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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope


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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Gays, straights & conservatives

Greg Gutfeld, blogging at Big Hollywood, has this to say on the subject of gays in the conservative movement:
...If you want to argue against homosexuality, you need to move it beyond religion. Fact is, if I get mugged, I can explain to the police why the mugger must be arrested – without saying “it’s in the Ten Commandments.”

After all, pointing to God as the basis for your distaste is what our enemies do every time they try to blow us up. We’re better than that.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Gay equality: "logically coherent from a conservative POV"

Nick Gillespie of Reason Magazine has commented about the dustup at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington over the participation of GOProud, an organization of gay Republicans. The conference was boycotted by several social conservative groups who believe that it is impossible to be a fiscal conservative without also being a social conservative. Gillespie writes:
As a libertarian, I'm in no way tied to CPAC (did speak there a couple of years ago and have attended from time to time), but it's fascinating to me that the conservative movement can't recognize some elemental facts. First and foremost that the world they're trying to create, especially when it comes to intolerance of alternative lifestyles, is never going to happen. And that by insisting, as Sen. James DeMint and Rep. Jim Jordan have, that you can't be a fiscal conservative without being a social conservative, you're alienating all those independents who just might give the GOP a second chance at running the federal budget. And you're in open denial of reality: A person's choice of sexual partner in no way means he or she can't be in favor of less spending on farm subsidies. There's a stunning knot of bull-dinkey at the heart of the argument that tolerance equals uncritical embrace. Do conservatives, of all people, think that the state allowing all religions to practice means official endorsement?

...

Maybe, baby, just maybe. Conservatives should recognize a few things. First, as Clouthier suggests, the fiscal con wing was exposed as just that, a total con job. Under Bush and a supposedly conservative Congress, federal outlays jacked up about 60 percent in real terms. Second, defense cons blew it. They had two wars to show themselves as effective, and they screwed the pooch, wagged the dog, shat the bed, whatever. After a good, long ride at the top, they did nothing well. They didn't create a coherent foreign policy that suggests when the U.S. might intervene and when it shouldn't (the Global War on Terrorism is not simply vague, it provides no stopping point for Wilsonian interventionism, which is decidedly not conservative). And third, social cons have lost, period. Gays are not going back in the closet and demands for equal standing under the law are logically coherent from a conservative POV. Gays didn't destroy marriage or the family (neither of which is in ruins, by the way, but that's another issue). The same goes for drug legalization, which has been touted by such raging liberals as William F. Buckley. In terms of abortion, like it or not, the country has settled into a semi-easy truce that abortion earlier in a pregnancy is OK and the closer the mother comes to term, the less comfortable people feel with it. In any case, advances in contraception and reproductive technologies will almost certainly render such decisions moot as people have gain ever-vaster control of their bodies.

In a historical way, libertarianism predates post-war conservatism. Libertarianism, with its emphasis on individual freedom, conscience, and responsibility, is the direct descendant of the classical liberalism that grew out of the English Civil War of the mid-17th century and worked its way through the Scottish Enlightenment, the Austrian economists, and others. It seeks to shrink to sphere of the state to that of an impartial judge protecting the equal rights of citizens and it valorizes, as Reason's motto puts it, "Free Minds and Free Markets." Sociologically, however, libertarianism has long been seen as a lesser brother to postwar conservatism, "chirping sectaries" in Russell Kirk's dismissive phrase, with about as much potential for leadership as Fredo Corleone.

That's no longer the case, dear conservatives. I'm no triumphalist but everything in the past 40 years suggests that the old-style left-wing command and control models have been thoroughly vanquished in theory if not practice (even old Europe has sold off virtually all of its state monopolies!). And the conservative desire for control of individuals' desire and lifestyles has similary come a cropper; your actual champions in the highest positions in the world have tried your ideas and been found wanting (who can disagree that George W. Bush was a "big-government disaster"?). In a world of increasing decentralization of power and corresponding growth in individual autonomy, libertarianism is looking better and better, both as a description of what's happening in those parts of our lives not completely under the thumb of government and as a guide to minimizing the reach of the state where it still is too grabby.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Social conservatives: "phony solutions for real social ills"

David Boaz writes in the LA Times about the contradiction between the problems that socons identify in society and their proposals to solve them:
Social conservatives say they're trying to address the problems of family breakdown, crime and welfare costs, but there's a huge disconnect between the problems they identify and the policy solutions they propose. It's almost like the man who looked for his keys on the thoroughfare, even though he lost them in the alley, because the light was better.

Social conservatives tend to talk about issues such as abortion and gay rights, stem cell research and the role of religion "in the public square": "Those who would have us ignore the battle being fought over life, marriage and religious liberty have forgotten the lessons of history," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) at the Family Research Council's 2010 Values Voter Summit.

But what, exactly, are the policy problems they say they aim to solve?

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, at the same summit, said: "We need to understand there is a direct correlation between the stability of families and the stability of our economy…. The real reason we have poverty is we have a breakdown of the basic family structure." And Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said: "It's impossible to be a fiscal conservative unless you're a social conservative because of the high cost of a dysfunctional society."

Those are reasonable concerns. As a 2009 Heritage Foundation report stated, children born to single mothers "score lower on tests, have increased chances for committing a crime, have higher chances of living in poverty, experience more emotional and behavioral problems, are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol and have higher chances of becoming pregnant as teens." And social problems like that do tend to lead to higher government spending.

But those problems have nothing to do with abortion or gay marriage, the issues that social conservatives talk most about.

...

When Huckabee says that "a breakdown of the basic family structure" is causing poverty — and thus a demand for higher government spending — he knows that he's really talking about unwed motherhood, divorce, children growing up without fathers and the resulting high rates of welfare usage and crime. Those also make up the "high cost of a dysfunctional society" that worries DeMint.

But the "Family Values" section of DeMint's Senate website talks about abortion and gay marriage, along with adoption. There's no mention of divorce or unwed motherhood.

...

Reducing the incidence of unwed motherhood, divorce, fatherlessness, welfare and crime would be a good thing. So why the focus on issues that would do nothing to solve the "breakdown of the basic family structure" and the resulting "high cost of a dysfunctional society"? Well, solving the problems of divorce and unwed motherhood is hard. And lots of Republican and conservative voters have been divorced. A constitutional amendment to ban divorce wouldn't go over very well, even with the social conservatives. Far better to pick on a small group, a group not perceived to be part of the Republican constituency, and blame it for social breakdown and its associated costs.

That's why social conservatives point to a real problem and then offer phony solutions.

But you won't find your keys on the thoroughfare if you dropped them in the alley, and you won't reduce the costs of social breakdown by keeping gays unmarried and preventing them from adopting orphans.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Ronald Reagan: "the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism"

From a 1975 interview with Reason magazine, Ronald Reagan talks about his vision of conservatism:
REASON: Governor Reagan, you have been quoted in the press as saying that you’re doing a lot of speaking now on behalf of the philosophy of conservatism and libertarianism. Is there a difference between the two?

REAGAN: If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals–if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.

Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals. The strongest man on the block will run the neighborhood. We have government to insure that we don’t each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are travelling the same path.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Imperialism's heritage

One of the most distressing things to come out of the unrest in Egypt is the news that rioters had broken into the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo and looted some of its priceless artifacts. It makes one wonder whether impassioned pleas to return artifacts and works of art taken during the colonial era should be ignored in the case of potentially unstable countries like Egypt.
The break-in at Cairo's Egyptian Museum could have been a disaster of historic proportions, a repeat of the rape of Baghdad's multi-millennial heritage after Iraq's equivalent museum was looted in 2003. It wasn't. But only thanks to sheer dumb luck.
On Friday, Egypt's government declared a 6 p.m.-to-7 a.m. curfew. The much detested riot police, who had fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters all day, suddenly withdrew from the streets at around the start of the curfew, including from their positions guarding Cairo's famed antiquities museum in the heart of the capital, on Tahrir Square, which is the epicenter of the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. Immediately, Egypt became a police state without police.

The museum had been closed all day because of the street demonstrations, but after virtually all police abandoned their posts, "people began to enter the museum," says Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's antiquities department. They climbed over walls, forced open doors and entered the museum's vast souvenir shop. "I'm glad that those people were idiots," Hawass told TIME. "They looted the museum shop. Thank God they thought that the museum shop was the museum."

...

While many of the intruders were dazzled by the souvenir shop, a few others knew there was more to the museum. Nine of them apparently realized that the real treasures were elsewhere. They entered a room containing artifacts dating back to 500 B.C. The intruders broke into some 13 glass panel display cases as well as one case in the Tutankahmun exhibition. Hawass did not give TIME permission to view the destruction in the museum, which has been shut for the duration of the crisis. But video footage from several Arabic satellite networks, including al-Arabiya, showed shards of glass littering the floor and several artifacts carelessly tossed around, some resting on splinters, others hanging out of display cases. "They were looking for gold," Hawass told TIME, just like the grave robbers of old.

The military, which has taken over security duties throughout Cairo and in many other cities, did not arrive on the scene until 10 p.m. In the meantime, ordinary Cairenes, aware of the security vacuum, flocked to protect the museum. "That was wonderful," says Hawass. "The Cairo museum is like the place for our identity. If the museum is safe, Egypt is safe."

The citizens, as well as three police officers who refused to leave their posts, apprehended the nine alleged culprits as they tried to flee the museum with their loot, including two mummy skulls and a statue of Isis. Hawass says that nothing is missing from the museum although about 100 items were damaged — though not irreparably. "They're easy to restore," he says.

The incident recalls a more serious event that happened in Baghdad in 2003 when mobs looted the Baghdad Museum after the fall of Saddam Hussein, carrying away priceless artifacts by the wheelbarrow-load and destroying countless others.

Hussein made an official request to Germany for the return of Babylon's Ishtar Gate to Iraq in 2002, a year before the Baghdad Museum was looted. Fortunately, the gate remains safe and sound in Berlin's Pergamon Museum.

Returning artifacts to their country of origin has been somewhat of an obsession lately. Just a week before the unrest in Cairo broke out, Egypt's top archeologist had issued a formal request to the German government for the return of the famous bust of Nefertiti, which is housed in Berlin's Neues Museum.

Egypt's top archaeologist has formally requested the return of the 3,300-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti that has been in a Berlin museum for decades, the latest move in his eight-year-old campaign to bring home ancient artifacts spirited out of the country during colonial times.

The bust dates back to the time of the 14th century B.C. queen and tops Egypt's wish list of artifacts that Zahi Hawass wants to see back home. The bust is currently at Berlin's Neues Museum.

...

Germany has declined past Egyptian requests for the bust's return, saying it was in Germany legally and is too fragile to move. But Egypt contends it was taken out with fraudulent documents in 1913.
What would have happened to this bust if it had been returned to Cairo and looters had managed to find it? It's only sheer luck that Egyptian artifacts like Tutankhamun's gold death mask weren't found and destroyed by the mob that trashed the museum last week.

Yale University recently agreed to return priceless Inca artifacts from Machu Picchu that have been in its possession since 1915. Peru is a politically unstable country that has been fighting a war against leftist insurgents since the 1980s that is far from resolved. What would happen to this irreplaceable collection if the capital was overrun by Shining Path guerrillas doesn't take much imagination.

Britain, so far, has resisted increasing pressure from Greece to return the Elgin Marbles - the sculptures taken from the Parthenon in 1816 and now housed in the British Museum. Considering the turmoil that has wracked Greece in the succeeding two hundred years and the recent rioting in Athens in response to the government's austerity measures, it's not a stretch to suggest that the statues might have been better off in London all along.

The art and artifacts taken by imperialist collectors that are housed in various museums around the world represent the collective heritage of world civilization. We all have an interest in their preservation. Sometimes the best thing is to keep them where they are, preserved and studied by curators with resources and expertise, in politically stable countries with the means and the will to protect them. Countries whose own people would loot and destroy their heritage don't deserve to have these works returned.