Bram Boroson, Master of Subtle Ways and Straight (bram) wrote,

political rant

I continue to be surprised when it's expressed, as in this recent book by Matt Bai--that liberals and the left in the U.S. are out of ideas, or do not have the intellectual power or subtlety of conservatives.

First off, this seems just about 180 degrees from the picture I have.

And that's mainly because I think the liberal netroots blogosphere is responding to what we see on the right. Often we express rage in our blogs (and becoming angry over politics while blogging is a bipartisan phenomenon--must be something about the medium) because the right has said or done something outrageous.

For the Clinton decade (or so) we had to put up with right wing blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and during the Bush years we've had Karl Rove who ran the government along partisan lines and tried to push the image of anyone intelligent from the Northeast as effete and anyone opposed to conservative politics as nearly a traitor. And now with Fox News there's a major news outlet which I understand is transparently partisan in outlook.

And some of it may be that Bush's policies have not just been conservative but radical--he's wanted to roll back not just the Great Society but also the New Deal. There is the point that the economy has been changing: becoming globalized, with a growing "information sector"--but it's not clear either how much of this is inevitable nor that Republicans, who isolate the U.S. and who deny evolution and global warming and who are too squeamish for embryonic stell cell research are in the best position to promote future science and technology.

Now, some of my innate feeling that the left is the party of intelligence and ideas may be because we are "resting on our laurels"--in that almost anyone in a liberal arts college environment is liberal. I consider myself intelligent from the years growing up when I kept acing the standardized tests they gave me and kept skipping grades in math. But I am not a social scientist and have never studied economics seriously.

I think the crux of the issue must come to play in the evaluation of political ideas. Conservatives have had heavily-funded Think Tanks where they have honed their ideas and have their own newspapers like the Washington Times where they trumpeted their world-view.

The question is: was all that an echo-chamber? What's come to me through conservative blogs or e-mail list conversations hasn't seemed to me to be particularly insightful or subtle.

The NY Times book review of Bai's book calls the founder of Daily Kos an "intellectual lightweight" for not having read a founding book on Libertarianism--now to me that sounds pretty obscure (not like not reading J.S. Mill's "On Liberty" for example!), but perhaps conservatives, while pounding their "Willie Hortons" and "smoking guns as mushroom clouds" and all sorts of other rubbish to the public "debate" have had worthy ideas that they just haven't publicized that much? I've read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, clearly trash, which many libertarians endorse, but ok, maybe there's room for me to learn stuff.

I think the fact is that liberals and conservatives find different kinds of argument convincing--it's not merely a matter of who is making more rhetorical points or employing more fallacies. And these arguments appeal in the end to different visions of what's valuable.

As it is, I'm pretty baffled by this claim of intellectual vacuity from the left. We're the ones who've been damaged by the "egghead" label since Adlai Stevenson...

* * *


What gets me about the Iraq war, which isn't hammered home enough, has been the outrageous cost. "Well maybe we can still win this, don't you care about winning?" No, I don't care about "winning". "Winning" is for sports teams. It didn't matter whether the U.S. "won" or "lost" in Vietnam. Arguably, it didn't matter which side won World War I. Arguably, it's a very rare war which really makes a difference--history's made by evolution more than revolution, which is frequently unstable.

What I care about is that every week the U.S. is throwing away $3 billion, or the equivalent of the cost of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Hubble Space Telescope:

  • Gave the first accurate measurement of the Hubble constant (expansion rate of the Universe)
  • Helped settle the ages of the oldest stars in the Universe
  • By detecting far away supernovas helped measure and confirm the acceleration of the Universe
  • Has contributed to education in the U.S.
  • Has through Deep Field images given estimates of the number of galaxies in the Universe and has told us of the very earliest galaxies
  • Studied transits of extrasolar planets
  • Provided inspiring images and data available to anyone in the world to download
  • Studied the first modern nearby supernova (SN 1987a)


all those beautiful nebulas and galaxies and gravitational lenses etc. etc.

The Iraq war has:

  • Isolated the U.S.
  • Killed 4000 of our citizens (more than died on 9/11)
  • Wounded many more--who will require support all their lives
  • Exhausted the U.S. armed forces
  • Taken attention away from Afghanistan and the search for individual terrorists
  • Made millions of Iraqis into refugees


There may have been some silver lining to this fog of war, but it's hard to see one amid millions of refugees!

Money's limited and I'd rather have it spent by the government on projects that could uplift humanity and make life worth living.

I think what's most important here is not intellectual power (which perhaps conservatives have behind the scene but mostly one sees Limbaugh and his ilk) but one's vision of what society should be like. The conservative ideal is Sparta--like that move that was popular a year ago--it's life as war. Literal war, or unforgiving free market economics.
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