Saturday, April 30, 2005

Instapundit's Revisionism

Kevin is dead on:
I can't look into George Bush's heart, but I can listen to his words and watch his deeds. And based on that, democracy promotion was not on his agenda before the war, during the war, or after the war until the Ayatollah Sistani forced his hand. Let's not demean history by pretending otherwise.

What is a conservative?

Andrew Sullivan initiated an interesting debate about two kinds of conservatives ("conservative of faith" and "conservative of doubt") which seems to have inspired a great deal of debate on the moderate right. He has many links about it on Here's a good response from one of his readers:
I'm a long time Republican activist from Massachusetts, and like many Americans am alarmed by the takeover of the GOP by the Religious Right. My fear goes far beyond �Separation of Church and State� which is a lifeless phrase that does not adequately convey what will be lost if the Religious Right succeeds in imposing its peculiar religiosity on this nation. For what we are really about is our birthright as Americans: the separation of what is public from what is private.

The great genius and historical accomplishment of the American Constitution was the creation, through a Bill of Rights, of a sphere of personal independence, sovereignty and autonomy into which no state power (or any proxy acting in its name) is permitted to trespass. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom to practice ones religion and to be protected against the religion of others � these were the great guarantees of personal freedom and free will that we inherit from the Bill of Rights.

Religious extremists complain of religious bigotry and persecution, or that we cut them off from their legitimate participation in the Public Square, whenever we insist upon this separation of government and religion. Rubbish. No fundamentalist who brings their religiously-inspired private views to the political arena for a debate about pressing matters of public policy is dismissed or discriminated against. Where they are forbidden, and rightly so, is whenever they seek to use their political power to fashion a public agenda from issues which are, and should always remain, private. Today, the Religious Right is acting in ways which are, in a very real sense, unconstitutional; and my sense is that recent events have finally awakened the American public to this threat. None too soon. The repercussions are l

UPDATE: Hah! I had almost finished reading this take on the "conservative issue", thinking that Greg D had finally come to his senses after his post-election need to defend everything Bush, when I realized the post was written not by him but by Joseph Britt (evidently a "guest" poster).

Regardless, it inserts a healthy dose of realism into the debate.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Benedict and Relativism

Matt kicks off a debate about Relativism with these words:
So I'd be interested to know if any readers can point me to anything where he [the new Pope] spells out what he thinks relativism is and why it's so problematic.
Then one of his commenters posted this interesting document written by Ratzinger himself. Here, he demonstrates a grasp of the logic of the modern secular (and relativist) world which surprised me:
Anyone who resists, not only opposes democracy and tolerance-i.e., the basic imperatives of the human community-but also persists obstinately in giving priority to one’s Western culture and thus rejects the encounter of cultures, which is well known to be the imperative of the present moment. Those who want to stay with the faith of the Bible and the church see themselves pushed from the start to a no man’s land on the cultural level and must as a first measure rediscover the "madness of God" (I Cor. 1:18) in order to recognize the true wisdom in it.
It seems clear that Ratzinger is fully aware of the forces that are driving societies (notably Europe and America) towards religious relativism; the advent of Democracy, the increasing dominance of Science. He even mentions a factor I had not considered - the influence of Indian Hinduist relativist traditions on Western thought.

Ratzinger doesn't explicitly say this, but reading between the lines I get the impression that he is acutely aware of the Big Dilemma: You can't believe in both Science and God. His conclusion is (as expected) that God (via man) "wins":
Why, in brief, does the faith still have a chance? I would say the following: because it is in harmony with what man is. Man is something more than what Kant and the various post-Kantian philosophers wanted to see and concede. Kant himself must have recognized this in some way with his postulates.

In man there is an inextinguishable yearning for the infinite. None of the answers attempted are sufficient. Only the God himself who became finite in order to open our finiteness and lead us to the breadth of his infiniteness responds to the question of our being. For this reason, the Christian faith finds man today too. Our task is to serve the faith with a humble spirit and the whole strength of our heart and understanding.
Bottom line, as I see it, is that Ratzinger has correctly concluded that the advance of relativism is not, in the long run, compatible with a belief in God. Therefore, in order to save the Church Catholics must oppose relativism and embrace absolutism.

Which is all well and good. In and by itself this is not an extreme position; it is simply a recognition that moral relativism will (as it is) slowly render Christian practices obsolete. If you're a Christian relativist, and you've got a well-functioning brain, then sooner or later you'll sit down and think really hard about these things and you will conclude that something has to give (either God or "relativism" which is ultimately based on science and scientific/democratic processes).

The truly interesting thing about the new Pope will be whether people who are both Christian and "modern" (most Americans, for instance) will be forced to choose sides. And if so, which will they choose?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Bawer: We're Rich, You're Not. End of Story.

Bruce Bawer who lives in Norway (and whose work I've commented on before) is at it again. He thinks Norwegians are among the poorest in Western Europe and far poorer than Americans (when incomes are adjusted for cost of living). He has some good points - here are my initial thoughts (in bullet form, I don't have time to organize them better):
  • His caricature of Norwegians constantly japping on about how the nation is the "richest in the world yet fail to provide social service XXX" is dead on. When you spend time among ordinary Norwegians and read daily (especially tabloid) newspapers you hear this line on a daily basis. It may sound like gloating ("look at us, we're rich") but that is typically not the spirit in which it is delivered. It is simply used to highlight perceived social injustices.

  • I agree with much of what he says about consumption (I too think that living standards are higher in the US when it comes to car standards and going out to eat and drink) but is seems odd that he uses Sweden as a data point when he can't find data for Norway. After all, in 2002 the per capita GDP of Sweden was $26,966 while that of Norway was $42,222. By comparison the US figure was $36,731.

  • Speaking of GDP per capita - these figures are the single most important reason why Norwegians think they are so rich, so it seems strange to me that Mr. Bawer doesn't mention them anywhere in his article.

  • I actually agree with most of the other observations Mr. Bawer makes - yes, Norwegians eat dry pieces of bread for lunch while in America I have hot meals that most Norwegians would consider to be extravagant dinners. Alchohol is ridiculously expensive, and so is dining out. Norwegians hold on to appliances that Americans would throw out. Americans have yard tools and electronic gadgets that would make a Norwegian gardener green with envy. You could go on and on. In fact, for me personally the standard of living in America is far, far higher than in the Norway.

  • But, crucially, Mr. Bawer also ignores a number of areas in life where you could argue that Norwegians are much better off. For instance, most Norwegians take long vacations in foreign lands. A great many of them own second homes (in the mountains or by the sea) or boats. New parents get almost a year of maternity/paternity leave paid for by the state. Homes tend to be of a high standard, and most furniture (aside from IKEA stuff) is of a better quality. Higher education is free. Healthcare is free.

  • And, of course, aside from the drug addicts in central Oslo (who are extremely visible, I agree) Norway has almost zero poverty. Poor people receive preventive medical care. There are far fewer low-standard jobs (one of the things you'll notice is that most parking lots are automated whereas in the US they tend to be staffed by low-wage attendants).
In conclusion I applaud Mr. Bawer's work. No doubt this article will be widely discussed in Norway. And he does challenge some myths that probably deserve to be put to rest. Most countries have myths that are not true - Americans think their healthcare is the best in the world, their democracy is a beacon of light and their women are the most liberated. Norwegians think they're rich when in many ways they're not. But in some ways they are far richer than Americans. Unfortunately Bawer's "angle" is such that the good things are ignored. Norway uses its resources differently than America. It's not that they have fewer resources to begin with. This is a key distinction that gets lost in Mr. Bawer's article.

UPDATE: Here are some more thoughts from Bruce Bawer that partially explain why he continues to live in a country that he dislikes so strongly:
Which is why I owe Santorum and Bush a debt of gratitude. They've snapped me out of my post-9/11 distraction from "social issues." They've reminded me why I'm an exile. They've reminded me how outrageous it is that the nation whose founders articulated the ideals of liberty for all time, and for all humankind, compels citizens to move abroad in order to be free to share their lives with the ones they love. They've helped me to appreciate all over again how fortunate I am to be living in Norway, a country that officially perceives my relationship with my partner not as representing a threat to the family but as constituting a family itself.

UPDATE 2: Some more comments here from mainly American readers.

UPDATE 3: Yet another blogger (a University Chair) who supports the main thrust of Bawer's arguments.

UPDATE 4: Ok, last one. American conservatives are really having a field day with this.

Two Must-Read Articles from Wash Monthly

"Taking Liberty": Liberals ignore and conservatives misunderstand America's guiding value: freedom.
By William A. Galston

"Bloody Necessary": Europeans won't admit it but America's violent messianism isn't all bad.
By Michael Hirsh.