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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - William Murchison

RealClearPolitics - Articles - William Murchison

Last Build Date: Wed, 08 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

The Gay Marriage Fantasy

Wed, 08 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Such is the supposed effect of the Iowa Supreme Court's declaration last week that gays and heterosexuals enjoy equal rights to marital bliss. Nope. They don't and won't, even if liberal Vermont follows Iowa's lead.

The human race -- sorry ladies, sorry gents -- understands marriage as a compact reinforcing social survival and projection. It has always been so. It will always be so, even if every state Supreme Court pretended to declare that what isn't suddenly is. Life does not work in this manner.

The supposed redefinition of the Great Institution is an outgrowth of modern hubris and disjointed individualism. "What I say goes!" has become our national philosophy since the 1960s. One appreciates the First Amendment right to make such a claim. Nonetheless, no such boast actually binds unless it corresponds with the way things are at the deepest level, human as well as divine. Surface things can change. Not the deep things, among them human existence.

A marriage -- a real one -- brings together man and woman for mutual society and comfort, but also, more deeply, for the long generational journey to the future. Marriage, as historically defined, across all religious and non-religious demarcations, is about children -- which is why a marriage in which the couple deliberately repudiates childbearing is so odd a thing, to put the matter as generously as possible.

A gay "marriage" (never mind whether or not the couple tries to adopt) is definitionally sterile -- barren for the purpose of extending the generations for purposes vaster than any two people, (including people of opposite sexes), can envision.

Current legal prohibitions pertaining to something called "gay marriage" don't address the condition called homosexuality or lesbianism. A lesbian or homosexual couple is free to do pretty much as they like, so long as it doesn't "like" too much the notion of remaking other, older ideas about institutions made, conspicuously, for others. Marriage, for instance.

True, marriage isn't the only way to get at childbirth and propagation. There's also the ancient practice called illegitimacy -- in which trap, by recent count, 40 percent of American babies are caught. It's a lousy, defective means of propagation, with its widely recognized potential for enhancing child abuse and psychological disorientation.

Far, far better is marriage, with all those imperfections that flow from the participation of imperfect humans. Hence the necessity of shooing away traditional marriage's derogators and outright enemies -- who include, accidentally or otherwise, the seven justices of Iowa's Supreme Court. These learned folk tell us earnestly that the right to "equal protection of the law" necessitates a makeover of marriage. And so, by golly, get with it, you cretins! Be it ordered that.

One can say without too much fear of contradiction that people who set themselves up as the sovereign arbiters of reality are -- would "nutty" be the word?

The Iowa court's decision in the gay marriage case is pure nonsense. Which isn't to say that nonsense fails to command plaudits and excite warnings to others to "keep your distance." We're reminded again -- as with Roe v. Wade, the worst decision in the history of human jurisprudence -- of the reasons judges should generally step back from making social policy. For one thing, a judicial opinion can mislead viewers into supposing that, well, sophisticated judges wouldn't say things that weren't so. Would they?

Of course they would. They just got through doing it in Iowa, and now the basketball they tossed in the air has to be wrestled for, fought over, contested: not merely in Iowa, but everywhere Americans esteem reality over ideological fantasy and bloviation. A great age, ours. Say this for it anyway: We never nod off.

Agree with Obama or You're an 'Ideologue'

Wed, 11 Mar 2009 00:30:34 -0600

Now an ideology isn't the same as a philosophy: It's a structure of pure ideas that someone or other has concocted out of thin air to suit himself. Lenin was an ideologue. Hitler was an ideologue. Get the idea?

Those who regard the destruction of human embryos as equivalent to the destruction of people have made up this stuff -- see? Just spun it out of cotton candy. No "people" there! Just -- you know -- embryos. That's according to the Obama administration's fantastical account.

The President has things precisely backwards. In a stem cell context, the "ideology" is that Science, the great abstraction that only really smart people understand, trumps competing considerations. What Science wants, Science deserves -- didn't you know?

The "facts" of the matter are twofold: 1) a human embryo contains human life -- is human life (as any scientist will acknowledge), at least until destroyed for research purposes; and 2) not even Obama can "guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek" -- though we're going to burn through some goodly number of embryos while trying.

Everyone with a functioning brain cell knew Obama was going to throw out the Bush policy, because he campaigned on the issue. The real shock lies in recollecting just how wobbly is the pulpit from which he preaches. For all the disdain Obama showed the "political agenda" behind the Bush order, his redo on stem cell research is fluorescently political. Liberals, who make up Obama's biggest constituency, dislike the right-wing "fundamentalists" they accuse Bush of courting. Family members of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's patients clamor for intensified research into causes and cures. If you ran for president as the Un-Bush, you know what victory demands by way of performance.

During the campaign Obama talked of finding "common ground" on abortion and, presumably, other human life questions. Common ground turns out to mean, my ground, my rules, of course you're welcome to stand here on those entirely thoughtful and reasonable terms.

The most that opponents of stem cell research get is acknowledgment of their decency -- with the implied caveat that they ought to drop the "politics."

A long presidency, from the human-life (as well as the economic-financial) perspective, this is going to be. Indeed, the stem cell business raises the question -- leave ethics aside -- of how practical a presidency Obama's will prove.

As you reach out to hit the reset button -- Joe Biden's metaphor -- on American government, how much sense does it make to take aboard huge new difficulties as you purport to solve old ones? How about your critics? Do they need more ammunition -- rhetorical variety -- than they had anyway? Do they merit more than mere "respect" (as Obama put it) for a "point of view" being shut down? Or would that be more than "transformational," "post-partisan," politics truly demands?

The stem cell research order, for all that we saw it coming, joins the already long and growing list of fears about Obama's goals and operational style. Still, you learn who the "ideologues" are: people who don't see things the way their new president does.

President Obama Has Overreached

Tue, 03 Mar 2009 00:32:21 -0600

Our leader wants the country to be run by its national government. "Run by" isn't the same as "owned by. " The latter is inessential. A pliant Democratic Congress needs only direct the federal bureaucracy to direct states and private companies to act in particular ways -- to do particular things, to spend their money in particular ways. Theoretically the Constitution restricts government to the performance of particular duties. Alas, no one pays attention to the Constitution anymore, thanks mostly to the permissive U.S. Supreme Courts of past decades.

We approach, under Obama-ism, centralization of a sort unattempted here since, under infinitely grimmer economic circumstances, the first New Deal. Mr. Jefferson foresaw something of the sort. He warned, in 1821 that "When government ... shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated."

Tocqueville seconded the motion: "a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform" would turn citizens into "a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd." Don't bet against it when the administration is undertaking to calculate how much money you need -- and don't need.

That's the bad news. Here's the good. Our leader has overreached. What he's talking about is very unlikely, in bulk, to happen. That could be the upside of our financial mess. The economic assumptions that underpin his plan don't compute. He proposes financing national health care -- one might as well call it that -- through taxing the rich and ending the Iraq war. But if he confiscated every dime in the pockets and purses of "the rich," it wouldn't be nearly enough. What's more, there wouldn't be any rich left to harass -- and tax. You don't "grow" an economy, in Bill Clinton's phrase, by penalizing and pushing around investors and risk-takers. Come to think of it, the comrades of Soviet Russia fetched up -- hard -- against that sovereign human truth. A society run from the top is a dead, or anyway, hardly breathing, society.

It's also the kind for which only the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party voted last fall. Wanting to be shut of George W. Bush didn't, and doesn't, meant wanting to turn one's life over to Washington, D.C. Just how Obama came to think that's what it means isn't plain. Nor does it matter. If Republicans, conservatives, libertarians -- the president's intended victims -- have bat brains, they will understand this moment as shot through with potential and opportunity.

Intellectually incoherent as the GOP may recently have shown itself to be, one would have to be dumb indeed not to understand the recuperative implications in thwarting the proposed federal takeover of America, Inc. What luck -- a chance for redemption! The business at hand isn't labeling the president a socialist or something else; it's holding him accountable for the worst, most dangerous, most -- dare I say it? -- un-American budget proposal of modern times. Yes, yours, Mr. President.

God And Mr. Darwin

Wed, 28 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Proponents of the idea that an "intelligent design" informs the universe breathed more easily when the board voted to allow arguments having to do with the "sufficiency or insufficiency" of gaps or contradictions in the fossil record. The Times wondered, "how that differs from the old language of 'strengths and weaknesses.'" And so on. And so on ..

What we all intuit about the debate, to the degree it really is one, rather than a shouting contest, is what our Victorian forbears intuited: that evolution is less about fossil records and genetic adaptations than it is about the Lord God Almighty. It's the great religious controversy of our times: Did He or didn't He? Because if He did, major consequences ensue; if not, same story.

"With Darwin," a columnist in Britain's Daily Telegraph observes, "secularization and atheism began to have momentum." The pushback, which began immediately, goes on to the present day, immortalized, in American history at least, by the Scopes Trial in 1925, and by the invigorating movie based on the play about the trial, "Inherit the Wind," starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March.

Neither the trial nor the movie/play settled anything. How could they have? The two camps -- biblical and Darwinian -- merely bellowed past each other. The judicious judgment of John Henry Cardinal Newman that Darwinism "may simply be suggesting a large idea of divine providence and skill" left too much ambiguity to suit most. Ambiguity, when it comes to evolution, is a thing many people dislike strongly. On go the furor and the anguish.

It's hard, with it all, to see why the scientific types cling so feverishly to the creed -- alien to the whole of civilization, prior to the 19th century -- that God couldn't have dealt the cards originally. Well -- they respond -- it's because there's no evidence to show it. Possibly not. There is something else, though: a thing called common sense. Everything here and all around us just happened, without the intervention of a Designer? Isn't that just a little improbable?

Whittaker Chambers, observing his baby daughter's ear one day, sensed the argument for creation. Through volumes of fossil evidence his mind hacked with a dazzling blade. "No God" made no sense. I have thought the same thing about the body's digestive faculties. It all just -- you know -- happened? Tell me another one.

How you introduce God to classrooms armored in the secularism of the past century -- with pedagogues and politicians wary of breaking down some mythological "wall" between church and state -- is another matter entirely, one on which I don't expect to see us make much progress in our present mood.

So what happens now? "God knows" could be a cop-out -- or a scintillating revelation. Maybe we just leave the Darwinian theory to lie there and gather appreciation, or the reverse, as we await a Final Word. A God capable of making the world (assuming, as I do, that He did so) would seem capable of prying open fast-shut eyes that they might see His handiwork, and, seeing, come to know how it all happened.

The Comparative Insignificance of Politics

Tue, 20 Jan 2009 00:30:00 -0600

We'll see how it goes. For conservatives some pleasant surprises could lie ahead, for liberals some frustration and disappointment (and thus, for conservatives, more pleasant surprises!).

The "we'll see" factor in all this means that time spent prognosticating about economic recovery, or nuclear weapons in Iran, or Medicare, or Supreme Court appointments doesn't make much sense. The best thing about prognostications is that few who hear them remember them. No one really knows, though media sages -- especially those on the cable channels -- often seem to know everything.

A point worth noting, in precisely this context, is the comparative insignificance of electoral politics in daily life. Comparative -- not absolute. Politics matters. It merely happens to matter less than politicians and their enablers, including many of us voters, generally suppose.

It doesn't matter whether the Republicans or the Democrats are in: They're going to mess up, fall short and disappoint. My own sense of the matter is that Republicans tend to mess up less frequently than Democrats, but on the evidence of the past half dozen years, that claim might not stand up even in a Republican-controlled federal appeals court.

Politics deals most appropriately with the organization of human affairs: arrangements of one sort or the other concerning the ways humans live and work together, the means by which they cooperate to keep from killing each other. In classic politics, some times all you want is to keep people from killing one another. To make them love and admire and respect one another -- that's a different matter.

One gets the idea that much of the nation in January 2009 is poised for a love-fest, if not for the Age of Aquarius. It might be time, after years of acrimony, for a little sweetness and light. Who's going to make that happen, nonetheless? A new president? Not that this one lacks admirable traits, but come on. Governing is about policy choices that a majority inevitability inflicts on a minority, until their respective roles and the policies change again.

Political men and women don't "unite," they divide, as we shall see again and again in due course. Even within their own parties politicians divide over questions of power and how to wield it.

Generally, when a society functions well, it does so in those areas of life that flourish outside the public sphere -- families, churches, civic organizations and the like. Here the members rarely operate on the basis of raw power, acquired during bitter, head-counting contests for supremacy; they operate on the basis of mutuality and of consent to rules clearly understood, only occasionally disputed.

For keeping the national peace, for building highways, regulating the terms of trade, punishing evildoers, and so forth, hire a politician. He understands the uses and forms of collective power. For the upbuilding of community values, the nurturing and spread of shared norms, the cultivation of the spirit, the training of the heart -- apply elsewhere besides the corridors of government. Go to church, get married, or join a club.

What a good thing it is that politicians don't dominate us any more than they do. To the particular politician who undertakes now to lead us -- what can anyone say but God bless and all the luck in the world.

Those Poor, Poor Terrorists

Thu, 15 Jan 2009 00:30:00 -0600

On MSNBC's Morning Joe, an editor for the Financial Times can't see why there's any problem with showing how moral we are by going after those connected with the waterboarding of terrorists. Congressman John Conyers of New York, chairman of the House Rules Committee, is whomping up an inquiry into the Bush administration's interrogation and confinement policies for terrorists. Michael Ratner, president of something called the Center for Constitutional Rights, is the party who says he has evidence for war crimes trials.

What fun -- show the world what a nutty place America really is: executive and congressional power changes hands, and it's off to the courthouse to put away the losers in a nice quiet place. Nothing, huh, like showing your country's enemies how much your human side sympathizes with them! The wonders that this approach to abstract justice would do for the economy and national unity are almost indescribable.

Barack Obama, displaying a maturity larger than his campaign rhetoric sometimes suggested, told George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" that he isn't much in favor of the lynch party's aspirations, preferring as he does "to look forward as opposed to looking backwards."

Indeed. Why, he asked, would he want CIA agents "to suddenly feel like they've got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders"? Why -- an equally central, if on this occasion unremarked concern -- would America want to make atonement before its enemies did? To what end? That they might call off the whole jihad?

Obama indicated, further, he wasn't even going to rush out and padlock the Guantanamo Bay detention center, springing, in one way or another, "a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom may be very dangerous who have not been put on trial and have not gone through some adjudication."

Barack Obama, only a few days away from taking over the White House, is impressing conservatives more than he is some of those barely able to acknowledge George W. Bush's membership in the human race. You almost wonder if he planned this month as a good-cop, bad-cop routine: Work with me, Republicans, or I'll throw you to the loonies!

We probably may assume no Bush administration official is going on trial for Jack Bauer-like zeal in defense of the country: one reason being the admiration that hard-nosed, Bauer-like attitudes toward bad guys command in the real America.

That conservatives would yearn to beat terrorists within an inch of their lives is high-grade malarkey. It's indisputable that they make room in their worldview for certain harsh necessities -- killing enemies, for instance -- in defense of life and limb. By contrast, liberal ideologues like Michael Ratner live, to all appearances, in Never-Never Land. First they seem to suppose no malign consequences from accommodating enemies. Second, they seem to suppose normal Americans, as they watched those accommodations take shape, would smile patriotically and nod.

The times are out of joint, and not just economically. Who would have supposed, after 9/11, that the hunters of terrorists would command, in some quarters of American life, less concern than the poor, persecuted lambs they hunted to the ends of the earth?

Barack Obama's contribution to American history could consist in saving us from ourselves, and some of our grosser stupidities. On which view he'd better get started. There's a heap of saving out there to be done.

Bush and the Firing Squad

Tue, 30 Dec 2008 00:28:28 -0600

A popular cliché has it that "history will judge" whatever at a given moment requires judging. On that expectation the whole flap about Bush and his merits may impress the next generation as just plain weird. Bush hasn't by any means been the greatest chief executive since Washington, but then Keith OIbermann isn't the most astute commentator since Socrates.

In assessing the Bush stewardship we need to calm down -- get a grip. As president, as commander in chief, Bush might have performed better. So might Ronald Reagan. So might John Kennedy. Errare humanum est.

Where did Bush err? Well, clearly, in the weighting of causes to invade Iraq. There weren't any "weapons of mass destruction." On the other hand, 1) nearly everyone else thought there were, and that Saddam was willing to use them, 2) Saddam sealed his own doom by refusing cooperation with inspectors, and 3) Saddamite Iraq was a moral and political cesspool urgently requiring cleanup by someone some time.

Then anger over Iraq led to the silly but oft-repeated charge that Bush's anti-terror policies amounted somehow to a secret war on civil liberties.

Federal confusion when Katrina inundated New Orleans further diminished Bush's popularity ratings. Just why it did is hard to say in objective terms. America hadn't seen such a storm since Galveston, 1900. Both city and state officials behaved incompetently. The federal response might have been more immediate and energetic, but hindsight, as we know, is always perfect. Moreover, Bush directed to New Orleans vast amounts of money and supplies. The worst I can see he deserves, on Katrina, is a B minus.

So what is the deal with the Bush-despisers? Here's my own theory, preliminary in the way theories ought to be: All the malice and unforgivingness directed Bush's way grew from the Florida vote count, and from the persistent feeling among liberals and Gore partisans that "We wuz robbed," on account of which larcenous act the Bush administration was somehow illegitimate.

Defeat (adjudicated in the end by five conservative Supreme Court justices) stuck in the losers' craws, and they hadn't the desire to dislodge it. Revenge was what they wanted. They were the political equivalent of the baleful Confederate veteran on the cigarette lighter of some decades ago: "Forget Hell."

I don't say the lynch party set out to take down the president. I say they cut him no slack when stuff happened, demanded of him a perfection to which no politician could rise or aspire. On such terms the Bush presidency was doomed from the start: not least because the talking heads and writing hands of today belong largely to Democrats and other nonconservatives.

Maybe "W" wasn't the right man to start with, even for the GOP nomination. Still, he wasn't half as bad as his enemies seem to think. Question: How many terrorist attacks has America sustained since September 2001? Right, and yet there's more to offer in extenuation of "W" -- more that will be offered when the tumult and shouting die, as in time they always do.

Bernie And Jesus

Tue, 23 Dec 2008 00:00:00 -0600

Merry Christmas and Holy Christ-Mass, to the formal discomfort of many on both sides of the equation, seem entangled beyond efficient separation, although the year 2008 affords a fair range of opportunities for at least a certain degree of mental and emotional disentangling. A "merry" Christmas it won't be for many in the Dickensian sense of comfort and joy.

When you've lost your job, or your stock market funds have fallen by half, and when economic landmarks like General Motors seem barely able to stagger along, and a kind of reverse Santa named Bernie Madoff sneaks down the chimney to help himself -- under sorry circumstances like these -- the times appear manifestly out of joint, more screaming nightmare than fireside reverie.

That leaves the Christ-Mass in at least partial possession of the day. It may not be a bad thing. In fact, how could it be?

A principal frustration to the culture is how little the culture is able to actually control, hard as it works at the job of control. You think you've got your stock portfolio zipped up and encased in fleece and along comes Bernie Madoff to prove otherwise. The most democratic, most benevolent-minded government in the world, that of the United States, finds itself unable to guarantee the continued spread of good times. If General Motors can't cut it . !

Or is that too simple a formulation? What human institution, when we get down to it, never stalls, never sputters, never runs out of gas? Even the greatest military force in world history couldn't plant six feet under all the enemies of civilization living in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these still live to trouble us.

The message of the Christ-Mass, by contrast, is of divine care and love for the weakest, frailest, most vulnerable of us -- which is to say, all of us. The message has, to many ears, a quaintness, as if nothing made less sense than a "God" with a "Son" brought by a "Virgin Mother.'' What a load of it -- as critics and doubters see the matter. The purpose of Christmas, on this view, is no purpose at all, apart from deception that enriches the dispensers of the message.

We're thrown, then, back on institutions that fail again and again and again but seem, for all that, to lack plausible alternatives. The skeptics and foes of the Christmas message urge better regulation of swindlers and better safeguards against terrorists. That's about where it stops.

Talk about doom! Doom is thinking all you can do about Bernie Madoff is devise more effective traps for his like. That the Lord of the Universe might think in grander terms -- having to do with redemption and deliverance from sin -- isn't something that comes to mind in legislative chambers. Not that it should. The point wouldn't be that legislators need to figure out God's position on tax policy and mortgage oversight. The point would be that ordinary people looking for hope might turn elsewhere than to legislators, presidents, judges and political strategists.

To the central figure of the Christ-Mass? To the baby named Jesus? We all might -- should -- account that a dependable possibility. The ancient superstructure of Christmas, and of the religion that grew out of it, overshadows the mere busyness practiced by humans: the making of money and war, the passing of laws and edicts.

If God -- think of it, God -- came in love and humility to His people in the form of a baby, does not that consideration outrank everything else on earth, then and since then? Even the movements of the market? Even war, even peace?


Myths of the Assembly Line

Wed, 17 Dec 2008 00:25:00 -0600

The UAW, whose sit-down strikes had already overwhelmed General Motors' and Chrysler's resistance to unionization, wanted Henry Ford on the dotted line. Three years later they got him. The plight of the car companies wasn't born at the precise moment Walter Reuther fell down the steps, but you could see the mythology shaping up.

Or perhaps not. As the '40s ended, the mythology changed from urban struggle to suburban dream. Organized labor, while hardly forgetting the dirty, bitter going of the '30s, bathed in the transcendent radiance of hope and opportunity. Everything, going forward, was going to be spiffy. Got that -- spiffy! In 1948, Reuther wrung from the automakers an "escalator clause" pegging wage increases to the cost of living. In 1955, he won agreement that unemployed auto workers would be paid 65 percent of weekly wages for the first four weeks of unemployment and 60 percent for the next 22 weeks. Subsequently the figure climbed to 95 percent.

Comprehensive health care, tuition-refunds, life insurance, profit sharing, pre-paid legal service, bereavement pay -- off the UAW assembly line it rolled, contract after contract. Who paid? The auto-buying public paid. The automakers' contention that they pay workers $73 an hour takes into account the cost of pensions and health insurance for retirees. Still, no one disputes that Detroit's unionized active workers cost a good $10 an hour more than the nonunionized work forces that build Toyotas, Hondas and BMW's in the largely nonunionized South.

The heart of the auto "bailout" calamity is that the old model driven jointly by the UAW and the companies for years, pedal to the metal, finally collapsed: spark plugs exhausted, drive shaft broken, radiator rusted out. You can't -- apparently -- have domineering unions of the sort Walter Reuther managed during his tenure as UAW chieftain (which ended with his death in 1970). You have to have entities, both managerial and factory-level, deeply responsive to the realities of the marketplace. These realties are...? That no one today has to buy your car.

Getting to that place is the problem. The postwar, post-sit-down strike mythology of shared prosperity for union and companies still holds the UAW in thrall, and so also the media. The question is phrased: Do we "save Detroit" or don't we? The reality is that it's too late. The cheerful conspiracy between Detroit and the unions -- lay on the benefits and pass the cost to the auto-buying public -- begs for replacement by the more logical strategy of put-it-on-the-market-and-see-who-buys-it.

The bailout allows no latitude for reinvention. It's all about "saving Detroit" for a few more months rather than subjecting union and companies alike to the rigors of the competitive marketplace. You can hate all you want to -- maybe you should -- the thought of Detroit-related companies laying off workers or shutting down entirely, because down that way lies social and economic dislocation. A still more hateful prospect is general acceptance of the lie that all the industry needs is a new government-sponsored transmission overhaul.

The 21st century hasn't been kind to old industries, including my own, the newspaper business, as readers of news and information flee to the Internet. What do we want, we old hack journalists -- a bailout? Likelier a little space for reinvention that -- woe and alack! -- robs us of mores and memories but renews the survivors to fight another day.

We may or may not get such a space. One bets, anyway, we get it before Detroit does.

He Who Pays The Piper

Tue, 09 Dec 2008 00:00:00 -0600

There comes to mind a cautionary slogan I first heard in the '60s: He who pays the piper calls the tune. Indeed, and why not? Is government, in the end, a philanthropic entity? For what it does, it wants a return. Taxpayers should expect no less.

The auto bailout is setting up the auto industry... for what? Probably the reverse of success. Possibly its marginalization by Toyota and Honda and Nissan and Daimler Benz and Volvo. This is for sound reasons originating in that piece of wisdom about the piper and his tune.

The auto rescue bill sent to the White House for review on Monday predictably -- and you might say properly -- sets the federal government up as grand overseer of the auto business, with plenary powers to decide what the industry needs and what it should do.

The president (read: Barack Obama) is to name an executive branch functionary who will supervise the bridge loans to Detroit. By the end of next March, the industry will submit to this worthy a restructuring plan "for long-term viability and international competitiveness, including repayment of government financing, compliance with federal and state fuel efficiency requirements, achievement of positive net present value, rationalization of costs, capacity and proposals for restructuring existing debts. "

This functionary -- called "President's Designee" -- "will request from Congress additional powers and authorities he deems necessary to avoid disruption to the economy or to achieve a negotiated plan." Or he can submit his "own plan for long-term viability."

There's more to it than that. The proposal calls for a tight rein on executive bonuses; for a ban on so-called golden parachutes; for divestiture of company-owned aircraft. Ah. And "Presidential Designee will prioritize allocation of funds to Auto Manufacturers."

In the meantime, Sen. Christopher Dodd says GM should dump Rick Wagoner as chairman.

Much could change before perfection of the bailout proposal. The oversight component could be scaled back. For that matter, it could be intensified, and the automotive wrist bent farther and farther back. We see at least the lay of the land: Our government plans, on the condition of loaning money, to fix a major American industry; maybe "fix" it so definitively it never again stands upright.

None of which is to characterize the congressional proposal as wholly lunatic. A creditor's right to get his money back is due some respect. On the other hand, what qualifies a presidential "designee" to figure out when long-term viability has been achieved, or when costs and capacity have been "rationalized"? It all sounds like the early New Deal, or more ominously, like Britain, as it shucked capitalism in the late 1940s.

Only the marketplace, for all its blunders and miscalculations, figures things out with anything like efficiency, inasmuch as the marketplace alone is rational: the sum of individual decisions related to noncalculated, noncalculable needs, interests, intuitions, wild guesses, dumb calls and brilliant hunches, supported by private resources.

No "designee" can read the marketplace's mind; the marketplace somehow sniffs out what it wants, and what it wants five years from now, in the face of Washington's plans, could be foreign-built cars, not American ones.

Wouldn't that be a hoot? Federal oversight eventuating in the demise of the industry federal dollars had been deployed to save? Actually, it wouldn't be a hoot at all. It would be one more sign of failing nerve and morale on the part of the world's formerly most creative, most inventive nation.

Thanksgiving 2008

Wed, 26 Nov 2008 00:00:00 -0600

How did we get where we are and what does it mean? The second question is, likely, the more troublesome of the two. What next? The terrifying word "depression" crops up even in news accounts by no means suggesting the possibility of such.

Thanks for what? It takes a little rubbing of the temples to consider, nor would a crackling fire on a cold afternoon come amiss. Thankful for the deep things, the rooted realities may be the partial answer. Memory is key to unlocking the door on gratitude.

There were times when a sentence such as that could go anywhere. There were times when new settlers on new shores coped with hunger and disease and bitter New England winters. Or saw and heard danger in every bird call or suddenly sundered twig outside the fort. And still they kept going. There were times, still vivid in legend, when Americans killed each other to affirm opposed ideals -- the preservation of the federal union on one hand, on the other hand the preservation of local rights and the "peculiar institution" of human bondage. There were times when long lines of men waited wearily on public sidewalks for news of job openings, news that too rarely came. And still, somehow, they kept going.

There was a time when bombs, thousands of miles away, brought a stop to normal life on a quiet Sunday morning, and alerted families to the awful prospect that life as they had lived it was over, not to resume, if ever, for quite a while. And still they kept going: soldiers, sailors, workers, wives, husbands, children, churches. Because that was how things were, and with reality there just isn't any arguing.

One could go on. When do we finally get life right for everyone? When do the wars stop? When does everybody have a new SUV and all he wants to eat? Durned if we know. We keep going anyway. Someone says a word, strikes up a tune, makes a gesture, and it's onward, come on, let's get out of here.

A lady to whom I was related, born in 1911, a time when a child was by no means assured a safe passage to maturity, was wont to tell her children the story of a convict she'd read about. This worthy had experienced in a single day the delirious joy of escaping the clutches of the FBI and the crash of expectations when he was recaptured and again the handcuffs went on. How'd he feel? The convict sighed: In this life you got to take the bad with the good. It struck the lady who told the story as deep, if accidental, wisdom. Yes, that was how it was: life as mixture of the sad and the sweet. You had to keep going, that was all.

Thankful for what? For numerous things, not all of them baked fresh and laid on the table. Among the rooted realities of our vexing time is human freedom and a larger abundance of human good will than we often think exists. It means there's the chance, always, to move from the sad to the sweet in a land blessed by a Creator who chastens those he loves: who won't, in mercy, spare them the emptiness of life lived without challenge, remorse and failure -- these being the great shapers of human achievement. We keep going, somehow, to the next Thanksgiving.

Calling Things By Their Right Names

Wed, 19 Nov 2008 00:25:00 -0600

The voters of California, Florida and Arizona on Nov. 4 saw no such reasons. They enacted formal bans on so-called gay marriage. Thus, the scattered if occasionally sizable protests of a few days ago. The protesters don't like the old marriage norms -- one man, one woman. They want new norms, insisting on love as the only thing that matters.

End of debate. We want -- so give it to us. Now. Very post-1950s American, don't you agree?

The protesters use the language of civil rights. To quote the chant at a rally last weekend in Washington, D.C.: "Gay, straight, black, white; marriage is a civil right."

No, it's not -- not in the sense that desire equals lawful claim, binding on the whole community. To make such a claim is to argue for the dissolving of whatever underlies our life together, and for its replacement with any flickering want or wish.

One reason society guards traditional marriage with a certain jealous care is that marriage orders and regularizes the basic condition of life, namely, the male-female relationship. Society sets boundaries around marriage, establishes rules and rights, lets the parties know what they may expect, and what is expected of them in turn.

A second reason: Family is future. A mother, meaning a woman, and a father, meaning a man, bring life into the world. There's no other way to do it. Even in Dr. Frankenstein's experiments, a human body was the starting point.

The language of the gay marriage protesters is deliberately subversive. All they want, supposedly, is a crack in the legal door wide enough to admit partners of the same sex. That would be "marriage"? Not at all. It would be something wholly new in human experience, with consequences beyond imagining. You might as well call a lamppost a bottle of chardonnay as call the union of two gay people a marriage, howsoever kindly the two parties involved, howsoever generous and public-spirited. It's not about them; it's about us all.

Words like "honor" and "truth" -- yes, and "marriage" -- aren't just combinations of vowels and consonants. They have lives of their own. They point to how a thing is, not in opinion merely, but in reality. The joy of renaming a thing, of course, is that of reinventing it, substituting a wholly new "reality."

A non-normative marriage, once allowed, undermines the normative kind just by inference. If the norm no longer is the lifelong union of a man and a woman, we may count on the imaginative faculties of those most concerned to come up with new understandings. I don't think the proponents of gay marriage have in mind the extension of the matter to polygamy, but when you think it over, why not? It's what some people want. Shouldn't they have what they want? To deny a 21st century American his wishes (unless he's some Christian rightist or other) would be cruel and hateful.

It's some century all right: great in various particulars, awful in others, such as those touching on the care and conservation of the great truths that once joined all men and women, mind linking with mind, generation with generation. The other side of it is, Californians, when challenged on the point, knew what to do, and so did Floridians and Arizonans. As the Unsinkable Molly Brown would have it, we ain't down yet.

Advice for Conservatives in the Age of Obama

Tue, 11 Nov 2008 00:25:10 -0600

3. The exercise of power tends to sober. It sobers conservatives; it sobers liberals. Barack Obama will find in due course he doesn't even want to enact the whole mysterious and wonderful agenda he outlined to us over so many months, on grounds that said agenda looks in some ways less desirable or realistic than when originally advertised: for instance, the promise to spend untold billions on universal health care.

4. One positive consequence of defeat is the opportunity it presents to the defeated: namely, to fall back and rethink. Obviously something went wrong. What? I like Gen. Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell's assessment of the circumstances under which the Japanese expelled his allied command from northern Burma, in 1942: "I claim we took a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma, and it is humiliating as hell ... we ought to find out what caused it, go back and retake it." Yessss, sir! We don't have to agree overnight on what "caused" the Republican/conservative rout; but, unexamined, the underlying problems would fester and stink, leading to deadlier, smellier problems. Just how did economic disaster occur on the Republicans' watch? Wasn't economics supposed to be the GOP's long suit? Who blew this thing, and why?

5. Now that we're to have a black, or more properly, a biracial president, let's consider how this may help us all. I might have preferred, due to his demonstrated (not just asserted) strengths of intellect, character and understanding, to have blazed that trail with, say, Mr. Justice Clarence Thomas. What is, is; what isn't, isn't. The "isn't" in our national life -- and it needs fixing -- is the number of blacks who reside outside the American mainstream. Segregation was more than unfair; it was stupid and stultifying. It signified that all we could think of to do with a tenth of the U. S. population was separate and isolate. Isolate -- and therefore alienate -- a tenth of our people? Doesn't it make more sense to help those same people contribute to their and our society? The same with Hispanic immigrants (leaving aside the question of who's legal and who isn't). If we're to be a tri-racial nation, let's make it work.

6. "O put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man; for there is no help in them." So the Psalmist asserts. The conservative who thinks the good life equates to good policy in government is, um, gravely mistaken. Good policy is better than bad, but it gets you, and your country, just so far. First come the things of the heart, and the conscience.

7. Laugh anyway. A sense of joy in the face of the worst is the conservative secret weapon. Leave anger to liberals, who rarely get a joke not directed at Bush. They'll go nuts. And you'll laugh even more.

The Party of Happiness

Tue, 04 Nov 2008 00:00:00 -0600

What is with us anyway? Wiped out and stomped on, we somehow smile. It is a bit like St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians -- "as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing." Or like Dr. Johnson's schoolboy pal who, as Boswell relates, threw over his desire to become a philosopher on finding that "cheerfulness was always breaking in." It must be dispositional.

Is money the crucial factor -- Republicans, overall, having more of it than Democrats? How, in that case, to explain Warren Buffet, George Soros and the hedge fund managers, software developers and TV stars who impale landscaped front lawns in high-property-tax neighborhoods with Democratic signs? How to explain Republicans who drive to the polls in 15-year-old automobiles and clip $5-off restaurant coupons? How to explain upper income buoyancy in light of Democratic pledges to take their money and pass it around the table?

Pew acknowledges that by one regression model for poll analysis, a high-income person has a 16 percent greater shot at happiness than does a low-income person. Yet observe. When one controls all demographic variables -- age, ethnicity, race, gender, income, marital status and education -- a Republican is 13 percent more likely than a Democrat to be "very happy." It isn't just money.

Pew plows on. Health and church attendance matter considerably in the happiness configuration. A Pew study last February indicated that, whereas 37 percent of Republicans pronounced themselves in excellent health, just 25 percent of Democrats did.

As for religious commitment, Republicans go to church more regularly than Democrats. Notes the Pew Center: "[S]omeone who attends religious services weekly or more often has an 18 percent better chance of being very happy than someone who attends services seldom or never." Possibly there's nothing like a tactile connection to the divine, or the assurance that this present market-ravaged, election-losing life isn't the end.

Then this: Many more Republicans (62 percent) than Democrats (44 percent) are married, with 15 percent more Republicans reporting high satisfaction with their family life. Twice as many Democrats, it seems, are divorced. Republicans, meanwhile, have more friends and stronger attachments to their communities. Nine percent more Republicans see the physical climate they live in as "excellent." Eleven percent more disagree with the statement that outside factors control how well one does in life.

Pew didn't ask the question I really wanted put to respondents: Namely, do Democrats have as much sense of humor as Republicans -- humor, as opposed to delight in base ridicule? Evidence is to the contrary; still, it would be nice some day to know.

For now, let us McCain voters step back. Let us acknowledge the need -- yea, the right -- of Democrats to whoop it up, happy and contented as any garden-variety Republican, for having put down evil and degeneracy. At some risk to their party, be it noted. The happier the Democrats find themselves, the greater the risk for the partisan future. What if Democrats, like Republicans, should start making friends and money -- even turning up at church on Sundays?

A word of caution to Democratic overlords: Don't let the faithful get too happy. Next go round, they might just cast their joyous lot with the Grand Old Party.

The Great National Dice-Roll

Tue, 28 Oct 2008 00:00:00 -0600

Say this for McCain in the comparative experience department: He's been around long enough to do a few things and think a few thoughts. Compare him to Barack Obama. What Obama has done besides push himself forward, what he thinks about besides his own duty to go forward . I don't know.

It is an extraordinary thing: We stand on the verge of handing the world's most powerful secular office to a man about whom we know comparatively little. We know so little because his life has no narrative thrust except in terms of his constant thrust to . to what? Lead? Yes, but if we admit that, another question arises: Lead where, and to what end? And how well?

I wrote a few months ago that no presidential nominee of a major party has come to us for a long, long time with credentials slimmer than Obama's, except perhaps Wendell Willkie, a previously unheralded utilities lawyer whom the Republicans thrust forward in sheer desperation over the prospect of a third term for Franklin Roosevelt.

How Willkie might have governed had he won, we never actually had to learn. He lost. Obama seems unlikely, barring a miracle, to lose. We'll then find occasion upon occasion to see what numbers -- snake eyes or boxcars -- our national roll of the dice produces. We plain don't know. At a moment of economic and geopolitical peril, we prepare to hand the steering wheel to a man we're not even sure has a map or driver's license.

The onrush of words from Obama's mouth should not distract us, even though it distracts tens of millions. First, we haven't seen him in action, as we have many times seen John McCain. Obama, I keep vainly pointing out, hasn't done anything. He's the Music Man, telling us of the trouble right here in River City -- as if we didn't know! -- and offering to pull us out of it. We gape and nod.

Oh, yes, those speeches, those policy papers. Don't those tell us what to expect under an Obama administration? The troublesome part here is two-fold.

First, the Obama agenda, spin it how you will, is government behind the steering wheel I just mentioned, private industry and initiative in the passenger seat, if not the back seat. Obama has designed on paper a program (health care, energy, taxes, investment, etc., etc.) that, if duly enacted would make Americans more dependent upon their central government for happiness and prosperity (if any) than until recently we can have believed possible. Of course, future Congresses could theoretically unravel that dependency, but why put them to the trouble and anxiety?

Second -- here I go again -- not even David Axelrod can be sure he knows how Obama would fare in the mega-pressure chamber to which he begs admission. Has he, in fact, legislative and executive skills? Colin Powell doesn't know. Christopher Buckley doesn't know. The editors of the New York Times don't know. I make bold to say no one knows. We can intuit anyway who ends up running the show if the man nobody really knows should fall on his face. I speak of Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank and Harry Reid -- names I invoke not for emotive purposes but rather to suggest the stakes in the great dice-roll we contemplate.

The imperfections of John McCain, and of his candidacy, fade into insignificance against the recklessness inherent in choosing Obama: a recklessness that may be set, so to speak, in concrete. Though many still hope not, and with wonderful reason.