Ta-Nehisi Coates used to occasionally do posts titled “Talk To Me Like I’m Stupid” when he wanted to know about some subject. I am going to borrow his line to put some questions to you readers on the issue of Catholics and their opposition to contraception, which has been in the news lately.

I am not a religious person, and never have been. Most of what I know about religion is just the commonplace knowledge one can’t help picking up in our society. But I don’t know much detail, or history, of religious teachings. So, I don’t actually understand why so many Catholics, especially their leaders, are against contraception. I consulted my favorite source, Wikipedia, on the topic, and it reported that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is where it’s all codified.

Unfortunately, having read that article, it’s still not clear to me who originally wrote this Catechism and when. Apparently, it rests on the authority of the Pope–which surprised me, because I was expecting that something from the Bible itself would be the ultimate grounds for this. I was surprised, in fact, by how little the actual Bible got cited in all this.

Now, on to the second issue I don’t understand. If I recall correctly, this whole thing started because religious institutions don’t want to have to pay for contraceptives for their employees. Now, what I’ve never seen actually explained is: might it be the case  that some of  these employees are not followers of the same religion as their employer? If  so, then the question becomes: Is there a “nor tolerate those who do” clause anywhere in the Catholic teachings?

That’s important, because if it turns out there is, it could lead to some serious problems. But quite honestly, I realize that the answers to these questions are probably quite obvious, and that I am displaying an embarrassing ignorance of the subject.

On his show today, Rush Limbaugh was talking about James Taranto’s interview with Jeffrey Bell in the WSJ.  Bell’s argument is that “social conservatism” is very useful for winning elections for Republicans. He, and Taranto and Limbaugh, all seem to feel that this is a novel idea. It sounds to me like he’s just reiterated Thomas Frank’s What’s The Matter With Kansas?, except without the part about how, once elected, Republicans immediately go back to pursuing their economic agenda.  But in fairness, as I haven’t read Bell’s book, I don’t want to dismiss his work.

So, what is this “social conservatism”, anyway? Well, I guess it’s opposition to abortion, contraception, homosexuality, agnosticism, atheism and so on. Bell defines it broadly as opposition to the sexual revolution. And, in the Taranto interview, he elaborates:

Mr. Bell notes that social conservatism is largely a working-class phenomenon: “Middle America does have more children than elite America, and they vote socially conservative, even though they might not necessarily be behaving that way in their personal life. They may be overwhelmed by the sexual revolution and its cultural impacts.”Mr. Bell squares that circle by arguing that social conservatism is “aspirational” and “driven by a sense in Middle America that the kind of cultural atmosphere we have, the kind of incentives, the example set by government, is something that has to be pushed back against.” [Italics mine]

Since Bell’s whole book is about social conservatism, this seems surprisingly vague. Maybe he’s just saving up the real “nuts-and-bolts” description of social conservatism for his book–you don’t want to give away the big plot twist on the posters, after all. Still, it’s kind of weird.

As usual, my opinion is that everything begins to make a lot more sense if instead of “social conservatism”, you insert the word “nationalism”. I hope talk about this more thoroughly later this week, but the short version is that I have come to believe that “nationalism” covers far more than just jingoism; it pretty much accounts for all the things that are typically labeled “social conservatism”.

Anyway though, for now, let’s just focus on Bell’s point, which is that this is a winning strategy for the Republicans. Of course, he’s right. I think we can all agree on that. He even makes a point very close to one I made awhile back about the Democrats being willing to trade extending the Bush tax-cuts for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. So, he’s basically right in his assessment of how this dynamic works.

Where I think he’s wrong is when he implies that “the Left” is “imposing” social liberalism on people. Forgive me, but I don’t quite see it. “Liberalism” is derived from the Latin word for “free”. Liberalism is about freedom. Is it possible to impose freedom? Maybe, but it’s an odd way of putting it. You could say the Founders “imposed” freedom from the Proclamation of 1763 on the colonies, but it sounds strange.

Since what the social liberals are arguing for are things like “freedom for gays to serve in the military” and “freedom to use contraception”, I don’t quite understand why you would choose to couch this as “imposing” it. You could argue that perhaps these are freedoms that people ought not to have. I happen to disagree with that, but it’s an argument you could make, because it is widely agreed there are some things that people are not free to do. But that is different than saying these ideas are being “imposed” upon people.

Charlotte Allen has a rather baffling piece in the Los Angeles Times. She begins like this:

A few years ago Ann Coulter published a book titled “How to Talk to Liberal (If You Must).” With all due respect, Coulter, one of my favorite conservative eye-pokers, was wrong. There is no “how” in talking to a liberal. You can’t talk to a liberal, period.

She then goes on to cite numerous cases in which she attempted to. This one is my favorite:

[A]s I was defending my doctoral dissertation on a medieval topic, I mentioned that wealthy women of that time often functioned as patrons of the arts, commissioning beautifully decorated religious books. “Women like pretty things,” I said. OMG! I looked around at the three learned but liberal female professors on the committee, their smiles suddenly frozen into rictuses, groans issuing from their lips. How was I going to tell my husband, who had already made the reservations for a celebratory dinner, that I’d failed the defense? (Fortunately, I didn’t, but it was a scary moment.)

I mean, that’s just nit-picking, in my opinion. If they had failed her over it, that would be another matter, but as it stands I don’t see why she should whine about a minor incident like the expression of someone’s face. Or at least don’t go using “these people looked at me funny once” to support a generalization about the adherents of an entire ideology.

(As an aside, I have had very interesting conversations about gender differences with liberal friends of mine–liberal female friends, at that! So, I can match Ms. Allen’s anecdotal evidence with some of my own.)

It’s not really a very ambitious article. It seems like its primary point amounts to “liberals suck”, and it never moves beyond that.

But wait! The L.A. Times, being a fair publication, also has a liberal, Diana Wagman, submit her views on the issue of “liberals vs. conservatives”.  The point of it, essentially, is that she is a liberal and she and her conservative neighbor got along fine until they found about one another’s politics, at which a point they yelled at one another a lot. And now she feels bad because they hate each other.

The two articles conform almost humorously to stereotypes–the conservative says that liberals suck, and the liberal remarks how sad it is that there’s so much hate in the world.

So, I guess another anecdote of mine is in order. Two of my friends in college were conservative, and I don’t think either of them knew I was a liberal. Whenever they’d say something like “those liberals are a bunch of idiots”, I’d say something like “Oh, yeah? What have they done now?” Then they would tell me, and I would smile and nod. I generally was able to ask them their opinions of things without them ever asking me for mine. And that suited us all just fine.

Should I have spoken up? Am I a traitor to the cause for not doing so? Maybe. But I didn’t think it was likely I would change their minds, and so I made a calculation that it was better to have friends I could rely on in matters not political than not have them at all.

On this blog, of course, I take a different tack: I tell people my views, and if they express different ones, then I am happy to debate with them. Mostly, this is because it will leave a written record, and it’s possible–unlikely, but possible–that someday I may write something interesting in the course of debating that might be useful either to the person I’m debating or else to some third-party who happens by and reads it. But this was very unlikely to happen in conversation.

Most people are not  good at spoken debate. I know I’m not. The closest thing we have to professional debaters are lawyers, and there’s a reason it takes so much training to be one of them. It’s a very difficult skill. Moreover, it’s even worse in political matters, because the two parties actively try to teach their techniques that are designed to benefit the Party, not further discussion or aid in arriving at something like the truth.

That’s what “talking points”, slogans and similar things that political parties put out are for; to keep people from having honest debates. Despite my reluctance to do so, I have been involved in a few spoken debates with Republicans. And I have witnessed many more between friends and family members. They can be quite amusing to watch because the participants on both sides very quickly fall into saying remembered phrases and slogans that they have learned from somewhere. It’s not really a debate; it’s like two synchronized recordings. This is true even for debates between actual politicians–the only difference is that they are usually better at hiding what they are doing.

Most people support their party fairly instinctively, and only learn the reasons and arguments they are putting out as a way of having something to say on their behalf. Personally, I try to always state my reasons for why I support them, and not their reasons for why I ought to support them. It’s very surprising how tough that can be.

It was suggested in the forum by a person named Santorum

That the people would vote for ‘im if on the Bible he would run.

Another sought to bring rich people’s cash, and having which,

This man called Gingrich had once thought he’d all but won.

And at this time the call for “revolution” went up all

Among supporters of Ron Paul who were so sure they had struck gold.

And all the time was omnipresent the suspicion that Mitt Romney

Only could keep folks from needing their misery and poverty consoled.

The new austerity measures the E.U. is imposing on Greece have caused quite a backlash. As this article in the Financial Times notes, a lot of the Greek anger is directed at Germany. Of course, because the Greeks are in Greece, all they can do is riot against their own government, not the German one. As is usually my opinion of rioting, this seems idiotic. I don’t see what good destroying Greek property will do to convince the Germans that these austerity measures are a bad idea.

Roman Gerodimos at CNN sums up the larger political picture in Greece:

The role of the state and of the public sector is usually at the heart of political debates between left and right. Yet, for the first time in recent memory, the political battle lines in Greece are not drawn between left and right, but between the modernizers and the populists existing in most political parties across the spectrum.

I don’t know the details of Greek politics, but that first sentence is wildly inaccurate for most of the world as far as I know. Indeed–and this is usually more true in Europe than in the U.S.–things usually make much more sense if you read “nationalist” for “right-wing”. And nationalists, as we know, are concerned only with the role of the state as it relates to the people and the culture of a nation. Maybe Greece is different, but in my experience, most debates over “the role of the state” are not really over the role of the state. They are proxy debates between cosmopolitanism and nationalism.

There’s more than that at play here though, because the nationalists in Greece are mad at Germany for imposing austerity measures, and the German nationalists are mad at the Greeks for squandering their money. And in the meantime, the cosmopolitan E.U. officials from both countries seem to have come to a truly terrible solution, so the lack of faith in them is understandable. But not only are the nationalist groups in both countries mad at the E.U., they are also mad at the nationalists in the other country. This is often the way with nationalists.

(And, of course, the terrible economic situation is largely the result of mismanagement by materialist business interests.)

As I look at it, in the above sentence from the CNN article, the modernizers are “cosmopolitans” and the populists are “nationalists”. Thus, the true nature of the conflict has not really changed, it has only become more obvious.

I don’t watch cable news, except when I see a particularly interesting clip from it on the internet that I feel merits writing about. But this Politico article by Keach Hagey indicates that apparently there has been something of a shift in the coverage style of the Fox News channel, a shift that might not be apparent in one clip, but in the general tone of its coverage.

It seems, according the article, that Fox has shifted “to the left”. Of course, as we know, the left-right dichotomy is pretty simplistic, but we know what they mean. As the Politico article describes:

Last week, [Bill] O’Reilly invited onto his show a gay-rights activist to weigh in on Roland Martin’s controversial tweets during the Super Bowl. O’Reilly and Martin may be old foes, but the spectacle of watching O’Reilly, who once compared gay marriage to interspecies marriage, attacking a CNN anchor for being insufficiently sensitive to the feelings of gay people was quite a switch from the tone of two years ago.

Obviously, there’s a bit of opportunism here–it’s a chance to tarnish someone from another network, and that is opportunity that is hard to pass up. But still-quite remarkable. As the article shows, Fox has shifted away from the Tea Party crowd of “two years ago”.

The article goes on to quote a “Cliff Kincaid, president of America’s Survival”, who says things like “‘what happened is they buckled under pressure from George Soros and his operatives to get rid of Glenn Beck.'” in order to explain this development.

This is quite amusing. The Soros conspiracy never fails to provide a handy explanation for things in the minds of some.  The general assessment of the situation is something much more mundane: that Fox has made this shift for the sake of broadening its appeal.

I have a somewhat different take on this situation. The obvious point is that, two years ago, the Republicans were basically powerless. They could do nothing except be furious at the Democratic Congress and Executive. And this they did. And it won them the House of Representatives.

Now, because of that victory, they have some share in how the country is run. So, things can’t be quite so apocalyptic as they were when Democrats had all the majorities. Obviously, that would make the Republicans in the House look stupid. Fox has to paint things as somewhat less dire now, for their sake. The Politico article ends by mentioning a Tea Partier who “feels like she hears more apologies for the status quo on Fox these days.”

Maybe this is just a crazy conspiracy theory, as far-out as Cliff Kincaid’s idea. But it does fit the facts. And recall Megan McArdle’s observation, known as “Jane’s Law”,  that “the devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.” Now that the Republicans have gained back a share of power, they must become more “sane”.

Paul Krugman offers his assessment of what’s going on with the Republican party:

[T]he long-running con game of economic conservatives and the wealthy supporters they serve finally went bad. For decades the G.O.P. has won elections by appealing to social and racial divisions, only to turn after each victory to deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy — a process that reached its epitome when George W. Bush won re-election by posing as America’s defender against gay married terrorists, then announced that he had a mandate to privatize Social Security.

Over time, however, this strategy created a base that really believed in all the hokum — and now the party elite has lost control.

To put Krugman’s idea in my preferred terminology, the Nationalist wing and the Materialist wing have finally reached the breaking point, at which their many contradictory ideas no longer can be made to hold together.

Over at thingy’s blog the other day there was an interesting discussion around the question “what if robots engaged in political discourse“?  Well, if I may use the analogy of “the Republican party as robot”, Krugman is saying, effectively, that the party has gone the way of G0-T0, and is “unable to follow both of its prime directives” and, like G0-T0, this causes it to “break”.

At the moment, this has produced a field of candidates consisting of three rather ridiculous figures and one extremely dull one. I don’t say that the Republicans won’t win the Presidency this year, but even if they do, it will probably be Romney, who most of the nationalist wing hates anyway.

I wonder, though, what this means for the party longer term. Win or lose, I expect to see some big changes in the Republican party. I would venture to guess–and this is only idle speculation, not firm prediction–that they may become more like the pre-1960s Democrats. That is, remain fairly conservative on social issues, but become decidedly more liberal on economic issues.