Jimbo is right to say that Obama is wrong for a dangerous world. Let's talk about exactly why he is wrong for it. The key clue comes from listening to some of his supporters talk about why they don't want Senator Jim Webb to serve as Obama's Vice President. I supported Webb for the Senate, and would have no problem supporting him for President -- but to them, he is a bad choice.
Ezra Klein is disturbed by talk that Jim Webb might serve as Obama's VP.
I've been sort of struggling with whether to write this post, but after Daniel Larison and Matt Stoller both toed around the point while offering their takes on Webb, I guess it's worth doing. Let me start by saying that this isn't really about James Webb. He is who he is, and this post has nothing to do with his positions on the issues. But then, nor does most of the excitement around his candidacy. Rather, Webb represents something of almost transcendent importance to some post-Bush liberals: The opportunity to out-tough the GOP. A candidate who's not only a liberal, but in no way a sissy. He is the daywalker, combining a progressive's positions with a southern militarist's affectations.
I had to look that one up. "Daywalker" is a comic book reference to a kind of vampire that isn't destroyed by sunlight.
But this is not a sustainable approach to politics. Democrats can't out-tough the GOP. It's possible that James Webb can do it. But he's sui generis; a Democrat who can win at politics when played under Republican rules.... But Democrats can't win at politics when played under Republican rules. Progressivism can't prosper when politics is played under Republican rules. It needs to make its own rules. Barack Obama's effort to do exactly that has been, by far, the most exciting element of his campaign. His policies -- particularly his domestic policies -- have not been half as innovative as his politics. But his willingness to double down on opposition to the gas tax holiday, to battle back on negotiating with dictators, to respond to attacks by pressing the point, has been genuinely exciting. And though he has been confident and even aggressive in all of this, he has not been "tough."
Jim Webb is hardly the only Democrat who can 'win' an election on the grounds of having traditional masculine virtues. The problem is not that "Democrats" can't do this; it is that the progressive movement is opposed to traditional masculine virtue.
They don't want warriors, even reluctant ones; they want people who will "negotiate with dictators," and are excited to see someone who will stand up for their right to do so. They want Obama, a man who has "not been 'tough.'." They don't want a character who is "a liberal, but in no way a sissy."
That is a supporter's words, notice. It is not the first time an Obama supporter has described his candidate in such terms, "...as a skinny, athletic, gentle-seeming, virtually metrosexual man, he nearly splits the difference on gender as well."
Daniel Larison, an isolationist conservative blogger, agrees:
[The perception that Democrats are weak on security and less patriotic] has put Democrats in the position of having to engage in a bidding war to demonstrate their patriotism in the most heavy-handed ways, which has usually mistakenly involved trumpeting their willingness to bomb one country or another or being unusually reckless in promoting democracy and human rights abroad. Obama’s supporters sometimes seem eager to remind the world that he would be willing to violate Pakistani sovereignty with impunity, unlike the wimp John McCain, and next they will probably laud his willingness to escalate the drug war as proof of his “toughness.”
The point is that Democrats cannot defeat today’s GOP in a bidding war over who is more militaristic and irresponsible in foreign policy, just as the GOP can never outbid the Democrats when it comes to making lavish, irresponsible promises about domestic spending. To fight the election on this ground is a losing proposition for Democrats, and this is why efforts to out-veteran the veteran opponent, which is part of the rationale for selecting Webb, will simply draw attention to the “weaknesses” that have been attributed to Obama. It is an attempt to beat the opposition at its own game with a candidate who is uniquely ill-suited to playing that kind of game. Hence he has tried to frame the election in entirely different terms, because once the election is defined along tradiitional lines he probably knows that he will lose.
Here's the problem: those "traditional lines" aren't there by accident. Regardless of a hundred years' argument to the contrary, the fact is that our conceptions of virtue aren't mere 'social constructs' that can be played with and reformed at will, or without consequence. The virtues arise from two things: what Aristotle called the 'first nature' of man, and the nature of the world. The first nature of men is everything that we don't really have the power to change, from hardcoded structures in the brain -- we perceive the world in three dimensions, not four, and so we assume there can only be three -- to basic instincts and reflexes trained by endless generations of survival. The world has so deeply informed the nature of man that it is hard to separate the nature of man from the nature of the world.
What you can play with is what Aristotle called your "second nature." All of the "social construct" aspects of virtue that various thinkers have encountered lie in this realm. The second nature is widely variable in many respects. All of this 'reframing the debate' to make Obama more acceptable is really about that: about changing the preferred second-nature of American men.
That second nature, however, is only an overlay on top of the first nature. As flexible as the second nature is, all it can do is train the first nature in certain directions. So, for example, it is the first nature of men that they have a quality that we call courage or cowardice, which pertains to their ability to face danger and overcome fear; or, their ability to recognize danger and use fear to avoid it. All men have this quality. What the second nature does is train it, either to what we call courage or what we call cowardice -- but those are our terms. A different second nature might call what we call courage, "rashness," and might call what we call cowardice, "prudence."
Yet no such second nature exists in any successful society.
Of all the masculine virtues, martial courage is the least mutable. It is the virtue that men can identify most readily in any successful culture: ideas about charity, mercy, justice, generosity, any of the others may vary widely. Courage, tied to prowess in battle, does not. The reason it does not is that it cannot. A society that lacks it will not survive its encounters with the rest of humanity.
The only groups that have managed to succeed at serious departures from the traditional masculine virtue of courage are protected groups. I wrote about this when I wrote a review of John Wayne's Angel and the Badman.
The beauty of the Quaker faith, and its way, are the subject of the film. Yet the film is clear about the reality of evil, and more than that: it distinguishes between three different types of moral violence. There is the kind the Quaker model can and ought to help, the violence of Quirt Evans, which arises from recklessness and selfishness and an insensitivity to love. There is the kind that the Quakers cannot help, the violence of Laredo, which is in love with its own cruelty.
And there is the violence on which the Quakers survive: the violence of the Marshal.
Unspoken but obvious is the fact that, except for the marshal on the hill, evil would have triumphed. Quirt can go and live his new life of peace, rejecting anger and violence, because the Marshal rides the territory to defend it from evil. It is not clear that the Quakers mind whether they live or die; expecting heaven, they may go to their grave as if to bed. Yet, insofar as they live to serve as an example to us in this world, they do so because of the marshal.
If you read the rest of the review of the movie, you will find it is an extended defense of pacifism's right to exist and be respected in spite of needing protection. I don't think it's a bad thing, and in fact I believe it must be a good thing.
It is not, however, capable of standing on its own. It requires a marshal on the hill, with a rifle, to ensure that it survives.
The problem with this 'reframing' that is being suggested is that Obama is offering to assume the role of the Marshal. He is offering to fill the job of protector, for that is the President's chief role. Second-nature ideas about courage and cowardice can exist in a protected class, whether Quakers or Senators, without causing harm -- they may even improve us as a society in some ways. If they step outside of that class, however, they will quickly find that their ideas on second nature clash sharply with the first nature of man, and the nature of the world.
If the Quaker becomes the Marshal, and sets aside the rifle in favor of a kind heart and a language of hope, he will be fine as long as he only meets with other Quakers; or with Quirt Evans, the young man ready for reform in the face of beauty. But there are other kinds of men in the world, too. You cannot wish them away.
Klein's preferred second nature may be fine for him, as his streets are guarded by United States Marines. It may be fine for a Senator. It may have things to offer the greater society that are of value. But it cannot defend society. Society cannot stand on it, nor survive protected by it.
A President must be of the Marshal class. That is not a preference that can be reframed; it is an absolute requirement arising from the nature of the world. It may be that a good politician can smooth voters' fears enough to cause them to set aside that requirement, and elect a man to office who lacks that martial courage. If they do, however, there will be evil consequences.
There is no changing that. You can talk all you want, but there are men who do not talk. It is the President's job, first among all his duties, to be the answer to them.