I’ve blogged several times in the last few months about the Atlas Shrugged movie. It might seem like I’m really fascinated by it, so I’ll try to stop. But first, I’d just like to say that this review of it by P.J. O’Rourke–a conservative who is somewhat sympathetic to Ayn Rand–is pretty funny. However, it also perpetuates some Republican talking points, as in:

“Political collectivists are no longer much interested in taking things away from the wealthy and creative… It’s the plain folks, not a Taggart/Rearden elite, whose prospects and opportunities are stolen by corrupt school systems, health-care rationing, public employee union extortions, carbon-emissions payola and deficit-debt burden graft. Today’s collectivists are going after malefactors of moderate means.”

But Ayn Rand didn’t like “plain folks”. Atlas Shrugged is very deliberately about romanticizing the rich. O’Rourke calls for an “update” to make the story favor the “plain folks”, but that is antithetical to Rand’s philosophy.

Sometimes I almost feel like I understand this book better than a lot of the people who say they agree with it.

The trailer for part 1 of the upcoming movie Atlas Shrugged is out, and if I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought I was watching the trailer for a James Bond flick.

The look of everything in that trailer is altogether too nice for the Dystopian feel of Ayn Rand’s novel. Particularly, the lighting on everything is too warm and appealing; it ought to look colder and bleaker.

Leaving aside all my disagreements with the book’s philosophy itself, it seems to me that if you’re going to adapt it for screen, you may as well do it properly.

Oh, well, it should at least be funny, at all events. And it did sound like they’ve improved on Rand’s rather poor dialogue.

All that said, I predict that what’s going to kill this movie is: failure to trim enough of the text. The cult of Ayn Rand (as brilliantly mocked by Murray Rothbard in his play Mozart was a Red) is still going on and might very well have already convinced the filmmakers that they are adapting a sacred text, and must change as little as possible.

To be fair, most adaptations of books to movies make that mistake. (And most of the rest ignore the text completely and become a disaster) A story that first appeared as a book is optimized for book form. If you make it a film, it will likely suffer, unless (and this often just isn’t possible) you are able to tell a similar story and optimize it for film.

But most movies don’t do that. They just try to stuff  in as much of the popular stuff from the book as they can.

(Hat Tip for the trailer to the Conservative film site Big Hollywood)

Well now, this is very interesting:

“Co-founder [of the Tea Party Patriots] Mark Meckler tried to pre-empt expectations among the faithful that Washington would shrink and the federal deficit would close overnight, instead alluding to a “forty-year plan” that the group was busy working out with its members. The plan, according to Meckler, was a highway with four lanes, only one of which was explicitly political. The other three were educational, judicial and cultural.

‘All civilizations and empires have fallen because their cultures became decadent,‘ Meckler said. ‘We need to lift up conservative culture, family values and wholesome things by supporting conservative musicians, writers, artists and producers.’” [Emphasis mine]

If this vaguely Spenglerian quote really was said by Meckler–and I have my doubts because I haven’t seen it reported in many places–it certainly does make it sound like the Tea Partiers are not just Libertarian Free-Marketeers.

National Greatness Conservatism“, thy time has come, it seems.

[NOTE: This post is sort of a follow-up to this one.]

There are two competing strains that run through the Republican party–they are sometimes called “fiscal conservatism” and “social conservatism”, “Christianity” and “Libertarianism”. I prefer to use the terms “materialism” and “nationalism”.

The nationalist strain, which is the one most people call socially conservative, sees America as declining, thanks largely to the decadent liberals who do not strive to preserve its greatness and who dissolve its culture. They believe the U.S. is, by Divine Providence, the greatest on the Earth, and it is their darkest fear that the godless liberals will bring it down into merely “another country”.

The nationalist strain seeks a return to national greatness, which they believe existed from roughly 1776 until the early 1900s. It was at that point, they seem to believe, that liberal decadence first emerged, though it only became really obvious in the 1960s, with the counterculture and anti-war movement.

The nationalist wish for national greatness means restoring the old institutions and social norms. They also wish to increase the role of Christianity in the country. (As an aside, it is fitting that one of the most beloved figures among the nationalists is the Mormon radio personality Glenn Beck. Mormonism neatly ties American nationalism in with Christian religious texts.)

Materialism, meanwhile, is more like what we call Libertarianism or even Objectivism. The materialistic world view cares little for the nation except insofar as it is able to enrich the individual. Materialism has no interest in social issues or the Religion in the country except as to how it relates to their profits.

These two strains coexist, ultimately, within each individual member of the Republican party. Oh, there are some who believe almost exclusively in nationalism, such as Pat Buchanan followers, and some who are purely materialist, such as Ayn Rand followers. But more often, a Republican will lean nationalist on one issue and materialist on another.

What are we to make of the Tea Party, then? It is, in my view, a movement whose rank-and-file members are largely motivated by a nationalist outlook, but primarily funded by behind-the-scenes materialists.

Now, this is in fact the same situation which has existed in the Republican party for decades. As such, it seems clear that the Tea Party is not a third party, as some think, but rather a rebranding of the Republican party.

These two strains are currently united against Democrats, but will probably come into conflict if they achieve victory in this year’s midterm elections. What remains to be seen is which force will prove stronger.

“Pilate saith unto him, ‘What is truth?’…”–John 18:38 

Most people probably believe that of the two major political parties in the United States, it is the Democrats who are more prone to relativism. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that there are more intellectuals, who are always given over to questioning traditions, in the Democratic party. The second is that many years of conservative propaganda has told everyone so.

Most of this is the work of the religious Right, though the Atheist philosophy of Ayn Rand also rejects the idea of anything other than absolute Truth, and it is certainly more widely heard in “conservative”,or–if we must use the term–“right-wing” circles. And there is some truth to all this; after all, does not the word “Conservative” itself suggest a certain intellectual and philosophical rigidity?

But, of late, there have been signs of a creeping relativism among conservatives. For example, this column from paleo-conservative writer Patrick J. Buchanan. An excerpt:

““Naked reason,” pure rationalism… ignores that vast realm of sentiments, such as patriotism and love, that reside in the terrain between thought and feeling.” 

Buchanan, admittedly, is far from one of the major players in the Republican party, having been effectively ostracized years ago. But there is altogether something very “post-modern”, as Andrew Sullivan often says, about the behavior of the conservatives of late. Recall the odd incident early this year when Rudy Giuliani and other prominent conservatives appeared to have forgotten about the 9/11 attacks.

(As Henry Leland says to Mike Thorton in Alpha Protocol: “There are only so many coincidences that can happen before they stop being coincidences.”)

Of course, one could easily explain away such things by pointing out that it is merely the inevitable result of competing–nearly warring–political parties. A strategy, nothing more. Indeed, I suspect a credible case could be made that changes in the media and the education system have produced a general increase in the relativistic outlook, and we only notice it with conservatives because they are, historically, less susceptible to it.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that strategically speaking, the Republicans are moving more and more towards a relativistic approach to reporting and analyzing every issue. Much of their criticism of Obama is based on how he makes them feel, or the image he projects.

Perhaps Lee Atwater had some part in it. (On some sites, I have seen the phrase “Perception is reality” attributed to Atwater. I doubt he originated it, but it does encapsulate his worldview.) Still, from at least Edward Bernays onward, propagandists, strategists and ad men, or whatever name, must have at least a touch of relativism to carry out their duty.

Now, I cannot stress enough that it is mostly the conservative intellectuals and strategists who seem to think this way. All the examples I gave, with the partial exception of Giuliani, were very much the behind-the-scenes tactician sort, not the leaders, and not the rank and file. I don’t think we will ever see Sarah Palin, for example, engaging in anything other than black-and-white moral reasoning. (“We win, they lose…”)

That’s part of what’s so odd about it, in fact. On the one hand we have the traditional non-relativist view of the world characterized by most of the Republican politicians, but pull away the curtain and we find men like Karl Rove–heir to Atwater–and other such strategists. Buchanan, let us not forget, was a strategist for Richard M. Nixon. (Nixon, by the way, was interested in the works of Nietzsche.) Even Dick Cheney, in his role as an adviser to Gerald Ford, famously said: “Principle is OK up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.”

It is pointless to counter by saying that the same is true of Democrats. Of course it is. Carville, Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel and the rest are all doubtless cut from the same cloth. But the Democrats as a whole are already supposed to be the party of relativists, to hear the Republicans tell it, and they’re kind of correct. Nothing reveals this more than the fact that Democrats in general will tend to attack Republicans for being too absolutist. Whereas, the Republicans pride themselves on seeing through the moral haziness in which the liberal intellectuals lose themselves by understanding the absolute, God-given differences between True and False, Right and Wrong.

Let me, as Obama would say, be clear:  the majority of the Republican party believes in a rigid, absolutist, traditional Christian morality–or wants to, anyway.  But many of their strategists are willing to do almost anything to achieve victory, and are more than happy to bend the truth in order to get what they want. And they are fairly open about it.

In short, their strategists appear to be using moral and factual relativism in order to justify the rank-and-file and their leaders behaving like moral and factual absolutists.

All comments are welcome, and disagreement is encouraged. 

At the end of the film The Wrath of Khan, when Spock is exposing himself to deadly radiation in order to save the crew of the Enterprise, he reminds Kirk that: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.Or the one.” When I saw this, my first thought–probably because of reading Ayn Rand–was “this is a rather neat description of Socialism.” It’s the sacrifice of the individual for the collective. And it is this notion from which all the other aspects of Socialism derive.

Supposedly, this idea is alien to the United States of America, where we value individualism. Part of the idea of “American exceptionalism” is that we are more friendly to the rights of the individual than other nations; hence, Socialism is a philosophy that Americans seemingly reject.

Or do we?

In an earlier post, I said that “War is a fundamentally Socialist undertaking.” And, indeed, it is in wartime that the Socialists and anti-individualist philosophies gain the greatest acceptance in the United States of America. Witness Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus in the Civil War, the efforts at managing the war economy in World War I, or even the very idea of conscription. All these sacrifice the rights of individuals for the purpose of winning a war.

One of the redeeming factors of Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism is that he seems to have grasped this point. It sort of undermines his own thesis, of course, but nonetheless he figures out that the United States is, historically, susceptible to this sort of socialistic mood. Of course, Goldberg calls it “fascism”, and he may be right about that as well.

I have said in the past that “Fascism is nothing more than a particularly militaristic brand of Socialism”, and while I’m no longer sure if that’s the only difference, I think it’s clear that fascism is more militaristic than socialism. So, perhaps I should rephrase my earlier statement: war is a fundamentally socialist undertaking–and it’s called fascism. Again, Goldberg makes something of a decent case that socialism and fascism have some similarities that people don’t know about. (Of course, he seems to think they’re almost interchangeable.)

I realize this post is somewhat disjointed and confusing–it’s a combination of a post I’d been working on for a while, plus the stuff about Goldberg’s book that I was reminded of by this–but what I’m ultimately trying to do here is figure out just what the hell fascism actually is, and how it relates to socialism. Anyone care to help? So far, the best explanation I’ve read is here.

Over at Conservatives4Palin, C. Brooks Kurtz makes a good point regarding the complaints about Sarah Palin’s increased earnings since resigning the governorship. I’ve always been a little puzzled by this myself. Why does it bother people? Or, more accurately: why do the folks in the media seem to speak about it as if it should bother people?

Kurtz’s is an interesting, Francisco d’Anconia-esque piece, and well worth reading.

Jonah Goldberg has an interesting column about Financial reform. He writes:

“If by “capitalist” you mean someone who cares more about his own profit than yours; if you mean someone who cares more about providing for his family than providing for yours; if you mean someone who trusts that he is a better caretaker of his own interests and desires than a bureaucrat he’s never met… then we are all capitalists. Because, by that standard, capitalism isn’t some far-off theory about the allocation of capital; it is a commonsense description of what motivates pretty much all human beings everywhere.”

Perhaps so. And yet, not all human beings, surely. After all, if it were so for all human beings, would capitalism have such staunch opponents? If we are all supposed to be capitalists, than what is it that makes a man join the Army, where, by all accounts, bureaucrats he’s never met will make decisions on which his life depends. Or what about someone who joins the Church? How many pious Christians can claim to care more about their profit than anyone else’s?

I have to disagree with Goldberg on this point. Not all humans are capitalists, at least not by this definition. He goes on to say:

“At the end of the day, it is entirely natural for humans to work the system — any system — for their own betterment, whatever kind of system that may be.”

He’s correct here; but he would have been wrong if he had said  “it is entirely natural for all humans to work the system.” I have no idea if he intended to write that or not, but if he really did mean only some humans engage in this behavior, then he is contradicting his own previous assertion.

For there are, whether he cares to acknowledge it or no, many people who are in fact willing to abide by the rules of a system in order to preserve it. And even those who work a Socialist system are by no means the same as the enterprising Capitalists who seek to make a profit. After all, a Socialist–even a system-working one–is still dependent on the system to achieve his ends. He is not “standing on his own two feet”, as True Capitalism compels him to do.

Not that Goldberg’s column is without merit. He is quite correct in asserting that the problem with Socialist regulations is that those who are selfish–in the Randian sense–will attempt to play the system to their own personal advantage, disregarding the well-being of others. Where he goes awry is in foolishly assuming that everyone will do so.

Apparently, President Obama gave a 17-minute answer in response to the question: “In the economy (sic) times that we have now, is it a wise decision to add more taxes to us with the health care, because it — we are over-taxed as it is?”

First of all, I should point out that it’s sort of a moot point; obviously, Obama does think it’s wise, or else he wouldn’t have done it.

Secondly, Obama did basically answer the question; in that he said what the problems the bill addressed were. In so doing, he essentially laid out for the listeners to decide whether it was wise or not.

Thirdly, it is very difficult to assess what “over-taxed” means. Is it an economically measureable phenomenon? Is it “over-taxed” in the sense that the government gets less revenue with higher tax rates, as Arthur Laffer thought? Or over-taxed in the sense of taxes that make people move to other countries to keep more of their money, hence strangling innovation? Either way, it’s hard to say if we’re over-taxed or not.

On the other hand, if we’re talking about “over-taxed” as a moral issue (because some say it is not only inefficient but immoral for the government to tax at high rates), then the situation is utterly irresolvable, because–and I suspect this is the case–Obama and his questioner have fundamentally different moral outlooks on this issue.

Lastly, I’m pretty sure what Obama was trying to say without actually saying it was: “Taxes will have to be raised to pay for the debt and deficit. This is going to happen no matter what. If you think you’re over-taxed now, well…”

“If we allow that Socialism (in the ethical, not the economic, sense) is that world-feeling which seeks to carry out its own views on behalf of all, then we are all without exception, willingly or no, wittingly or no, Socialists…. All world-improvers are Socialists.”–Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West.

It is common among President Obama’s critics to say that he is a Socialist. The evidence for this claim rests upon his administration’s expansion of government spending, as well as Obama’s infamous line to the so-called “Joe the Plumber” that he would like to “spread the wealth around.” This, combined with the standard Democratic party platform of welfare and general reliance on the Federal government, forms the basis for their case.

And, in the very broadest sense, they’re right. Obama’s philosophy seems to me to be, at its least redistributionist, one of Utilitarianism, which in my opinion is inevitably Socialistic in practice if not in theory. To say otherwise requires a narrow definition of Socialism. Nor does the fact that his critics themselves have in mind a particular brand of Socialism that may not in fact be Obama’s refute their basic claim.

 Now, it is true that most of the people charging this do not understand the definition under which Obama can most certainly be described as a Socialist. If they did, the charge would lose much of its sting. Indeed, much of the cries of “Socialism” seem to simultaneously suggest Obama is a Marxist or, more broadly, a Communist. But these are not the same as Socialism, and it is inaccurate to describe Obama’s policies as such.

Among Obama’s supporters, it is common to point out that expansions of the Federal government also occurred under George W.Bush, and that there were no outcries of Socialism then. This, they say, proves the case that the accusations of Socialism are in fact simply attempts to scare people. In my view, it actually shows a truth that neither side would likely care to admit: that Bush was also a socialist, though of a different flavor than Obama.

The easiest way to describe the difference between each man’s socialism is to say that Obama’s is an international Socialism, whereas Bush’s was National Socialism. Regrettably, describing it thus will inevitably lead to associations with the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party), often abbreviated as “Nazi”. Understand that I have absolutely no intention of describing Bush (or Obama) as a Nazi. Their brands of socialism are nothing like Nazism. A better term might be “American-exceptionalist Socialism”.

Bush’s socialism was also closely intertwined with his professed Christian faith. Much of the government’s power under Bush was focused on carrying out tasks that were associated with the Christian right. And these policies are as Socialist as any others which seek to use government power to impose a philosophy on the people of a country.

Likewise, it must also be said that while the redistribution policies may not have increased much under Bush, they did not cease altogether. Likewise, the tax-cuts he implemented notwithstanding, Bush did not fundamentally change the socialistic nature of the U.S. government, and, in his own way, enhanced it.

Finally, Bush initiated the use of military force in an effort that is, all but technically, a war. War is a fundamentally Socialist undertaking. For a successful war effort to be made, the power of the State must be increased. That Bush and his Administration appears to have been unwilling to admit this fact does not disprove it. Furthermore, Bush’s attempt at waging a “capitalistic” war through the use of private security contractors and the effort to avoid actually paying for it proves the Socialistic nature of War by its very failure. And, in what is shaping up to be the defining issue of the administration, it expanded the power of the government to encroach on what were hitherto considered rights of private citizens in the interests of defending National Security. (The “greater good” that is at the core of all Socialist thought.)

The true Capitalism, of, say, Ayn Rand, is a philosophy which tells its adherents to enrich themselves through production of goods and trade. This is a philosophy to which war is indeed alien. A successful war is waged only by making the Individual sacrifice for the sake of the Team. Similarly, no True Capitalist would engage in “faith-based initiatives” and foreign aid, as Bush did.

Hence, Bush’s brand of Socialism differed from Obama’s in that (1) It placed more emphasis on the use of governmental power for the purposes of advancing the religious beliefs prevalent in the administration and (2) it encouraged the United States to act unilaterally in advancing its interests.

Nor was Bush’s Socialism a fundamental shift in the American philosophy of government. The American government has been, at least since FDR, a socialist one. So too have been all subsequent Presidents, except perhaps Ronald Reagan. And even if Reagan was indeed a Capitalist, he did not change the nature of the government.

Now, it is true that, generally speaking, Republicans are less like stereotypical Socialists then Democrats. The Republicans obviously prefer to cut taxes, and profess to believe in smaller government, less government intervention in matters of business. On the surface, at least, it would seem that they are right to claim they are not economically socialist like the Democrats.

Yet, there are still divides in the party, even in the matter of business. Many Republicans support the criminalization of drugs such as Marijuana. This not a pro-business move. Indeed, it means the use of tax dollars to suppress a substance that people take for pleasure. One can imagine the outcry if Democrats proposed similar measures for, say, soda or alcoholic beverages. The libertarian wing of the party may object; but the fact remains that many Republicans support this anti-capitalistic behavior.

Thus, while it is justifiable to claim that Obama is a socialist, it is nonetheless very remiss to pretend that his philosophy is a “new” or “alien” one to the way America has for some time behaved. He may be more of an internationalist than has been previously seen, but this itself is an unremarkable development. The trend of globalization to some extent necessitates that existing socialistic codes evolve to account for this.

In closing, I must note that government inherently attracts Socialists to it, and the power granted to those in government must, I think, encourage the Socialistic tendencies in all people. Individualists do not seek office. “All world-improvers are Socialists” wrote Spengler. I have always interpreted this comment to mean not that all who actually do improve the world are socialists, but rather that all who believe themselves to know what is best for all people are socialists. And it is just such people, whether from the Republican party or the Democratic party, who seek office.