big difference between a grown man who gets a little muddy while simply going about his work and little boys jumping in mud puddles.

My suspicion is that JFK would more likely understand this liberal-minded viewpoint than he would the conservative-minded either/or dualistic thinking. JFK didn’t get a little bit muddy because he believed in the principle of being muddy. A strong defense, like tax cuts, was a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

What the likes of Stoll and Freeman don’t understand is that liberals are more accepting of being a little bit muddy. Heck, this is that very famous moral relativism that liberals are always getting accused of by conservatives. Most liberals acknowledge it is a muddy world, but they tend to see that as less of an excuse to embrace an ideology of mud and foresake one’s duty to try to remain as clean as possible under muddy conditions.

As I’ve argued many times this can be both a strength and a weakness. I briefly mentioned it in my discussion with Freeman when I spoke of the divergent liberal responses to 9/11. Here is what I was speaking of:

Liberals who gleaned most of their news from television in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks increased their support for expanded police powers, bringing them closer in line with the opinions of conservatives, a study by a UW-Madison researcher shows.

In contrast, heavy newspaper reading by liberals was related to lower levels of support for expanded police powers and for limits on privacy and freedom of information, basically reinforcing the differences between liberals and conservatives, says Dietram Scheufele, a journalism professor who conducted the study.

“TV pushed the two groups together in their thinking about post-9/11 policies, such as the Patriot Act. It made liberals more conservative. It took them away from what they initially believed and pushed them more toward a more conservative law-and-order stance,” Scheufele says.

The study, soon to be published in the journal Mass Communications & Society, is based on a survey of nearly 800 residents of Tompkins County, N.Y., in the fall of 2001, shortly after the attacks. Its results have been validated by two subsequent national surveys.

The survey showed that among liberals who watched little television, about 20 percent favored more government police powers. But about 41 percent of liberals who were heavy viewers of TV news supported such measures – much closer to the 50 to 60 percent of conservatives who supported greater police powers, regardless of how much TV news they watched.

The gap between conservatives and liberals widened, however, among heavy newspaper readers.

About 39 percent of light-reading liberals backed restricting freedom of speech in the days after the attacks, versus 31 percent who were heavy newspaper readers. Among conservatives, about 66 percent favored the limits, and nearly 70 percent of heavy readers backed the restrictions.

“Newspaper reading tended to reinforce partisan leanings, partly because it is more selective, readers have more options and seek out their own viewpoints,” Scheufele says. “By contrast, TV coverage is very linear, doesn’t offer any choice and was more image driven. You saw the plane hitting the building time and time again.”

I more thoroughly discussed this issue in a post of mine from last year. That post goes a long way in explaining why liberals easily get confused with conservatives, especially during times of fear and anxiety. One of the talents of liberals is the ability to act like conservatives. As quoted in that post, the psychological reasons for this are summarized well in a paper by Jost, Federico and Napier:

Given that nearly everyone wants to achieve at least some degree of certainty, is it possible that conservatism possesses a natural psychological advantage over liberalism? Although answering this question is obviously fraught with challenges, several lines of research suggest that this might be the case. First, a series of experiments by Skitka et al. (2002) demonstrated that “the default attributional position is a conservative response,” insofar as both liberals and conservatives are quick to draw individualistic (rather than system-level) conclusions about the causes of poverty, unemployment, disease, and other negative outcomes, but only liberals correct their initial response, taking into account extenuating circumstances. When a distraction (or cognitive load) is introduced, making it difficult for liberals to engage in correction processes, they tend to blame individuals for their fate to the same degree that conservatives do. Skitka et al. (2002) therefore concluded, “It is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to behave like a liberal” (p. 484; see also Kluegel & Smith 1986, Skitka 1999). Research by Crandall & Eidelman (2007) takes this general line of reasoning even further, showing that a host of everyday variables associated with increased cognitive load and/or increased need for cognitive closure, such as drinking alcohol, lead people to become more politically conservative. Both of these lines of research are consistent with the notion that conservative styles and opinions are generally simpler, more internally consistent, and less subject to ambiguity, in comparison with liberal styles and opinions (e.g., Tetlock 1983, 2007; Rokeach 1960; Tetlock 1983, 2007). A third reason to suggest that conservatism enjoys a psychological advantage over liberalism comes from research on system justification, which suggests that most people (including liberals) are motivated to adapt to and even rationalize aspects of the status quo, that is, to develop and maintain relatively favorable opinions about existing institutions and authorities and to dismiss or reject the possibility of change, especially in its more radical forms (Jost et al. 2004a). Studies show that justifying the status quo serves the palliative function of increasing positive affect, decreasing negative affect, and making people happier in general, but it also undermines support for social change and the redistribution of resources (Jost & Hunyady 2002, Napier & Jost 2008a, Wakslak et al. 2007).

In my post, I could easily have been speaking of Cold War Era liberals like JFK when I wrote this:

As a movement, liberalism rarely ever suffers from the condition of being too liberal for conditions have to be perfect for the liberal predisposition to fully manifest. Such perfect conditions don’t come around that often and they tend not to last very long. In moments of peace and prosperity, the general public can forget about possible threats and their emotional response becomes dampened, a contented optimism taking its place. Such a moment occurred after the Great Depression and once again after WWII, but after those brief moments conservatism ruled during the Cold War Era and into the post-9/11 Era. Liberals have at best hunkered down and at worst given their support to the conservative agenda (pushing deregulation, dismantling the welfare state, building up the military, going to war against Iraq, supporting the Patriot Act, maintaining Gitmo, empowering the executive branch, etc). Sadly, the liberal movement doesn’t make much of a worthy enemy for the conservative movement. Conservative leaders just have to say “Booh!” and liberal leaders run for cover.

The Cold War Era was far from meeting the perfect conditions necessary for full manifestation of liberalism. There is no contradiction for a liberal to be a “little bit muddy” during such liberal-unfriendly times. For good or ill, that is precisely what liberalism is all about.

(Continue reading: part four)

JFK, Proud Liberal and Professional Politician

(Part two of four: one, two, three, and four)

In this debate, I find myself more in line with what John King said in a discussion on Anderson Cooper’s show (along with Ira Stoll and Douglas Brinkley) — from the transcript:

I think it’s a debate that you have because our times have changed so much and when you think about that label, when Bill Clinton was the Democratic president after Walter Mondale lost 49 states, he said he wanted to be a different kind of Democrat.

And so parties changed. The conservative movement has gone through several changes from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan, to now when you see the Tea Party. There are some things Ronald Reagan did the Tea Party members would call liberal.

So I think part of it is as the times change and as different political movements become ascendant, you look back at prior political leaders and you try to put them into the context and the language of today and today’s politics are quite messy. So I don’t think it’s quite fair to anybody, anybody in history to take from today’s mess and look back and try to find them a place.

The point I would make, though, is that JFK was a liberal by his own definition, the same definition by which many liberals today praise JFK. He didn’t see liberals as militarily wimpy and fiscally flabby:

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.” But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

I’m not sure why liberals must concede to an unfair caricature made by conservative, a caricature that only serves the purpose of maligning liberalism. The conservative argument seems to be that, because JFK was a strong effective president, he therefore can’t be a liberal. Everything that Americans have come to love, no matter how liberal it may seem, is actually conservative. And everything that is liberal must, therefore, be morally wrong and politically a failure and generally unAmerican.

No matter the contortions necessary, reactionary conservatives have to find some way to claim a president as respected as JFK. This forces them to argue that JFK was so right as a conservative that his defense of his own liberalism must be wrong. In doing so, conservatives oddly end up arguing against JFK himself, despite his having spelled out in no uncertain terms his own ideological persuasion. JFK, in claiming to be a liberal, must accordingly either have been a liar or clueless.

A reviewer of Stoll’s book, Mark Klobas, concludes that:

The biggest problem with Stoll’s book, however, is that his entire argument is based on a false assumption about the labels he uses. Early in the book, he sidesteps the problem of defining what the word conservative meant to Kennedy by declaring that the “shifting definitions of the terms over time” rendered such an activity pointless. This allows Stoll to adopt his own definition of conservatism to make his case, one rooted in the conceit that liberals in the 1950s weren’t religiously devout, or anticommunist, or opposed to union corruption, or in favor of reducing taxes. Whether it is the result of historical ignorance or deliberate deceptiveness, it is a fallacy that undermines his entire argument and reduces his effort to a pointless demonstration of ahistoricism. The result is a sloppy and unconvincing book, one that will only convince those who want to believe that the man who once declared that he was “proud to be a liberal” was anything but.

Klobas’ review inspired some worthwhile discussion that I’ve taken part in. With my first comment, I threw out my standard position that the political beliefs and values of actual people often don’t fit the MSM-propagated ideological stereotypes and straw-man arguments, my position being related to the reasons given by John King above. I then added, in a later comment, a lovely quote by Mark Twain:

Conservatism is the blind and fear-filled worship of dead radicals.

That quote supports the view of Corey Robin in painting conservatism as inherently reactionary. I’m largely persuaded by this view specifically in terms of movement conservatism, but I’m also wary about generalizing too much. I’ve come across people who seem politically conservative in many ways while not seeming reactionary, maybe even being overtly anti-reactionary.

Then again, I suppose any ideology could theoretically be taken up by a reactionary because, as described by Robin, co-opting ideologies is the precise talent of reactionaries. Robin’s reactionary conservatives, in his telling, originally fought against the traditionalists (i.e., the pre-Enlightenment ancien régime) and yet today they stake a claim on this very traditionalism or at least on its rhetoric. That is a part of Stoll’s argument in claiming JFK in relation to his being a Catholic since, after all, the Catholic Church is one of the last vestiges of traditionalism in the modern world. Stoll goes so far as to call JFK a theocon.

But Catholicism is also behind the communitarian values that, following WWII, made Catholics the single largest group of union members. Is this communitarian aspect of traditionalism also conservative? Or do conservatives just want to pick and choose which aspects of traditionalism they will accept as they pick and choose which aspects of liberalism to co-opt? Is conservatism, at least the American-style reactionary conservatism, anything other than the taking of certain remnants of traditionalism and welding them to the established liberalisms that have become inseparable from the American identity?

In the vein of Mark Twain, this ideological confusion was stated in the following manner by Gunnar Myrdal (in An American Dilemma):

America is conservative in fundamental principles… But the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.

This relates to what researchers have found about most Americans being symbolic conservatives and pragmatic liberals. What this means is that, when given a forced choice of two options, most Americans choose to identify as conservatives instead of liberals. But this is just a label. When asked about specifics, they support mostly liberal positions. So, this ‘conservatism’ of the majority isn’t conservative in any fundamental sense.

As expounded upon in this passage by Louis Hartz (in The Liberal Tradition in America):

But how then are we to describe these baffling Americans? Were they rationalists or were they traditionalists? The truth is, they were neither, which is perhaps another way of saying that they were both. [ . . . ] the past became a continuous future, and the God of the traditionalists sanctioned the very arrogance of the men who defied Him. [ . . . ] one of the enduring secrets of the American character: a capacity to combine rock-ribbed traditionalism with high inventiveness, ancestor worship with ardent optimism. Most critics have seized upon one or the other of these aspects of the American mind, finding it impossible to conceive how both can go together. That is why the insight of Gunnar Myrdal is a very distinguished one when he writes: “America is … conservative… . But the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.” Radicalism and conservatism have been twisted entirely out of shape by the liberal flow of American history. [ . . . ]  The ironic flaw in American liberalism lies in the fact that we have never had a real conservative tradition.

Given this, what does it even mean to call any American a ‘conservative’? Or for that matter, a ‘liberal’?

Part of the confusion comes from those who seem to think conservatism and liberalism represent clearly defined ideological systems instead of general persuasions, often vague and inconsistent. Depending on context, these general persuasions can be expressed in many ways and take many forms. This understanding is articulated well by Alan Wolfe (in A False Distinction):

[E]verywhere I go, the moment I tell people that I have written a book about liberalism, I am invariably asked which of the two I mean. Classical liberalism, my interlocutors patiently explain to me, is that wonderful notion of the free market elucidated by Adam Smith that worships the idea of freedom. The modern version, by contrast, is committed to expansion of the state and, if taken to its logical conclusion, leads to slavery. One must choose one or the other. There really is no such thing, therefore, as modern liberalism. If you opt for the market, you are a libertarian. If you choose government, you are a socialist or, in more recent times, a fascist.

I try to explain to people that in my book I reject any such distinction and argue instead for the existence of a continuous liberal understanding that includes both Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. But so foreign is this idea to them that they stare at me in utter disbelief. How could I have possibly written a book on liberalism, I can almost hear them thinking, when this guy doesn’t know a thing about it?

[ . . . ] I think of the whole question of governmental intervention as a matter of technique. Sometimes the market does pretty well and it pays to rely on it. Sometimes it runs into very rough patches and then you need government to regulate it and correct its course. No matters of deep philosophy or religious meaning are at stake when we discuss such matters. A society simply does what it has to do.

When instead we do discuss human purpose and the meaning of life, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes are on the same side. Both of them possessed an expansive sense of what we are put on this earth to accomplish. Both were on the side of enlightenment. Both were optimists who believed in progress but were dubious about grand schemes that claimed to know all the answers. For Smith, mercantilism was the enemy of human liberty. For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.

This diversity within liberalism goes for issues like defense as much as with economics.

Some liberals are pacifists, but as far as mainstream politics goes there are probably more liberals that tend toward war hawk positions than the opposite. We aren’t a nation of pacifists and so mainstream liberalism in this country has never been primarily defined in opposition to strong defense. Reflections of this can be seen in the parties as they shift in their positions. An analysis by John C. Goodman, imperfect though it is in other respects, gets at this particular point:

Take the issue of national defense: The Kennedy-was-a-conservative crowd points to the fact that Kennedy was the pro-defense candidate in the 1960 election.

He accused Eisenhower of allowing a missile gap to occur and letting the Soviet Union become the stronger power. His solution? More silos with more missiles.

If you find it perplexing that a liberal Democrat would take that position, you are probably too young to remember that for most of the 20th century the Democratic Party was the party of war. The Republican Party was the party of peace.

In fact, a not inconsiderable faction of the Republican Party was downright isolationist. Our anti-communist Cold War foreign policy was almost completely shaped by Democrats.

Although he was a general, Eisenhower was elected to end the Korean War and give us international peace and stability. On his way out of office, he warned of a “military industrial complex.”

By contrast, Kennedy escalated the Vietnam War and his policies toward Cuba almost got us into World War III on two separate occasions.

It wasn’t until we got to the 21st century that the party’s positions had clearly reversed. Today, it’s the Republicans in Congress who worry that the sequester is taking too much away from the Defense Department. Most Democrats couldn’t care less.

Goodman makes a point I hadn’t considered. I’m not familiar with this apparently significant isolationist contingent of the GOP at that time. Richard Eskow made the same point in reference to George F. Will’s argument:

Will then pivots to the Vietnam War, citing Kennedy’s alleged commitment to that conflict as evidence of his conservative bona fides. But Will only convinces us that he himself is a creature of the 1960s, when support for military intervention was assumed to be the “conservative” position. The opposite has often been true in American history. Interventionism has often been seen as liberal and isolationism as conservative.

The warlike nature of today’s conservatives is more likely the result of their campaign donations from big defense contractors, together with their hostility toward Muslims. Kennedy’s military doctrine was incomplete, but even at its most aggressive it had nothing to do with conservatism.

According to the simplistic interpretation of the political spectrum, are we to claim these isolationists were weak liberals? Is Ron Paul a weak liberal today for believing it is wrong to belligerently and wastefully use the military? Is JFK more of a conservative than Ron Paul? I’m willing to bet Ron Paul would disagree. I just don’t see this kind of thing as a fundamental divide between liberalism and conservatism. Besides, I don’t know why conservatives would want to equate conservatism with belligerent warmongering and suicidal brinkmanship. Gene Healy of the Cato Institute wonders the same thing:

It’s a strange view that favors confrontation and foreign-policy “toughness” as ends in themselves, even at the risk of nuclear annihilation. But then Stoll has a lot of strange views on foreign policy. On Vietnam, where JFK had deployed some 16,000 troops by 1963, Stoll writes, “President Kennedy and the national security team he brought into office have been faulted for leading the country into the Vietnam War without clear objectives … a formal declaration of war [or] an exit strategy”; however, “that criticism should be discounted for [sic] the fact that South Vietnam fell to Communist North Vietnam only in April of 1975.” (If you never end the war, you never have to ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake.)

Doug Mataconis, commenting on this quote of Healy, clarified the issue at hand:

Of course, Healy’s critiques about Kennedy’s record are  precisely the kinds of things that a conservative of Stoll’s variety admires, so it’s not entirely surprising that he’d try to claim the Camelot legacy for the right. I have to agree with Healy, though, that while Kennedy’s actions may have been consistent with the views of the time they are hardly something that modern conservatism should seek to claim as its own unless it wants to return to the big government conservatism of the Bush years.

However conservatives want to define themselves, the point that Eskow makes, like Goodman, is that Kennedy was fundamentally a moderate:

In his finest moments, John F. Kennedy heard the music of his moment and made it better. That’s not conservatism, or centrism, or even pragmatism. It’s leadership.

I would be less generous. I’d simply call JFK a professional politician. What some might call moderateness, I’d call realpolitik. JFK was doing what any professional politician would do during the Cold War, whether conservative or liberal. The public was demanding that their politicians be Cold Warriors. It was the mood of the times:

Similarly, as Steinglass notes, Kennedy’s foreign policy was no different than most members of his own party at the time. In those years before the Vietnam War, when the Cold War was still very, very hot, in fact, the anti-Communist containment policies that Kennedy pursued were pretty much universally shared across the leading members of both political parties. Moreover, during the 1960 campaign, part of then Senator Kennedy’s argument against Vice-President Nixon’s campaign was the allegation that existed at the time that the United States was falling behind in the race to create a sufficient stockpile of missiles capable of striking the Soviet Union in the event of nuclear war, thus endangering our nuclear deterrent. In other words, Kennedy ran to Nixon’s right on foreign policy to some extent, although it turned out at the time that existing intelligence, which Kennedy didn’t have access to at the time, showed that the so-called missile gap was largely non-existent. This is also the same John F. Kennedy who went ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion, stood up to the Soviets over the Berlin Wall, successfully stared Khrushchev down over the Cuban Missile Crisis, and expanded the U.S. involvement in South Vietnam that had started under the Eisenhower Presidency. While one might be tempted to call this a conservative foreign policy, the truth is that it was really just a continuation of the then-existing bipartisan consensus and that a President Nixon elected in 1960 most likely would not have acted any differently than President Kennedy did during his two and 3/4 years in office. Kennedy’s foreign policy was, then, neither liberal nor conservative as we understand those terms today.

Whatever the case may be about JFK’s early political career, many argue that JFK became more liberal. Joe Strupp summarizes the views of several historians:

Allan Lichtman, American University distinguished professor of history, agreed. Although he noted that Kennedy started out his presidency as a “very moderate Democrat,” he adds that “he evolved and changed over time and moved to a much more liberal position internationally and in domestic policy.”

If he had lived longer, maybe he would have become even more liberal still as did his brother, Bobby Kennedy. We can speculate endlessly and, depending on our political biases, our speculations could go in many directions.

(Continue reading: part three)

JFK, Liberal

(Part one of four: one, two, three, and four)

Some on the right have argued that John F. Kennedy was a conservative.

This argument has recently gained attention because of a book by Ira Stoll that was published this year: JFK, Conservative. It has created a bit of a stir in the mainstream media. It seems to be mostly people trying to grab a bit of the JFK assassination semi-centennial limelight.

Still, not everyone is interested in this media game of making outrageous statements. As demonstrated by the Cato Institute Vice-President Gene Healy, at least some on the right won’t embrace this tactic of co-opting liberals for the conservative cause:

Stoll lays it on pretty thick: in his telling, JFK was a great president, a good man, and—no kidding—a good Catholic. Moreover, Kennedy’s policies—his “tax cuts, his domestic spending restraint, his pro-growth economic policy, his emphasis on free trade and a strong dollar, and his foreign policy driven by the idea that America had a God-given mission to defend freedom”—show that he was, “by the standards of both his time and our own, a conservative.”

It’s a cramped, reductionist account of conservatism, one that collapses the entire political tradition into its neoconservative variant. But an even less charitable person than I could make the case that it’s a fair approximation of “actually existing conservatism,” and Stoll’s thesis has already received a fair bit of praise from commentators on the Right.

God help us. If our 35th president—fiscally profligate, contemptuous of civil liberties, and criminally reckless abroad—is a paragon of modern conservatism, conservatism is in even worse shape than I thought.

Albert J. Menendez who is the author of two books on JFK, after pointing out that “[h]e was a liberal in the context of his times, and Congressional Quarterly and others who rated his votes in Congress asserted his liberalism.”, put his conclusion more bluntly:

Certainly, Southern racists and segregationists and Goldwater supporters did not see Kennedy as a conservative. And African Americans all over the South placed his picture on their walls after Nov. 22, 1963.

Or as Leo Ribuffo, a George Washington University history professor, likewise stated it (in being quoted in an article by Joe Strupp):

“He certainly wasn’t considered a conservative at the time by the rising conservative movement like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater,”

As many have pointed out, Stoll’s argument is similar to that of claiming Ronald Reagan as a liberal. Even a strongly conservative commentator like Albert Milliron understands there is nuance in the views of politicians and yet still refuses to accept JFK into the conservative fold:

We think that JFK was as conservative as Bill Clinton. Probably the reason we didn’t jump on the “JFK is a Conservative” bandwagon.  I have often seen folks point out that Nixon and Reagan had some ‘Liberal’ ideas.  But that doesn’t make the sum total of their political life liberal, just as some of JFK or Clinton’s conservative statements or policies made them a Conservative.

Then again, I would add that there is actually more evidence supporting Reagan being a liberal. Reagan originally was a New Deal Democrat and president of a union, was a progressive who only later in life turned neocon.

Distinctions do need to be made.

Unlike Reagan, JFK never changed parties. It wasn’t JFK or the Democrats who changed. It was Reagan who helped change the Republicans when he transformed his progressivism into neoconservatism. “Republican praise of Kennedy,” explains Bernard Von Bothmer, “began with Ronald Reagan, who presented himself as a political admirer and even descendant of Kennedy.” That is because he in fact was a descendant of the progressive liberalism of the Democratic Party.

But in the process of becoming a neocon, Reagan discarded JFK’s confidence in seeing the government as part of the solution. JFK had no desire to Starve the Beast or wait for tax cuts to trickle down, as many others have articulated:

Stoll’s case for JFK’s domestic conservatism rests heavily on his commitment to a tax cut passed three months after his death. On November 22, Stoll notes, Kennedy was en route to the Dallas Trade Mart to stump for reduced rates: “he was fighting for a tax cut to the end”—the martyred Christ of supply-side economics (or military Keynesianism, depending how you look at it). Tax cuts weren’t a conservative litmus test at the time, however; as Stoll notes, Goldwater feared that the Kennedy cuts “would lead to deficits, inflation, and even bankruptcy.”
(Gene Healy, Kennedy Was No Conservative)

“It’s rather silly to portray him as a conservative,” Critchlow said, later adding that the tax cut “doesn’t make him Republican or a conservative. He was trying to pursue policies, a new policy that would address the issues of three recessions in the 1950s. He wasn’t an extreme left-wing Democrat, but he wasn’t a Republican.”
(Joe Strupp, Historians: Right-Wing Media Claims Of A Conservative JFK Are “Silly” And “Ludicrous”)

Fair’s fair, but what’s really amazing about Will is that he can’t even see that liberals would see it this way. In his mind, liberals are yearning for a 100 percent tax rate so any admission that any rate—even 91 percent!—might be too high, suddenly turns JFK into Grover Norquist.
(Matthew Yglesias, George Will Hails JFK’s 70 Percent Income Tax Rate)

Yes, JFK supported cutting taxes back in the early 1960s, but then so did many members of his own party, as the fact that he was able to get his tax cut package through a Congress overwhelmingly controlled in both Houses by the Democratic Party. That doesn’t mean, however, that, were he alive today, he’d be signing on to Grover Norquist’s tax pledge and supporting calls to shut down the government rather than agreeing to any tax increase at all. Making that argument involves nothing less than drawing the kind of false historical analogies that only a blind partisan would make.
(Doug Mataconis, John F. Kennedy A Conservative? No, Not Really)

Kennedy’s statement needs to be put in the proper historical context. When Kennedy gave that speech the top marginal tax rate – the tax rate for the nation’s highest levels of income – was 91 percent. The “conservative” cut passed after Kennedy’s death lowered it to 77 percent. Today it’s 39.5 percent, a figure Kennedy couldn’t have imagined and certainly wouldn’t have supported.

Two liberal economists, Nobel Laureate Peter Diamond of MIT and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley, recently concluded that the most effective top tax rate – the one that would create the most “jobs and income and eventually more revenue” – is 73 percent. When today’s conservatives embrace rates like that, we’ll call John Kennedy a conservative.
(Richard Eskow, The “Real JFK” – Not Conservative, and Not Forgotten)

Among historians, the general consensus is that is that Kennedy’s economic fix had a significant — though complicated — long-term effect on the economy. Nearly all agree that his policies were partly responsible for the golden era of the mid-1960s, a time when the U.S. experienced vigorous economic growth. By 1966 — almost three years after Kennedy’s death — stock prices were soaring, the economy was expanding at a rate of 6.6 percent, and the unemployment rate stood at just 3.8 percent. His agenda included an increase to minimum wage, an expansion of unemployment benefits, improvements to Social Security benefits to encourage workers to retire earlier, and greater spending on highway construction and urban renewal. In essence, he was pushing Congress to jump start the economy by increasing government spending, as NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax explained on a NPR-affiliated public radio station earlier this week.

One tool Kennedy employed to encourage an economic recovery seemingly contradicts that liberal agenda. He cut taxes — despite concerns from conservatives who feared his policies would greatly increase the deficit. In response to his critics, the president famously said “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
(Meghan Foley, JFK and Obama: The Recession Presidents)

Furthermore, Kennedy’s goal was a Keynesian demand-side cut: He wanted to create a deficit in order to assist the economy by putting money in the hands of middle- and working-class consumers. Reagan’s tax policy, a supply-side cut, aimed to raise revenue and reduce the deficit; he wanted to put more money in the hands of business leaders and the wealthy in order to spur investment.

Finally, Kennedy’s ultimate plan was to use government spending to increase purchasing power, the opposite of what Reagan wanted. As Kennedy told his economic adviser, “First we’ll get your tax cut, and then we’ll get my expenditure program.”
(Bernard Von Bothmer, The right’s JFK myth: Now they claim he was conservative)

He did so in order to run a larger budget deficit, because his economic advisers, including Arthur Okun and Walter Heller, believed this would provide a Keynesian stimulus to demand. Neither Kennedy nor his advisers believed in the subsequent supply-side theory that gained credence in the 1970s, which held that low marginal rates on the very rich were crucial to stimulate investment. One of his advisers, James Tobin, explicitly said the income-tax cut would provide a short-run economic stimulus but would do nothing to promote investment “except in the general sense that prosperity is good for investment.”

Another way to look at this issue is to look at Kennedy’s justification for the tax reforms in 1961, when he originally proposed them. The initial list of reforms does not even mention a cut in the top marginal rate. It does, however, spend a lot of time arguing for taxing dividends as ordinary income, since lower rates unfairly privilege the rich who are the overwhelming beneficiaries of dividends.
(M.S., This week in up-is-downism)

Robert Schlesinger, in US News and World Report, writes that Kennedy as a conservative tax-cutter “is a powerful myth, but it is a myth”.

Tax cuts for Kennedy, he argues, were a means to an end – in much the same way as tax cuts later proposed by Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. “The key distinction is that JFK and his successors saw tax cuts as one of many available economic tools,” he writes. “Indeed Kennedy, like Obama, favored both tax cuts and spending increases to stimulate the economy.”

“Neither Kennedy nor his advisers believed in the subsequent supply-side theory that gained credence in the 1970s, which held that low marginal rates on the very rich were crucial to stimulate investment,” writes Matt Steinglass for the Economist. “One of his advisers, James Tobin, explicitly said the income-tax cut would provide a short-run economic stimulus but would do nothing to promote investment ‘except in the general sense that prosperity is good for investment.'”
(Anthony Zurcher, JFK, conservative hero?)

I hope that clears things up.

To question JFK’s liberal credential is ultimately to question the liberal credentials of the entire Democratic Party establishment.

One could note that some have argued, Rachel Maddow most recently, Clinton was the best Republican president ever and similar things have been said about Obama (following Bush military policies and pushing healthcare reform that serves big biz insurance companies is hardly the New New Deal we’ve been waiting for). And indeed, some have more favorably and less favorably compared Obama to JFK. Unsurprisingly, as time goes by, conservatives increasingly reminisce about Clinton. Give it a few more decades and someone will write a conservative hagiography of Clinton similar to that of Stoll’s book. In the words of Jim Antle:

Noting that many contemporary conservatives now celebrate liberals they once opposed—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and John F. Kennedy among them—the late columnist Joseph Sobran predicted they would one day embrace Bill Clinton and remain conservatives in good standing. That day has come to pass.

The Democratic Party following Clinton’s third-way politics can at times feel like Republican-lite, no doubt about that. But how does that make a liberal icon like JFK a conservative of the variety defended by movement conservatives? If JFK is a conservative through and through by the standards of today and of the past, then what the heck is liberalism besides a bizarre straw-man argument made in the ‘Commie’ image of the Cold War Red Scare? Or do conservatives want to make liberalism into such a wimpy shade of its former self, so small that like government it can be drowned in a bath tub? Portraying liberals as scary and wimpy is the conservative attempt at a one-two punch.

I just don’t get the agenda behind this, other than just messing with people’s minds and otherwise creating empty media buzz. In some ways, I don’t care about this entire debate, at least not on the terms it is being held. I’m more interested in the underlying issues and motivations.

I’ll put it this way:

If conservatives want to claim JFK, fine by me. But in that case, in order to be consistent they’ll have to claim a bunch of other typical Democratic politicians. That is something I doubt many conservatives would want to do. What they want to do is somehow entirely separate JFK from his Democratic Party roots which is an impossible thing to do. To claim JFK, conservatives will have to claim the Democratic Party worldview that he represented.

(Continue reading: part two)

Socialism: Conservative’s ‘Colloquial’ Definition

This is a continuation of my thoughts in a previous post, Against Capitalism: Democracy & Socialism. That post was partly written in response to my conservative dad’s view of socialism. I wanted to clarify what actual socialists supported vs what conservatives think they support. After making my correction, my dad didn’t disagree with it. But he did argue that his use of socialism was colloquial and so still somehow true or relevant for basic discussion.

Here is what my dad considers to be the colloquial definition of socialism: big government especially in terms of spending other people’s money, centralized power especially when abused, etc. I pointed out, however, that both parties have promoted policies that would fit under his definition of socialism despite the two parties being dominated by some combination of neoconservatives and neoliberals, political views that are very different from anything socialists advocate. In fact, socialists in the US are some of the most vocal critics of our present two-party system and those who control it.

From my perspective, this is sadly ironic to hear a conservative like my dad make this argument. By his own logic, the McCarthyist anti-communists were socialists which simply makes no sense whatsoever. Joseph McCarthy (along with others such as J. Edgar Hoover) was defending big government and centralized power against the socialists/communists who were challenging the oppression and injustice.

I once brought up the issue of the Bonus Army. I explained to my dad how this was an abuse of power. Despite the protest camp having signs up forbidding communists, despite the protesters being completely pacifist, the US government sent in troops to violently break up the protesters and killed some of them in the process. The US government’s rationalization, as I recall, was that they were harboring communists or that it might turn into a communist revolt or something like that. Once again, going by my dad’s logic, we are forced to conclude that the US government had been acting like socialists in attacking others as socialists.

So, you would think my dad would be against this abuse of power, although you would be wrong. My dad thought the threat of communists was real and so the abuse of power necessary. This means that it is acceptable to act like a ‘socialist’ when fighting perceived socialists (or one’s projections of fears about ‘socialism’); but when socialists don’t act according to the colloquial defintion of socialism it is acceptable to criticise theoretical ‘socialism’ and to pretend it has anything to do with socialism in the real world.

What my dad misses is that his colloquial definition of ‘socialism’ is only colloquial among anti-communists. How is it fair to use an anti-communist rhetorical frame as a way of discussing socialism in a fair and rational way? It isn’t.

Here is the source of much of this conflict of worldviews. My dad is of an older generation. He is on the young end of the Silent generation. He grew up with the anti-communist propaganda that began earlier in the century and manifested as full-blown paranoia during the Cold War. So, his ‘colloquial’ definition is grounded in propaganda. My dad was raised on that propaganda and so to him it is his reality… or, as I would call it, his reality tunnel since he is almost incapable of seeing outside of it. Even when I point out that real world socialists don’t fit his theoretical ‘colloquial’ definition, his anti-communist rhetorical frame, he still insists on his beliefs about socialism over the reality of socialism. He just can’t wrap his brain around the reality of socialism.

The generational issue seems key to me. The world was very different earlier last century. I don’t dismiss the dangers the Cold War posed. My point is that it has little to do with today. When I told my dad of a right-winger who became a left-winger, a socialist even, his entire sense of reality was blown because that just didn’t seem possible. My dad didn’t understand that socialism and libertarianism originated from the same opposition to abusive power, didn’t understand that many people are simultaneously socialist and libertarian.

When my dad was growing up, the frame of politics was Godless communism vs God-fearing capitalism and the conservatives of the time tried to conflate this with partisan politics, thus making the entire left into communist conspirators. Conservatives were largely successful in their reframing politics and so the entire political spectrum including both parties shifted to the right and have been shifting to the right ever since, even as the majority of Americans have been shifting left.

My dad doesn’t comprehend how much the world has changed. Most GenXers don’t see the world according to such frames. Rather, the frame of GenXers tends to be alternative vs mainstream, centralized power vs decentralized power, etc. Partisan politics and party loyalty mean a lot less to GenXers and maybe a lot less to Millennials as well at this point. Both parties are for big government that spends other people’s money and for abuse of centralized power. If a person wants to be against big government and centralized power, then they are morally compelled to be against both parties.

My dad, however, can’t quite bring himself to such a morally principled position. It goes against every fibre of his body. He is a partisan. It is the worldview he was raised in and so it is how he makes sense of the world. He recently spoke of the common partisan view that it is better to vote for the lesser of two evils. As such, my dad just wants to vote for the candidate who has the greatest potential of defeating Obama. What my dad and other partisans are oblivious to is both sides are playing this game. When both sides are voting for the lesser of two evils, evil always wins. I suggested to my dad that people vote their conscience instead, but he was utterly baffled by this concept and couldn’t imagine how that could work. In his mind, Americans have always voted for the lesser of two evils… and so how could it be otherwise?

My comments here also fit into another post of mine, Conservative’s Two Faces of Fear. The basic thought I had in that post is expressed in this comment about conservatives:

“They criticize both centralized government and grassroots activism. Both criticisms are based in their fear of democracy. They fear a government that would fairly and equally represent all people, including the poor, unemployed and homeless, including immigrants and minorities. But they also fear the people governing themselves through direct democracy for they fear mobocracy (and the same reason they fear grassroots organizations such as workers forming unions). These aren’t two fears but rather a single fear manifesting in two ways.”

I just now realized that this is the same dynamic playing out in the anti-communist frame. To conservatives such as my dad, their fears of socialism are tied up with their fears of democracy. In this, at least they are being consistent since social democracy and democratic socialism are two sides of the same coin. What this kind of conservative fears isn’t big government, but rather big government that represents all equally and fairly (democracy) and that serves all equally and fairly (socialism). What this kind of conservative fears isn’t grassroots activism, but rather grassroots activism that gives voice to all equally and fairly (democracy) and that demands economic and social justice for all equally and fairly (socialism).

Even when confronted with the reality of democratic socialism, my dad feels compelled to hold onto the anti-communist frame that distorts this reality. Why? Because his entire worldview would fall apart without it. The reality of democratic socialism (especially in context of it being inseparable from the reality of social democracy) undermines all of his beliefs and values. To fully confront this reality would portend an existential crisis. Outer revolution (or even the potential of it) must be suppressed because the outer turmoil mirrors an inner turmoil every ideologue struggles with. If the simplistic political frame fails to give adequate meaning and to maintain a semblance of order, one’s personal reality will crumble.

The question that arises is this: Can a conservative still be a conservative without attacking caricatures of communism based on their own projected fears? How could the conservative movement define itself without such scapegoats? If conservatives accepted the fact that some of the most socialist countries in Europe are also the most successful, how could they continue with their righteousness about laissez-faire capitalism and why would they want to?

* * * *

Additional thought:

I’ve identified as a liberal for all of my adult life. Recently, I’ve decided to identify as a socialist. I figured I might as well embrace the label of ‘socialist’ since any liberalism worthy of the name will automatically get labeled as ‘socialism’ by those on the right and probably even by many mainstream Democrats.

Still, whatever label I go by, my general attitude will always be liberal. To me, being a left-liberal is the same thing as being a liberal left-winger. When looking at the non-liberal left-wing, it is often hard to tell it apart from much of the right-wing. The ideal of liberalism, not necessarily the label, is what is important to me.

The core ideal (or one might say archetype) of liberalism is generosity of spirit and mind. In practical politics, this means: reaching out with compromise instead of unbending willfulness, seeking sympathetic understanding instead of righteous judgment, aspiring to common good instead of mere self-interest, advocating peace instead of conflict, etc. Or to put in Christian terms, this is the difference between Jesus’ message of humility, love and forgiveness and Yahweh’s message of divine authoritarianism, awe-inpsiring fear and righteous judgment.

The anti-communist frame is the complete opposite of the essence of liberalism. It isn’t just opposite in terms of ideology but also in terms of methodology. To exaggerate like this is to portray one’s opponent as a caricature and thus turn him into a scapegoat. The liberal would rather turn one’s opponent into a friend or at least into a partner. The liberal wants to work together. The liberal’s tendency toward socialism is based in their faith in human nature, both on the individual and the collective level. Liberals want to believe people are not only good but capable and desirous of doing good. Conservatives, generally speaking, don’t have such faith and tend to criticize those who do.

This is why conservatives tend to ignore the North European countries with their social democracies leaning toward socialism. Such examples prove that that the ideals of liberalism and socialism are possible.

The opposite dynamic, however, doesn’t exist or isn’t as commonly found. A liberal or socialist may criticize capitalism as being ultimately good, but they won’t deny and dismiss certain successes of capitalist countries. For the those on the right, if socialism is economically sucessful, their entire argument falls apart. For those on the left, their argument isn’t based on mere success in terms of some people accruing great profits and so such capitalist success doesn’t undermine the practical and moral factors of their argument. The complaint socialists have is that capitalism often is very successful in oppressing and eliminating, often brutally, those who oppose the capitalist system and/or the plutocratic elite. Those on the left acknowledge that might doesn’t make right, that material success doesn’t equate to moral justification.

In order to make the argument for my position, I don’t need to use an anti-capitalist frame to caricature and scapegoat all laissez-faire capitalists. To me, it is counterproductive to conflate all capitalism with all fascism or, on the other hand, to conflate all capitalism with all free markets. There is definite connections and crossover. Capitalism tends toward monopoly which in turn makes fascism (or corporatism, i.e., soft fascism and inverted totalitarianism) possible and more probable. But socialists don’t need to dismiss free markets in the way those on the right feel compelled to dismiss the freedom of democratic socialism. In fact, socialists have a history of redefining free markets as an antidote to capitalism.

So, as a liberal-minded socialist, I wonder why many conservatives are unwilling or unable to treat me as fairly in this same manner.

Those on the right tend to think in terms of either/or. Those on the left, or at least the liberal-minded left, tend to think in terms of both/and. Examples of this are seen everywhere.

Let me use the abortion issue as a representative example.

For social conservatives, abortion is a conflict between civil liberties and moral responsibility. Conservatives say they want to eliminate abortions, but ultimately it comes down to moral principle rather than practical results.

Liberals point out that countries with abortion bans don’t have fewer abortions, some even have more than average. More importantly, abortion bans lead to more dangerous illegal abortion practices which leads to damaged fetuses and hence babies being born with deformities and brain damage, plus abortion bans lead to the mothers themselves often being harmed or dying (and if the baby survives it will grow up without a mother). The only policies that have ever proven to decrease abortions are libeal policies (promotion of women’s health centers, comprehensive sex education, easy availability of contraception and birth control, etc). So, to a liberal, they don’t see a conflict between civil liberties and moral responsibility, and in fact they see moral responsibility as not possible without protection of civil liberties.

The liberal doesn’t want to take away the conservative’s right to choose not to have an abortion and neither does the liberal want the conservative to take away everyone else’s right to choose. The liberal ultimately wants to decrease the number of abortions more than the average social conservative because the liberal sees the life of the fetus as being part of the civil liberties discussion. The liberal sees nuance and complexity, but the conservative sees only their own unbending principles. Doing the right thing for the conservative is more important than any practical result. Despite liberals wanting to work with conservatives in developing a compromise, conservatives see compromise as defeat for the reason that even they recognize that compromise is a liberal value.

It’s because of the liberal mindset that I can desire BOTH a socialist society AND a free market economy. The liberal’s broad thinking reaches toward inclusiveness and so seeks out great visions that are up to the task. It seems that at present the conservative movement as a whole is incapable of this type of thinking and so treating their opponents fairly is outside of their ability as a movement. That said, individual conservatives may have more liberal predispositions in this sense and so coalitions may be formed with certain segments of the conservative movement. However, such coalitions aren’t as likely with more typically mainstream conservatives such as my dad, although that may be changing as the old conservative frames are being challenged.

Military-Industrial Complex: Cycle of Violence, Manipulated Public

During the Cold War era around the world, the US government committed immoral actions or participated in the immoral actions of others. These included the School of Americas, death squads, assassination attempts, coups, puppet governments, and on and on. The two most relevant incidents was our financial and political support of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. This support, of course, included buying weapons for these people (such as the chemicals Hussein used to kill his own population).

So, why is anyone surprised that this led to negative repercussions? People like Bin Laden and Hussein were tired of being manipulated by the US government and didn’t want to be told what to do. They were evil when we aligned ourselves with them and they continued to be evil when they no longer served our purpose, but the US government is far more evil in that it helped put them in power where they could commit great acts of evil. Do you want to fight the greatest evil in the world? If so, you’d have to start with Washington, DC.

What is the US government’s response to the evil they created? They wage massive wars against Bin Laden and Hussein, and in the process go back to the Cold War era methods of nation-building. Before the US attacked Iraq, the country wasn’t a threat nor were there any international terrorist organizations located there. Now, the country is filled with terrorist organizations plotting against the US. We’ve lost numerous American lives and we’ve lost our moral standing in the world. In seeking revenge for those who died in the 9/11 attack, we killed more innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq than innocent Americans have been killed by terrorists.

We are fighting wars that can’t be won and we’ve polarized a whole generation who will grow up to be a largescale organized force of terrorism that will be a threat to the US for decades. Just like during the Cold War, we’re just creating a new generation of enemies to fight.

Why do we or rather why do politicians do this? There are only two possibilities I can think of. You could just consider politicians to be stupid and ignorant, but that seems naive to me. Or you could take the cynical route and consider that it probably is an intentional plan. Even as American soldiers die, corporations with government contracts are making money hand over fist. Eisenhower warned about the Military-Industrial Complex and he apparently was correct. Corporations who make money off of war don’t want war to end because then their profits end. Military spending is the biggest chunk of the budget. In fact, it’s the biggest chunk of the economy in the entire world as the US spends massively more money on our military than all other governments combined.

Right now, some child in Afghanistan or Iraq is watching his mother or some other loved one die during an attack by US soldiers. That child will grow up with hatred towards the US and will join others whose lives were also destroyed by our military. One day, that child will commit some atrocious act against Americans. Right now, some politician or leader is being supported by our military and yet feels resentful at being manipulated. One day, that person will see an opportunity to use his power to do harm to the US. When that day comes, the American public will respond with its usual ignorant fear and the government will start the whole cycle over again… and the corporations will once again make huge profits.