Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Prospects for Conservatives

The author of an article in Pajamas Media asks "Will things get better for conservatives in 2009?" This is a fine and hopeful question, since he obviously views himself as one of the embattled band of conservatives battered by the Obama election. A couple of things need to be said about the analysis with which he finds hope for the conservative cause in the coming year.

First, we have the conflation of "conservatives" with "Republicans." If, in fact, the Republican Party has been diminished to the hard core of self-described conservatives, those driven by fear of change and hatred of modernity, the answer to the author's question will be a resounding "No!" The only hope for the Republican Party is to expand its constituency, and that, in turn, means abandoning some positions that are dear to the hearts of conservatives. An improvement in the fortunes of the Republicans may actually mean a diminution in the influence of the conservative movement.

Second, the author's imagination doesn't seem to extend to the possibility that the conservative movement, or the Republican Party might actually come up with any positive ideas that could win over voters. His hopes lie in the failure of Mr. Obama's program to promote economic recovery or financial sanity. I don't see how it can be good for the conservatives to root for an extended recession, higher unemployment, and failing financial institutions, just in order to be able to portray the Democrats as failures. Not only would they reinforce their identification as the party of Herbert Hoover, their schadenfreude would repulse many Americans. After all, putting party ahead of country is supposed to be a bad thing. So, in sum, things might get better for conservatives, according to this author, at the cost of extended suffering for the people of the country, and more self-destructive behavior on the part of the Republican Party. What I'm not clear on is just what are these so-called conservatives trying to conserve.

Note: I posted this item to Cafe Third Edition first, although I intended to post it here. I'm happy it's out on Cafe Third Edition, but I wanted those who might visit this site to see it, as well.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Causes of Terrorism

In the accompanying article, Michael Ledeen takes issue with President Bush's characterization of terrorism as arising from hopelessness. Without necessarily agreeing with Mr. Bush's opinion that hopelessness is the only basis of terrorism, I think Mr. Ledeen misses the point by finding that some famous terrorists have, like Osama bin Laden, been well off.

Terrorism is famously a method of the weak. If the Palestinians had a real army and air force that could compete with the Israeli Defense Forces on an equal footing, you wouldn't see suicide bombings in Netanya. If the insurgent forces in Iraq had fully equipped and trained military forces, with secure bases, and all the trappings of a real army, they wouldn't be using improvised explosive devices. Anyone who has read Mao Tse-tung on guerrilla warfare, or, for that matter, any good history of the Civil War, knows that the weaker side, if it acknowledges that it is unlikely to lose by conventional means, but is unwilling to concede defeat, may resort to the guerrilla or terrorist tactics.

On the other hand, terrorism is also the weapon of the politically weak. If the Iraqi Sunnis believe that they are going to lose benefits, status, and power under any conceivable political settlement, and are unwilling to accept that loss, they may return to terrorist and guerrilla methods.

So, we can say that terrorists have no hope of victory through conventional military means, or through democratic political means. To that degree, Mr. Bush is right to associate terrorism with hopelessness. The terrorists, however, wouldn't be acting at all if they were entirely without hope of affecting the outcome. Terrorism is the only method that holds out hope, however remote, of winning without the means to obtain a conventional victory. In fact, hope may be all that terrorists have, because the odds of duplicating the successes of Mao Tse-tung and Fidel Castro are very remote indeed.

One of the problems this analysis raised for policy-makers is that, to remove terrorism from the table, one much offer either some realistic hope of achieving political goals through other means, or some absolutely incontrovertible demonstration that they have no hope of achieving those goals at all. Perhaps, then, it is unfortunate that the old saying "Where there's life, there's hope" has such a large share of truth.

Reading Lists: Foreign Affairs

One of the features of the journal Foreign Affairs is found on the last page of each issue: a list of best-selling books in international affairs. Trying to bring a little system to my reading, I copied that page out of a recent issue, and took it with me to the library. I didn't find all of the books on the list, and I didn't entirely confine myself to that list, but I did take out several books which appeared on it.

One of the problems with the old Great Books Cafe, as well as with this blog, is that everyone is reading different books. There's no uniformity in the reading, so there's seldom a basis for direct dialogue. I'm certainly not trying to impose any kind of common reading list, but I think it might be useful for others to consider the books on a list that's available to all of us.

I have attached the link to the Foreign Affairs bestsellers list to the title of this post, and I'll show it again here.

I'm working on some books from an older list, but I suggest that you consider some of the books on this list for your future reading, and I'll do the same.

By the way, I just finished reading A Choice of Enemies, by Freedman. I'm working on Algeria: The Anger of the Dispossessed. I have also Faith, Reason, and the War against Jihadism, by George Weigel, and Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, by Robin Wright.

Let me emphasize that anyone who wishes to contribute a review, or just personal comments, on a book you've recently read, is encouraged to do so. Let me know if you'd like to contribute in that way.

Possibilities for Democracy in Iraq

My wife and I are traveling this week, and we spent much of yesterday talking with old friends in North Carolina. Along with Representative Brooks's caning of Senator Sumner, gardening, and birds, we spoke of the American adventure in Iraq. I asserted that the goal of democracy in Iraq was wrong-headed, because a democracy is based upon the ability of a political minority to become a majority, thus causing the government to change hands. When the parties are all based on ethnicity, language, tribe, or religion, the voters cannot shift freely from one to another, and so the minority parties have no realistic chance of ever becoming a majority. At that point, there is no longer much incentive for them to play the democratic game, and they might as well turn to violent insurgency, subverting the military, and other games of violence and intrigue.

This topic relates, by the way, to my post earlier this month on the purpose of political parties. A political party with minority support should, as a matter of principle, as well as of practical necessity, make every effort to obtain the support of a majority of voters. A party which is more interested in expressing some principle, or sending some message, than in winning a majority, is no longer a real political party.

The bare statement that democracy is impossible in Iraq, because the parties are not based upon voters' opinions of policy position, is, I now think, inadequate. We might better ask: Under what conditions could democracy become possible in Iraq?

The key here is a principle of games theory, one used (perhaps to excess) by President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress of his day. It is pointless, and costly, to seek more than a bare majority of support. If 50% + 1 vote is all the support one needs to carry a position, then spending more effort, money, or other resources to attract more votes is wasteful. In practice, this means that parties which have achieved super-majorities - the Democratic Party under Jackson after 1828, the Democratic Party under Roosevelt after 1932, the Democratic Party under Johnson after 1964 - break up. That is, a majority having been attained, the party no long finds it necessary to spend its capital to continue to attract some portion of its coalition which is now surplus to needs. One way to look at the Southern Strategy of the Republican Party, is to note that the Democrats, holding a good majority in Congress without the support of the Deep South, were no long willing to offer the Southerners what they would have demanded to remain with the Democratic party: Therefore, the Southerners became eligible to join the Republican coalition.

Similarly, one can look at the Shi'ite majority of the population, and note that there are divisions among them. At some point, some portion of the Shi'ite coalition won't get what they want, and they may, then, make common cause with some Sunnis and some Kurds to form a new coalition. The critical point, in my opinion, is that the issue around which the new coalition forms, or around which the Shi'ite majority splits, must be a non-religious issue - division of oil money among the provinces, tax policy, farm subsidies, or location of new industrial development, for example. In other words, the hope for democracy in Iraq depends upon the increasing salience of non-religious, non-ethnic issues in the country's politics.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Purpose of Political Parties

The author of the attached article, Pam Meister, says one thing that I found of interest. She states that the purpose of political parties is to "act in a partisan manner to advance their own interests." (She says a lot of other things about Senator McCain, Governor Palin, and the Republican fiasco of 2008, but I'll let those pass.) I would like to take issue with that statement, and to point out that this kind of thinking about political parties leads to some bad consequences.

The purpose of an interest group - whether it is the National Rifle Association or the United Auto Workers, the National Association of Manufacturers or NARAL Pro-Choice America, is to promote the interests of that group and its members. It is only natural for an interest group to be very single-minded; its raison d'etre is to espouse a single position. Interest groups aren't out there to tell us both sides of the story, to be "fair," or to point out the weaknesses in their own arguments. They are there to maximize the benefits their members derive from government action or inaction. There is a fundamental difference between this single-minded pursuit of one goal and the purpose of a political party.

Ms. Meister talks as if a political party were an interest group, whose only job was to promote its own interests. The real purpose of a political party is to win elections, to win elections which will enable its representatives to govern, to win elections which will result in its platform and principles being translated into law and policy for the next term of years. In order to win elections, a party and its candidates need to gain the support of a plurality of voters (in some cases, a majority). In this sense, such organizations as the Socialist Workers Party, the Green Party, the Prohibition Party, and so on are not political parties at all. They not only have no realistic chance of winning elections and gaining the right to govern - they are not really trying to win elections; they are trying to "send a message." In other words, they are interest groups using electoral politics as a means to influence the people who do get elected, not to gain election themselves.

In order to gain the support of a plurality of voters, political parties gather together members of many interest groups, reconciling or ignoring the contradictions among their positions, as well as unaffiliated voters, who may respond to any number of issues. Real political parties perform an integrative function in society. In American history, the classic example of a political party performing this role was the Democratic Party from 1829 until 1860. The Democrats lost some presidential elections, and the Whigs had their share of Senators and Representatives, but the Democratic party held together for thirty years a coalition of Southern (pro-slavery) planters and Northern farmers and mechanics. When the Democrats were unable to contain the stresses between their pro-slavery and anti-slavery wings, at the Charleston convention in 1860, they failed of their integrative function, and a civil war resulted.

The Republican Party has always contained a number of elements: pro-business interests, anti-immigrant groups, religious reformers, pro-growth elements, and conservatives of various stripes. When they party is able to pull enough of these groups into its electoral coalition, it tends to earn the chance to govern by winning elections. When one or more of these groups drop out, the party tends to lose. It is also the case that individual voters often belong to more than one interest group, i.e., they have more than one interest. The question then becomes one of finding out which interest is determinative, and then appealing to it.

There are four basic reasons that electoral coalitions are not stable, why parties lose an election one year on the same platform that won in the past. First, there is demographic change. If your appeal is to voters of a certain generation - people who remembered World War II, for example, then natural mortality is going to reduce your number of voters. Young people come into their politically active years with a different set of experiences and expectation than their elders. Second, there are outside events. The Great Depression broke up the Republican coalition and gave the Democrats the opportunity to pick up a lot of voters. The Democrats exploited that opportunity and have been the default party in this country since 1930. Third, your opponents come up with new appeals, new candidates, new techniques, to which you must respond or lose ground. Fourth, your period of governance actually ameliorates some of the problems you exploited to win elections. It has been pointed out that the Republicans' hold on crime as an issue was weakened by President Clinton's policies, but the issue itself has been devalued as crime has been perceived to be diminishing. This is the political equivalent of the law of diminishing returns.

All four of these factors are now operating to ensure that, if the Republicans continue to appeal to the same interests in the same manner, they will continue to lose. Again and again I see conservatives urging the party to stick to the low-taxes message. Because the Republicans have succeeded in lowering taxes at various levels, this issue doesn't have as much traction with voters as it once did. When an economic crisis has people worrying about keeping their jobs, they will be less concerned about how much of their income goes to pay taxes. When the credit crunch has people worried about keeping their houses, how high their property taxes are may be less important than having a program to forestall foreclosure. The lower taxes message has, in my opinion, reached the point of diminishing returns; the more effort the Republicans put into pushing this message, the less payoff they'll see at the ballot box.

This is not the time for the Republicans to act in a partisan manner, or to pursue the same interests they have been since 1964. This is the time for the Republicans to look outside their shrinking tent and reach out to a larger audience.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The First Assumption

James L. Kugel's How to Read the Bible is a really enjoyable book, and a wise one. A major theme running through the book is that traditional Biblical interpretation shared four assumptions. Part of Kugel's point is that the Bible was always interpreted. That is, no account of the Bible, no edition of the Bible, and none of the work in the Talmud approaches the Bible without a layer of interpretation affecting the writer's perception of what the text says. For one example, when New Testament authors refer to Old Testament texts, they do so with an interpretation in mind, and that interpretation shares these four assumptions.

The first assumption, as I quotedit in my post "Knight's Reading List XIV: February 2008," is:

“1. They assumed that the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text: that is, when it said A, often it might really mean B. …"

To take one example from Kugel, Genesis quotes God as saying to Adam, "You may eat from any tree in the garden. But you shall not eat from the tree of knowing good and evil, because on the day that you eat from it, you shall die." Genesis 2:15-17. That's pretty clear, but, as the story goes on, Adam did eat from the tree of knowing good and evil, and he did not die. At least, he didn't die for another 900 years, as the Bible says that he lived to the age of 930. So the phrase "on the day that you eat from it, you shall die," cannot be taken literally. This passage was interpreted as meaning that, in the sight of God, a thousand years was as a day.

"But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." 2 Peter 3:8.

There are lots of interesting consequences of this interpretation. For one thing, it means that the Creation might have taken 7,000 years, or even more, instead of a literal seven days. For another, it has allowed Christian churches to continue to operate, when it is quite apparent that the New Testament writers expected Christ to return in their lifetimes. Why didn't everybody decide that the New Testament prophecies were wrong and go back to worshipping Zeus in, say, 150 CE? Because a thousand years could be as one day. This concept certainly builds a lot of flexibility into your interpretation of time in the Bible.

Let us note, however, that the Bible itself, so far as Genesis is concerned, doesn't say that a day is as one thousand years. Through the Torah, a year is a year, a day is a day, and time is pretty inflexible. So the elasticity of time is an interpretation of what the Bible says, based on the assumption that the Bible is cryptic, that its meanings are mysterious.

This is an enjoyable assumption. It has led to such exercises as finding codes in the Bible by reading every seventh word, or by numerology, or by other methods of "decoding." You see, the assumption is that it is coded, and so it needs decoding. That gives people who like puzzles, and who want to find hidden information in the Bible, lots of ways to go about their business. But it is also a dangerous assumption. If the Bible might not mean what it says, it might mean anything. How is one to separate a valid interpretation from an invalid one, if the words don't mean what they say in plain speaking? This gets into interpretation such as Leo Strauss telling us what Machiavelli meant by what wasn't written in The Prince. In fact, there is a whole line of thought holding that the works of Plato are fundamentally cryptic, so that they can only be understood by the "elect" who can decode and interpret them correctly.

My question is, how would one read the Bible if one eliminated this assumption from one's interpretation of the text?

Knight’s Reading List XV: March 2008


This, my fifteenth reading list on this blog, is evenly divided between works of fiction and non-fiction; there are five books in each category. The most interesting of the works of fiction is The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The most rewarding of the non-fiction books is The Best American Essays 2004. The Elements of Style, a book with which I’ve been familiar since college days, is the most useful to writers – including writers who wish to post to Knight’s Castle. Also on the list is another of David A. Drake’s Lord of the Isles novels, the fifth of that ilk. The seventeenth book featuring Elizabeth Peters’ irritating Egyptologist and sleuth, Amelia Peabody, is here, too, along with another travel book from Bill Bryson, and several Best American books. I have not provided reviews or comments on all ten books.

Reading List:

Bryson, Bill. Notes from a Small Island.
Carroll, James. House of War.
Drake, David. Goddess of the Ice Realm.
Ellroy, James, editor. The Best American Mystery Stories 2002.
Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Menand, Louis, editor. The Best American Essays 2004.
Miller, Sue, editor. The Best American Short Stories 2002.
Mladjenovic, Paul. Stock Investing for Dummies, 2nd edition.
Peters, Elizabeth. The Serpent on the Crown.
Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style.


Bryson, Bill. Notes from a Small Island. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001. Copyright 1995. 324 pages. Glossary.

Bill Bryson worked and lived for twenty years in England. This book was his farewell to the island, chronicling his farewell tour. There are many flashbacks to his earlier encounters with the places and people of his “small island.” Bryson’s tales are humorous, but his affection for England and the English shines through, however irritating he finds some of their incomprehensible habits. For those thinking of a trip to England, this book includes some less well-known corners of that “sceptered isle.”

Carroll, James. House of War. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. xiv + 657 pages. Acknowledgments. Notes. Bibliography. Index.

Carroll was involved with the Pentagon and its doings both personally and politically since his birth at the time the building was dedicated. His father, a former FBI official, was brought in to create the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and rose to the rank of Lieutenant General. Carroll himself was in the anti-war movement, Catholic sub-division, and has much to say about the evils of the building. This ought to have been a fascinating book, but Carroll’s deep personal attachments, and conflicts, get in the way of his writing skills. For one thing, his obvious affection for the Berrigan brothers leads him to exaggerate their importance in American political life. For another, he apparently took those elementary school air raid drills a little too seriously; his terror and abhorrence of nuclear war carries him away into flights of fancy about the cloud of fear looming over America.

Perhaps most damaging to this book is that, due in large part to his conflicted relationship with his father, Carroll takes the whole of American defense policy as a personal affront to him. Reversing the same coin, he imagines that his personal feelings matter because his teen-age angst was about nuclear war, rather than acne. This would have been a better book, and a much shorter one, if Carroll had written a history instead of a memoir.

Menand, Louis, editor. The Best American Essays 2004. New York: Scribners, 2004. xviii + 323 pages.

If you’d like to write better essays, one of your best options is to read some good ones. Even if you don’t want to write, a well-written essay is a real pleasure to read. I’ve enjoyed the essays of Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and others, but The Best American Essays 2004 (or any other year) has the advantage of collecting essays by a number of different authors, published in different markets (though The New Yorker is a popular venue), on widely varied topics. A terrific sampling of good writers writing well.

Mladjenovic, Paul. Stock Investing for Dummies, 2nd edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2006. xx + 336 pages. Index.

Now might be a good time to read up on when you might want to start investing again. We might be near the bottom of this market! And we might be near the beginning of a great bear market. At the very least, this book may help you to decide that you don’t know nearly enough to risk your money on Wall Street.

Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style, 3rd edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1979. xvii + 92 pages. Index.

The little book is still going strong! I got my first copy when I was a freshman at Macalester College, and I picked up my current copy at the bookstore at Pikes Peak Community College. For the writer, the aspiring writer, and particularly for the writer whose education has left him unsure of the proper usage of the objective case, The Elements of Style is a great, short guide.


Drake, David. Goddess of the Ice Realm. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2003. A Tor Book. 496 pages. The sequel to Mistress of the Catacombs.

Ellroy, James, editor. The Best American Mystery Stories 2002. New York: Scribner’s, 2002. xv + 405 pages.

Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. 2007. 184 pages.

This is an odd little book, and very affecting. It is in the form of a one-sided conversation between a Pakistani intellectual, who may or may not be a terrorist, and an American, who may or may not be an intelligence agent. That is, we read everything the Pakistani says, but we must surmise the content of the American’s comments and questions that lead our “reluctant fundamentalist” to give the responses he does. This is a portrait of a man who knows America well and feels that America has rejected him because of his religion and his culture. This is not an explanation of anti-Americanism so much as an explanation of why many Muslims find that America reacts to them as an individual might react to a foreign body – a mutual rejection, damaging to both participants.

Miller, Sue, editor. The Best American Short Stories 2002. New York: Scribner’s, 2002. xviii + 375 pages.

Peters, Elizabeth. The Serpent on the Crown. New York: William Morrow, 2005. 350 pages.

My wife really enjoys Elizabeth Peters, whose Amelia Peabody novels are set in Egypt in the days of British domination. The seventeenth in the series brings us up to 1922, but Amelia is still overbearing, opinionated, nosy, and humorless. Oddly enough, I don’t find her a sympathetic narrator, or a trustworthy one.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Knight's Reading List XIV: February 2008

Reading List:

Bodian, Stephen. Meditation for Dummies, 2nd edition.
Gruen, Sara. Water for Elephants.
Kugel, James L. How to Read the Bible.
Rich, Adrienne, editor. The Best American Poetry 1996.


Bodian, Stephen. Meditation for Dummies, 2nd edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2006. xxii + 360 pages. Index. If you’re considering taking up meditation, this is a good place to start. Bodian comes across as credulous, and I tended to ignore the more “spritual” aspects of the book. The techniques are well-described, and the attached CD is a helpful aide to a variety of meditative procedures. The main problem with a book on meditation is that looking over at the book to see what to do next interrupts the rhythm of meditating. Still, Bodian does know what he’s talking about, even if he does attribute more meaning to it than the subject will support.

Kugel, James L. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Free Press, 2007. xiv + 819 pages. Picture Credits. A Note to the Reader. Notes. Subject Index. Verses Cited. James Kugel, in contrast to Stephen Bodian, has taken up a subject that has plenty of meaning to support a variety of interpretative superstructures. And that is, in fact, Kugel’s subject: The Bible, as it has come down to us, has come down with a body of interpretation and interpolation that stands between us and the plain text. Thus, anyone who tries to derive the meaning of the text will be at odds with any of the existing religious traditions.

In particular, Kugel formulates four assumptions which were common to all of the ancient interpretations of the Bible. One will see immediately that some Christians and Jews still hold these assumptions about the Bible, and that much of the conflict over religious thought in our time is between those who make these assumptions, and those who do not. One of the difficulties is that these are assumptions, and are often not made explicit by those who hold them. The assumptions are:

“1. They assumed that the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text: that is, when it said A, often it might really mean B. …
“2. Interpreters also assumed that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day. …
“3. Interpreters also assumed that the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes. …
“4. Lastly, they believed that the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text, a book in which God speaks directly or through His prophets.” (Pages 14-15, et seq.)

Most of the book consists of Kugel retelling stories from the Bible, providing an interpretation of each story according to the ancient assumptions, and then re-interpreting the story in accordance with modern Biblical scholarship. This is a fascinating and informative book. One thing that struck me was how apt these interpretative assumptions are for explaining how the ancient Greeks saw the Iliad and the Odyssey as sacred texts.

One of the funniest episodes in the book is when Kugel, in talking about interpretations of the Song of Songs, applies traditional Biblical interpretation to that other fine old song, "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain When She Comes." See pages 514-518 for this tour de force. On the other hand, Kugel's conclusion is rather touching. If you keep to this method of interpretation, you know that you're putting meaning into the Bible that wasn't there initially. But if, after all, you don't share at least part of this traditional way of interpreting the Bible, why would you want to read it?

Gruen, Sara. Water for Elephants. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2006. 335 pages. Author’s Note.

This is a comic and touching novel about a young man who, having lost his family and position, takes up the duties of caring for the animals in a traveling circus. One of the nice touches are the illustrative photographs from real circuses. I could recommend this one to almost anyone.


Rich, Adrienne, editor. The Best American Poetry 1996. New York: Scribner’s, 1996. 318 pages.

The folks who put out the various volumes of The Best American … have stopped doing a volume of the best American poetry. This book amply demonstrates why that was a good decision. Adrienne Rich, a well-known Lesbian poet and editor, makes a sincere effort to find poems by as diverse a population as possible. I suppose it’s nice to know that African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, gays, and revolutionaries write poetry, but most of the poems in this collection that are actually readable are by white, college-educated, middle-class poets like Reynolds Price. Selecting poems according to the ethnicity of the poet isn’t the best way to obtain a lot of excellent poems. In my personal opinion, when your criteria for collection are not related to the qualities of the object being collected, your have corrupted the selection process. But, then, I don’t think diversity is a good enough reason to let unqualified students into universities, either.