Struggling

Kevin Williamson shares his own story of growing up, and offers blunt advice for those tempted to caricaturize struggling whites in the same way struggle blacks and others have been stereotyped:

Our mortgage then was $285 a month, which was a little less than my father paid in child support, so housing was, in effect, paid for. And thus I found myself in the strange position of being temporarily without a home while rotating between neighbors within sight, about 60 feet away, of the paid-up house to which I could not safely return. I was in kindergarten at the time.

Capitalism didn’t do that, and neither did illegal immigrants or Chinese competition to the Texas Instruments factory on the other side of town. Culture didn’t do it, either, and neither did poverty: We had enough money to secure comfortable housing in a nice neighborhood with good schools. In the last years of her life, my mother asked me to help her sort out some financial issues, and I was shocked to learn how much money she and her fourth and final husband were earning: They’d both ended their careers as government employees, and had pretty decent pensions and excellent health benefits. They were, in fact, making about as much in retirement in Lubbock as I was making editing newspapers in Philadelphia. Of course they were almost dead broke — their bingo and cigarette outlays alone were crushing, and they’d bought a Cadillac and paid for it with a credit card.

They didn’t suffer from bad luck or lack of opportunity. Bad decisions and basic human failure put them where they were. But that is from the political point of view an unsatisfactory answer, because it does not provide us with an external party (preferably a non-voting party) to blame. It was not the case that everything that was wrong with the lives of the people I grew up with was the result of their own choices, but neither was it the case that they were only leaves on the wind.

Feeding such people the lie that their problems are mainly external in origin — that they are the victims of scheming elites, immigrants, black welfare malingerers, superabundantly fecund Mexicans, capitalism with Chinese characteristics, Walmart, Wall Street, their neighbors — is the political equivalent of selling them heroin. (And I have no doubt that it is mostly done for the same reason.) It is an analgesic that is unhealthy even in small doses and disabling or lethal in large ones. The opposite message — that life is hard and unfair, that what is not necessarily your fault may yet be your problem, that you must act and bear responsibility for your actions — is what conservatism used to offer, before it became a white-minstrel show. It is a sad spectacle, but I do have some hope that the current degraded state of the conservative movement will not last forever.

This is the same message, in spirit if not necessarily in tone, as J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. And that message is: pull yourselves together. Figures like Donald Trump, who perpetuate the “blame everyone, take no responsibility” mentality, are the heroin dealers in Kevin’s framework.

Owners v. debtors

Johnny Sanphillippo writes on “the death of household productivity” (the financialization of housing) and the ways in which it makes American life less resilient. I would add that it also makes life less authentic:

A couple of months ago a friend sent me some images from Florida. He and his family were visiting his wife’s parents who live in a comfortable retirement community. To quote: “Here’s where we’re staying for the next few weeks. Sun City Center. It’s very superficially nice. My father-in-law has had to look things up in the HOA rule book at least three times since we got here on Saturday.” …

The newest developments feature large homes with all the latest bells and whistles, but their physical design is exceptionally limited. The front yard is a little green toupee between driveways. There’s a useless strip between the homes so they are “fully detached” in spite of the collective legal nature of the HOA. The back yard is a patio up against a concrete wall. These are actually luxury apartments by other means. The inhabitants may be proud “homeowners” but the bank owns these buildings and collects rent every month in the form of mortgage payments with interest.

The majority of the American population currently lives in some version of the suburbs. This will remain true for the foreseeable future. The real question is how ever more people with increasingly limited resources under considerably more stress will occupy them – particularly as failing institutions squeeze them for revenue. This is an extraordinarily fragile and vulnerable set of living arrangements and it isn’t going to end well.

You’re not a homeowner until you’ve paid off your mortgage debt. Until then, you’re a debtor paying interest for your home in addition to taxes on the property. That’s often worse than renting, unless the home accommodates many people, multiple generations, multiple uses (living, eating, working, studying), etc.

Visiting the Museum of the American Revolution

I visited the Museum of the American Revolution in Old City, Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon for the first time. I’ve been looking forward to the Museum opening since news first broke a few years ago that it was coming. The way that the Museum has transformed what was a dead part of Old City (3rd and Chestnut) into an attractive, civically meaningful space is worth celebrating.

It was $19 for a ticket, and the entire space feels both traditional and modern, honoring the stories of the American Revolution in an uplifting way.

That was my impression from the visit: the Museum really tells the stories (plural) of the American Revolution as much as it communicates the meta-narrative of the revolution as a political and world-historical act. This was impressive, and I’m pleased in particular with the way that the story of the Oneida Indians is told, as well as littler moments like the incursion into Quebec and attempt to broaden the war there, along with the stories of prominent women and blacks in the war.

A disappointment was what felt like a propagandistic treatment of the idea of “liberty” in the American Revolution, one that spoke of liberty in the sense that it is ever expanding and implicitly destined for America to expand around the globe. The sense of the American Revolution as an essential conservative resolution, and indeed one of the only successful conservative revolutions in history, was not meaningfully communicated. There were some initial panels on the evolution of the idea of “American Liberty” as distinct from “British Liberty” and the historical role played by Britain in protecting rights—but there was not, to my mind, the necessary underscoring that the American Revolution didn’t represent a radical break with the past so much as a conservation of the best aspects and principles of ancient, constitutional self-governance and a fulfillment of Enlightenment-era ideas around the dignity and liberty of free peoples with respect to government. To some degree, I’m quibbling.

Overall, the Museum is an excellent addition to Philadelphia’s historical and educational landscape. It’s a substantial place of learning and appreciation, especially for visitors who have for too long suffered from too much kitsch in Old City and not enough meaningful history.

Science deniers

Keith Stanovich is author of The Rationality Quotient and emeritus professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto. He writes:

As a political strategy, this “party of science” labelling might be effective, but epistemic superiority cannot simply be declared on the basis of a few examples. A cognitive scientist is forced to be pedantic here and rain on the progressive parade. In fact, any trained social scientist would be quick to point out the obvious selection effects that are operating. The issues in question (climate science and creationism/evolution) are cherry-picked for reasons of politics and media interest. In order to correctly call one party the party of science and the other the party of science deniers, one would of course have to have a representative sampling of scientific issues to see whether members of one party are more likely to accept scientific consensus.

In fact, it is not difficult at all to find scientific issues on which it is liberal Democrats who fail to accept the scientific consensus. Leftists become the “science deniers” in these cases. In fact, and ironically, there are enough examples to produce a book parallel to the Mooney volume cited above titled Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left (2012). To mention an example from my own field, psychology: liberals tend to deny the overwhelming consensus in psychological science that intelligence is moderately heritable.

This isn’t the only instance of left-wing science denial, though. In the area of economics, progressives are very reluctant to accept the consensus view that when proper controls for occupational choice and work history are made, women do not make more than 20 per cent less than men for doing the same work.

Progressives tend to deny or obfuscate (just as conservatives obfuscate the research on global warming) the data indicating that single-parent households lead to more behavioral problems among children. Overwhelmingly progressive university schools of education deny the strong scientific consensus that phonics-based reading instruction facilitates most readers, especially those struggling the most. Many progressives find it hard to believe that there is no bias at all in the initial hiring of women for tenure-track university positions in STEM disciplines. Progressives tend to deny the consensus view that genetically modified organisms are safe to consume. Gender feminists routinely deny biological facts about sex differences. Largely Democratic cities and university towns are at the forefront of the anti-vaccine movement which denies a scientific consensus. In the same cities and towns, people find it hard to believe that there is a strong consensus among economists that rent control causes housing shortages and a diminution in the quality of housing. [Research citations for all the above are available from the author here.]

I will stop here because the point is made. There is plenty of science denial on the Democratic side to balance the anti-scientific attitudes of Republicans toward climate change and evolutionary theory. Neither political party is the party of science, and neither party exclusively contains the science deniers. Each side of the ideological divide accepts or denies scientific consensus depending upon the issue in question. Each side finds it hard to accept scientific evidence that undermines its own ideological beliefs and policies.

Bias is difficult to see. That’s one of the reasons that toleration and a healthy pluralism so important.

Constitution Day

When I woke up yesterday morning this was sitting in my inbox from Intercollegiate Studies Institute:

Constitution Day is this Sunday, September 17. That’s right: 230 years ago, our Founders signed the United States Constitution. …

There is no better guide to constitutional principles than We Still Hold These Truths by Hillsdale College dean Matthew Spalding. Don’t take my word for it: the Weekly Standard calls it “the single best introduction to the political thought of the American Founding.”

Happy Constitution Day. In light of the Constitution’s 230th anniversary I’ll share this photo I took at Washington Square in Philadelphia a few years ago:

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And this photo of John Marshall I took at the Philadelphia Art Museum a few years ago, that has a beautifully compelling and compact inscription on its podium:

John Marshall
Chief Justice of the United States
1801-1835

As soldier he fought that the nation might come into being.
As expounder of the Constitution he gave it length of days.

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Far more than simply voting, Americans can ask themselves how they can build lives and live in community with their neighbors in a way that gives our constitutional way of life further “length of days.”

The American dream isn’t finally about financial/material success or the pursuit of more. In fact, it’s the unique American dream of conserving the bounty of liberty that was build up over centuries and millennia from our English ancestors, and the Romans and Greeks before them, and their ancient ancestors and neighbors and on.

We have this great republic and the dream is that our children might, if we can keep it.

Congress decides war

Sen. Rand Paul’s decision to force a Senate vote on the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations on the Use of Military Force (AUMF) was heroic. In doing so, he forced every senator to go on the record for the first time in 15 years. Connor O’Brien puts this in context:

The Senate Wednesday scuttled a proposal by Sen. Rand Paul to repeal the war authorizations that underpin the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as military action in a slew of other countries.

The vote was 61 to 36 to table — or kill — Paul’s amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. The Kentucky Republican’s proposal would have repealed both the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force six months after the bill becomes law, giving lawmakers a tight window to pass a new framework for U.S. military operations overseas.

The first amendment vote on the defense policy bill H.R. 2810 (115) saw Republicans and Democrats join to defeat Paul’s proposal, while most Democrats and a handful of Republicans joined him to support the repeal.

In a floor speech Tuesday, Paul torched his fellow lawmakers for refusing to vote to authorize the myriad military actions the U.S. has engaged in since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I don’t think that anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty believes that these authorizations from 16 years ago and 14 years ago … authorized war in seven different countries,” Paul said.

“I am advocating a vote … on whether or not we should be at war,” Paul said. “It should be a simple vote. It is like pulling teeth.”

But the war powers vote didn’t come easy for the senator. Wednesday’s vote came after Paul blocked Senate leaders’ efforts to speed consideration of the must-pass defense policy bill for two days. Paul objected to procedural efforts to begin debate sooner and threatened to hold up all other senators’ amendments if he wasn’t granted a vote on his proposal.

Paul was joined by senators from both parties who supported sunsetting the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs in order to force Congress to debate and pass a new authorization that covers the current military campaign against ISIS as well as other contingencies.

Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, who has pushed for a new AUMF with Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, said it was “way past time” for a vote.

“There has been no particular motive or forcing mechanism that has made the [Foreign Relations] Committee take this up, bat it around, hear from experts, debate, amend it and send it to the floor,” Kaine said of his and Flake’s proposal.

“Of all the powers Congress has, the one that we should most jealously guard is the power to declare war,” he said.

But opponents of the measure argued repealing the two war resolutions on such a quick timeline would endanger military operations in Afghanistan and against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and send mixed signals to U.S. troops and allies overseas.

“I did not expect that 16 years later we would still be engaged in the evolution of that fight that began on 9/11,” said Senate Armed Services ranking Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island. “But we cannot, I think, simply stop, threaten to pull back our legal framework with the expectation that in six months we will produce a new and more appropriate authorization for the use of military force.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell piled on Wednesday, arguing a repeal of the legal framework for military operations against terrorist groups “breaks faith” with the troops.

As far as Sen. Jack Reed’s comments go, the entire problem is that there is no meaningful legal framework for our military actions at present. The Taliban government was desposed years ago, and Osama bin Laden was killed long ago. Sen. Mitch McConnell should be ashamed of politicizing our armed forces.

Tom Burnett’s country

It’s September 11th. In light of America having lived through the so-called Flight 93 election, I thought it was worth highlighting Alexander Riley’s Flight 93 reminiscence:

As the full scope of the tragedy came into focus with the passage of the hours, we learned about still other heroes, whose signature act was hidden initially by the confusion of the day, but whose deeds  in time became legendary. These were the men and women aboard United Flight 93.

Their plane was delayed in takeoff by almost an hour due to airport traffic. Because of the delay, the forty passengers and crew members aboard were able in the minutes after it was hijacked to discover what had happened in Manhattan and in Washington D.C., while making cell phone calls to family and friends. They were horrified when they put the pieces together, as United 93 turned over Ohio to start back eastward. They were told by the hijackers that it would be best if they did nothing. Over the intercom, they heard the command in broken English: “Sit down, keep remaining seating…We have a bomb on board. So sit.”

But they knew what their attackers intended to do. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not randomly selected targets. They are symbols of American strength, American enterprise, the American spirit. Terrorism works this way. The passengers on Flight 93 guessed the hijackers of their plane were aiming for a similarly symbolic target. They gauged the magnitude of that intention and the unspeakable damage that fate would entail, both human and symbolic. And so, they did not sit down.

They stood up, and they put together a plan to resist the terrorists and thwart their designs.

Tom Burnett was one of the four men who spearheaded the effort to retake the plane. He had several conversations with his wife Deena that span the time from the hijack to mere minutes before the plane struck ground.

In the last of these calls, Deena told him of the strike on the Pentagon; she had earlier informed him that the World Trade Center had been hit. “It’s a suicide mission,” he immediately guessed. “We have to do something. I’m putting a plan together with several people,” he said. He told her they were waiting until the plane was over a rural area, at which point they would attempt to take it back from the hijackers. Her reaction was instinctively protective: “No!,” she emphatically responded. “Sit down! Don’t draw attention to yourself!” Tom told Deena to pray, adding: “Don’t worry, Deena. I’ll be home for dinner. I may be late, but I’ll be home.”

When I first read these words in Deena Burnett’s remarkable book about her husband’s life and death, I paused a moment, unsure that I had read the passage correctly. In the face of horror, in a hijacked plane flying at 40,000 feet on a suicide terror mission, he says these words? Not a hint of fear or despair. Unflappable. Confident. Supremely clear of vision and purpose, even while gazing on chaos itself.

This is what real heroes sound like. Those words have stayed with me all these years. They give me confidence, and they give me purpose, and they make me proud of this, my country, Tom Burnett’s country.

Rest in peace.