Happy Meal Conservatism

This is an appropriate time to turn back, once again, to one of my favorite John Derbyshire pieces published waybackwhen in The American Conservative: How Radio Wrecks the Right. A long excerpt:

Taking the conservative project as a whole—limited government, fiscal prudence, equality under law, personal liberty, patriotism, realism abroad—has talk radio helped or hurt? All those good things are plainly off the table for the next four years at least, a prospect that conservatives can only view with anguish. Did the Limbaughs, Hannitys, Savages, and Ingrahams lead us to this sorry state of affairs?

They surely did. At the very least, by yoking themselves to the clueless George W. Bush and his free-spending administration, they helped create the great debt bubble that has now burst so spectacularly. The big names, too, were all uncritical of the decade-long (at least) efforts to “build democracy” in no-account nations with politically primitive populations. Sean Hannity called the Iraq War a “massive success,” and in January 2008 deemed the U.S. economy “phenomenal.”

Much as their blind loyalty discredited the Right, perhaps the worst effect of Limbaugh et al. has been their draining away of political energy from what might have been a much more worthwhile project: the fostering of a middlebrow conservatism. There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism. It’s energizing and fun. What’s wrong is the impression fixed in the minds of too many Americans that conservatism is always lowbrow, an impression our enemies gleefully reinforce when the opportunity arises. Thus a liberal like E.J. Dionne can write, “The cause of Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss, Robert Nisbet and William F. Buckley Jr. is now in the hands of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. … Reason has been overwhelmed by propaganda, ideas by slogans.” Talk radio has contributed mightily to this development.

It does so by routinely descending into the ad hominem—Feminazis instead of feminism—and catering to reflex rather than thought. Where once conservatism had been about individualism, talk radio now rallies the mob. “Revolt against the masses?” asked Jeffrey Hart. “Limbaugh is the masses.”

In place of the permanent things, we get Happy Meal conservatism: cheap, childish, familiar. Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right. But however much this dumbing down has damaged the conservative brand, it appeals to millions of Americans. McDonald’s profits rose 80 percent last year.

There is a lowbrow liberalism, too, but the Left hasn’t learned how to market it.

Anyways, to clarify a few things. First off, I don’t think the talk-radio right is ‘dangerous’ or that the video in the last post is actually representative of Glenn Beck. I think what talk radio and Fox News is is basically lowbrow conservatism – which is fun, as Derbyshire notes, but ultimately unsatisfying – at least for someone like me. Is it dangerous? No, not really. Can too much talk of how afraid we should all be of Obama and liberals and so forth infect an already unbalanced person’s mind and cause them to go over the edge? Quite possibly, and in someone like the Unitarian church shooter it appears that it did. But this doesn’t mean we should censor it or do anything about it – it’s just the way of the world. Hate speech laws are pernicious and politically dangerous. We have to get on with living.

Beck isn’t dangerous. Ann Coulter isn’t a threat to democracy. Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin aren’t doing things that will lead directly to anyone’s death. Well, except for championing foreign wars, but plenty of people on both sides of the aisle championed these wars, and currently it’s the Democrats who are fighting them.

On the right to bear arms.

Also, a lot of the commentary on Arizona gun laws is a bit odd. I say this as someone who really dislikes guns, mind you, and wouldn’t shed any tears if we awoke tomorrow morning to find that all the guns in the world – including those many in the hands of murderous governments around the world – had vanished.

Of course that won’t happen, so instead I believe it’s important to defend the right to bear arms. Kevin Williamson has a good post on why stricter gun laws wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference in the Loughner shooting. Certainly not allowing openly carried weapons at political rallies would not have made one iota of difference. Loughner did not openly carry his gun, and only brandished it in order to use it – something that is already very much against the law.

Nor did Loughner have a criminal record, or anything that would have flagged him as someone who should not possess a weapon. And saying that the mentally ill should not be allowed to own guns opens a really huge bag of worms that I’m not sure people ought to wade into at the moment – and even if there were laws preventing the mentally ill from owning guns, at the time of the shooting, Loughner had never been diagnosed with any mental illness.

Also:

This George Will column is very good. Will is about as far-removed from Happy Meal Conservatism as they come, and he’s making a great deal of sense here:

The craving is for banishing randomness and the inexplicable from human experience. Time was, the gods were useful. What is thunder? The gods are angry. Polytheism was explanatory. People postulated causations.

And still do. Hence: The Tucson shooter was (pick your verb) provoked, triggered, unhinged by today’s (pick your noun) rhetoricvitriolextremism, “climate of hate.”

Demystification of the world opened the way for real science, including the social sciences. And for a modern characteristic. And for charlatans.

A characteristic of many contemporary minds is susceptibility to the superstition that all behavior can be traced to some diagnosable frame of mind that is a product of promptings from the social environment. From which flows a political doctrine: Given clever social engineering, society and people can be perfected. This supposedly is the path to progress. It actually is the crux of progressivism. And it is why there is a reflex to blame conservatives first.

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66 thoughts on “Happy Meal Conservatism

  1. >And saying that the mentally ill should not be allowed to own guns
    > opens a really huge bag of worms

    … it sure does…

    > that I’m not sure people ought to wade into at the moment

    I agree, for the same reasoning behind the TSA. Statistically unlikely events cause people to act like morons when they occur; setting policy when you’re acting like a moron is generally not a great idea.

    > – and even if there were laws preventing the mentally ill from
    > owning guns, at the time of the shooting, Loughner had never
    > been diagnosed with any mental illness.

    Yes, and unfortunately it’s all too easy to look at a video or three and say, “Jesus, that guy was off his freaking nut!” in hindsight. But people do and say all sorts of stuff that sounds like they’re off their freaking nut and then get up and go to work for 30 years and die of a heart attack after being a perfectly respectable citizen for the duration of their adult life, too.

    The gun stuff comes about because a lot of people are disproportionately scared of guns, and “some nut goes on a shooting rampage” sparks their terror. Just like all the anti-terrorism stuff comes about because a lot of people are disproportionately scared of terrorists, really.

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  2. Oh, and for the record I think Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck are generally bad for intelligent discourse as they teach very bad thinking.. so taken from that viewpoint they’re probably bad for a reasonably balanced, credible voter base, and thus, from a karmic balance standpoint, they’re bad for democracy.

    That said, I really doubt that they have a level of influence that anybody needs to flip out about. Most people don’t vote, period. I’d hazard a guess that for every utterly uninformed moron who votes because Ann Coulter told ‘im so, there’s close to one other utterly uninformed moron who votes because Jenny McCarthy told him his autistic child is part of the CDC’s collusion with big pharma to feed off the corpse of the American people. If democracy can’t survive Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Robert Murdoch, Keith Olbermann, Daily Kos, and the blogosphere… it’s not going to survive anyway.

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    • Absolutely.

      I tend to get the idea that the Coulters and Becks are the conservative version of comedians. Maybe boundaries are pushed but that’s part of the fun. The important part is the being told some version of “it’s okay to feel the things you feel, you aren’t alone”.

      And so the world has come full circle. Conservatives feel like they’re transgressive and they go to comedians who make them laugh and feel better… while the establishment rails against how boundaries need to be respected.

      Lenny Bruce would not be able to stop laughing.

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      • Thats all fine. Two things though. I can’t wrap my head around laughing at being called a traitor. Do they have a right to say and if they so choose have it on bumper stickers on the back of their care: Yup. But once they cross that line I’m going to struggle to take them seriously and not to hate them Now my choice for people i dislike is to ignore or clown on them. I’ve toyed with making some “hilarious” jokes about their wives getting raped…but that would be crossing my own lines. The thing about the treason charge which has been flung about by many on the right is that is also makes think” shit i’m glad my dad didn’t live to see this.” My dad was a ww2 vet and liberal all his life and i’m glad he never had to hear that.

        I don’t think the country will fall because of this kind of crap. But where does it lead us? how do we talk? It doesn’t have to lead to mass murder to be poison.

        I picture Bruce not being gentle in his handling of coulter or beck. I think he knew a counter culture when he saw one and conservatives just aint it.

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        • Do you remember Andrew Dice Clay? Sam Kinison? Hell, Redd Foxx?

          Can you wrap your head around someone else being called something outrageous and it being funny?

          Or, at least, at someone else laughing at such?

          “Well, only really deviant people would find such comedians to be funny.”

          You wouldn’t believe what was said about the folks who enjoyed Lenny Bruce.

          I’m sure that Lenny would not be gentle *AT ALL* about Coulter or Beck.

          I’m also sure that he’d find it pretty goddamn funny that he’d be considered a goddamn hero while the conservatives were being pilloried.

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    • I doubt they’re bad for intelligent discourse. Since they’re not engaged in intelligent discussion, they’re not part of it and so can’t harm it.

      But it probably goes deeper: people who are attracted to Coulterisms and Becktravaganzas are probably naturally disposed towards it and against “intelligent discourse”. So it’s not as if there’s a loss of potential discussants.

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      • > Since they’re not engaged in intelligent discussion, they’re
        > not part of it and so can’t harm it.

        Engaging in this sort of close-minded group think can kill your critical thinking skills. They harm intelligent discussion by limiting the audience; have you ever tried to have a reasonable conversation with someone who speaks in nothing but talking points?

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      • In addition to Pat’s point there’s also the prospect that the Republican party is being damaged by constant resort to this rhetoric. You can very easily get a vicious cycle where more reasonable voices are silenced or driven out of the party, leading to even more extreme rhetoric and so on.

        Having one political party going off the reservation can’t be good for American political debate.

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  3. Kevin Williamson has a good post on why stricter gun laws wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference in the Loughner shooting.

    That’s not quite how I read it. Williamson makes the very specific point that the Assault Weapons Ban would have been only a nominal deterrent: “The only difference the AWB is likely to have made is that the shooter would have had a used magazine instead of a new one (assuming he did in fact have a new one), and he probably would have paid five bucks more for it.” First of all, by Williamson’s own admission, the AWB would have made some difference – Laughner would have had to seek out a used clip instead of going to the gun shop and thinking “ooh, I’ll take that too”. Weather this would have been much of a deterrent we cannot know, as Williamson merely asserts that high-capacity magazines were easy to obtain without any supporting evidence (and some of the commenters disagree). But certainly an all-out ban on high-capacity magazines, as exists in many states, would have made quite a damn bit of difference.

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    • Having read a bit about spree shooting, I’m not certain that a lack of a high capacity magazine would have had a positive effect.

      More likely, he would just have carried more guns, as most spree shooters do. Then instead of grabbing the magazine, Patricia Maisch might have been trying to wrestle away a loaded secondary or tertiary firearm.

      Second-guessing these situations is always a dicey proposition, of course.

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      • Well … he would have had to carry three guns just to get off the first clip, and then reload three times as frequently. Obviously, he chose not to carry more than one. I’m not going to go much beyond the simple math though as you’re right about second-guessing.

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  4. I’m substantially more sympathetic to the Derbyshire piece than I was when it came out, though I do have at least one quibble.

    In contrast to Derb’s assertion, almost all liberalism in modern American political culture is lowbrow liberalism, and it’s marketed very well as highbrow, or at least middlebrow.

    When the intellectual case for liberalism collapses, as it has during the Obama Administration, what’s left over is inchoate anger, which is what we see from the entire Left.

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    • Yes, regardless of what one thinks of conservativism, and, I agree, it is not comprehensive and consistent, not particularly enlightening, brave or cutting edge, but the intellectual emptiness among liberals is painful — they’ve been socially blackmailed by progressives/State power-mongers, and this social block to anything “right” ,whether it’s intelligent right or not, keeps them in a state of babbling obscurantism and submission to a dying statist ideology. When all the passion of liberals is directed at the flaws of conservatives, rather than a clear-eyed, creative vision for the future, it reveals intellectual defensivness covering up a lack of conviction. Statism has brought us to a crisis point, and all the liberals can do is beat up on Beck for poining out the crisis, even if it does seem hysterical at times — the hyperbolic tactics of Beck are less important than really understanding our serious problems, accepting them and looking for innovative solutions, regardless if the solutions lean right or left — more government and more spending are not innovative.

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        • The two of you make a perfect example of the closure of the so-called conservative discourse. Please feel free to continue to persuade each other of the correctness of your opinions and the vacuity of your political opponents. I’m sure you’ll impress no one but each other, and possibly Bob Cheeks.

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          • Well by all means join in then. There’s no reason to let us right-wingers have all the fun. And take a look at this while you’re at it:

            http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/01/what_is_cornuco.html

            As Henderson points out, it’s an inappropriate way for a professor to address undergraduates, though certainly many of them deserve it. It’s a horrible way to treat a colleague, whether there’s a contentious point of disagreement or not.

            Let’s note how, intentionally or not, DeLong evades the substance of the matter. Substantively, Henderson’s response writes itself: why should we think that $20/bbl oil represents a cornucopia of energy instead of some other standard. Now, it’s possible that that such a thing could in principle be done and that DeLong would be able to do it.

            But because he focuses on projecting bitterness and anger, he neglects to do it. This allows DeLong (and liberals like him) to persist in the delusion that their arguments are unchallenged. Now, my answer for this is simple: liberals have nothing really to contribute and should get out of the way of those who do. But whether they do or don’t, like Mike wrote they will ultimately be judged on the real solutions they can propagate and implement (or lack thereof). Therefore, to the extent that liberalism in America has any legitimacy, opposition to the Right can only be part of the story, it can never be the whole story.

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            • Liberals have nothing to contribute? Sure, except the first major step toward a reasonable health care funding system in a generation, a major attempt to re-privatize risk in the financial system, overseeing the successful bankruptcy and re-emergence of the automobile sector, passing a stimulus package that substantially diminished the size and effect of the Great Recession, passed the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, expanded SCHIP, substantially expanded spending on heavy infrastructure, passed the credit card accountability law, got the START treaty through the Senate, abolished Don’t Ask / Don’t Tell, and cut taxes on 95% of workers who pay income taxes.

              If liberals have nothing to offer, why is it that a recent poll found 81% of American scientists are Democrats or lean Democratic?

              Republicans, as best I can tell, stand for the principle that rich people should pay fewer taxes, fighting two wars with borrowed money and a lot of contractors is a good idea, and that there’s a line item in the budget of every single government agency labeled ‘waste, fraud and abuse’, which if cut would balance the budget.

              Sure, conservatives say that they want smaller government. But they never vote for it. They vote instead for standard-issue Republicans like John Boehner who can’t name a program that’s going to get cut. That’s not governance; that’s wishful thinking.

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              • Let’s note that your supposed list of accomplishments are in fact political events and their actual state of accomplishment is nebulous at best. I doubt very much that you are offering any accountability for the stimulus package or the healthcare bill or anything else for that matter.

                We can continue in this vein if you like, but let’s not lose sight of the original point, which was that the primary output of the establishment, mainstream Left is rancor toward our team. And it’s not just Brad DeLong either.

                Consider John Cole and his site Balloon Juice (Erik contributes there periodically). For the last week or so just prior to the Arizona shooting, the site was consumed with an internet raspberry that Sullivan gave to some separate blogger for expressing his wish that William Kristol should die in a fire.

                It’s a little bit of a mystery to me why Cole et al thought that’s so important, but in any case Cole, multiple contributors and the vast majority of commenters there set about defending the blogger (who goes by Tbogg I believe) and expressing their independent desire that yes, William Kristol should die in a fire, and so should the rest of the Rethuglican teatards, etc, &c.

                Now, there’s not very much interesting that’s written there and if you didn’t see this already you’re not missing much. But this problem isn’t some sort of anomaly, this is the heart of mainstream liberal discourse in America. Somehow this has to be gotten around before liberals can make a positive contribution to American political culture (if they have a positive contribution to make which we can take up further if you’d like).

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  5. The real problem with the Becks, Coulters, Limbaughs, etc. is that they mock and deride Leftist political philosophy while explaining the derailed thinking of the Leftin in the plain language of “the people”.
    Another problem with them is that they tend to lean toward paleo-conservatism rather than neoconservatism/or RINO’s, although you’re right, Rush et al rallied behind the Neo/RINO George Bush who took them all down the toilet in ’08 and opened the executive to our Kenyan-Marxist.
    I think Rush has learned his lesson as he has rallied on the Tea Party and fired any number of recent salvos across the boughs of sundry Neos.
    Rush and his friends made being a ‘conservative’ ok, and he explained why it’s ok to embrace American conservatism rather than a perverse, foreign, ideology. He destroyed the librul hold on the masses and provided a ‘reason’ for Reagan Democrats not to return to the moribund Democratic Party, and many did not return. Rush Limbaugh and his colleagues have litterly changed the face of American politics for the better and saved this country from being captured by librulism.
    The truth is, that if Rush and his friends were not very successful at what it is they do (illustrate the foolishness of librulism) we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

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    • I think you insult real paleocons when you say that Limbaugh and Coulter lean that way. Paleocons hold a consistent anti-imperialist, small government view of the world, and there’s no way to call those two that since they aligned with the expansionist, interventionist Bush administration when it was politically convenient. Daniel Larison, to name a self-identified paleocon, regularly writes in opposition to the Limbaugh agenda. Here’s an example:

      http://www.amconmag.com/larison/2008/10/26/part-of-the-problem/

      “The Limbaugh approach recommended to his audience (which hasn’t been 20 million-strong in years) is that Republicans and conservatives have made no mistakes and need to learn nothing, except that they were not hard-core and true-believing enough according to whatever caricature of conservatism Limbaugh claims to represent, which actually might not be so very conservative after all.”

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      • Oh I agree with your purest differentiation re: paleos. However, not everyone shares the absolutist opinion. Some prefer to align with ‘other’ conservatives and actually keep libruls outta power. But, you’re right about Rush’s aligning with Bush II, a Neo/RINO, to keep Algore and
        what’s-his-name outta the executive.
        My guess is Rush is a political realist and went with the best opportunity to keep the Leftists out of power.
        Me, I prefer John Randolph of Roanoke in the midst of a grave depression over our Kenyan-Marxist and the Chicago crew.

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          • MM, dude, as I said I’m paleo. Sadly, only about six people in the country follow me. That means I’ve got to join a coalition to defeat the commie-Dems represented by our Kenyan-Marxist president. Right now, Barry must be defeated in the ’12 election. My prayer is we’ll get a ‘real’ conservative and he/she will push toward a reduction in federal spending, paying off the nat’l debt, etc.
            But, my purest Paelo impulses can not succeed along. I’ve got to get neo’s, rino’s, and commie-dems who have come to Jesus to join with me.
            I admire your stalwart faith, but you must convert that into a realism that recognizes the wisdom of my words. You don’t have to compromise, but you can’t continue to beat the rinos/neos to death, they aren’t the real enemy, the statist commie-dem is!

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            • Bob, let’s go to the tape.

              The reason the Republicans were in the wilderness was because when they had the opportunity of a lifetime they not only wasted it like the lazy servant who buried his talent in the ground but called for a Golden Calf of government that they used their own gold to make and then danced in front of it, worshiping it.

              You sit there now and make noises about the Commie-dems who afflict you… No, I tell you. The Commie-dems are the scourge from the Lord. Because you chose to worship the Golden Calf of Government as if Government was your friend, your leader, your help-meet.

              You wanted your idol? You got it. Made with your own gold.

              Are you surprised that you no longer feel like dancing?

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              • Jaybird,

                You might be one of the few people on this site who literally has no definable position on our current political spectrum. I think I like that. Also, you’re one hell of a devil’s advocate no matter the subject.

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              • Actually JB, in my own defense, I railed against the great Satan Neo-Con Bush II and his war to ‘take democracy to the gnostic-Muslims.’
                But, they did not hear my pleas.
                You are right to castigate me for I did not listen to the words of the Lord, and now I wander the desert, my hair shirt clinging to my body reminding me of the deceit of the Neo-cons.
                Yeah, now I seek a coalition to destroy the spawn of Satan, that invidious Kenyan-Marxist, and drive his seed into the slough of despond where they will dwell among the bitter fruits.
                And, so it is that I seek the coalition; I seek those who would restore the olde republic and turn away from the darkness of the socialist’s dreamers.
                Yea, though we are oppressed, our oppressors will be driven away from the light of truth and wisdom…in the name of God, Himself.

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                • Yeah, now I seek a coalition to destroy the spawn of Satan, that invidious Kenyan-Marxist, and drive his seed into the slough of despond where they will dwell among the bitter fruits.

                  Dude. Obama isn’t even the spawn of Malcolm X, let alone Satan.

                  He’s a mediocre president presiding over a mediocre time. He doesn’t need to be defeated. He just needs an opponent that isn’t obviously worse than him.

                  The problem with the Conservatives is that they thought that they could make an Idol of the State worthy of getting the masses to worship instead of the opposition’s Idol.

                  Congrats. We’ve now got an electorate used to Idol Worship and they’ve been conditioned by both the left and the right. All the electorate hears is an echo, not a choice.

                  The Republicans deserve the wilderness until they learn how to speak.

                  Think Zachariah. The Republicans didn’t believe the messages from Gabriel himself… and, even now!, they are mute.

                  Stop looking for coalitions. Stop looking to destroy enemies. That’s not what you need to do right now. Instead, you need to practice your line:

                  “His name is John.”

                  Until you can say that, you will remain mute for a good long while.

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                    • In this world? Or the next?

                      Because, when it comes to the next, I’d say that God most likely has that covered.

                      When it comes to this world, I tend to think that God spends a great deal more time talking about how you need to do what you need to do than He spends talking about how much you need to worry about what other people are doing.

                      Adam in Genesis 3:12 is *NOT* a role model for how to deal with answering the question of why everything went Tango Uniform.

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                    • Well, I love this:
                      “When it comes to this world, I tend to think that God spends a great deal more time talking about how you need to do what you need to do than He spends talking about how much you need to worry about what other people are doing.”

                      And, I love it when you go cryptic/mystic on me, but, if as you say (judge?) the GOPers deserve the political “wilderness”; what, I can’t get a straight answer on what the commie-dems deserve?
                      Has the betrayal of the GOP struck you so low as to turn you, forever, toward what….nihilism? To cull you outta the fight? To reduce you to an observer in the culture wars?

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                    • The wages of sin is death, Bob.

                      When I was growing up, I was told (quite regularly) that I should expect the “worldly” to be better off than those “not of this world”.

                      We don’t build our treasures here, I was told. Remember the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man? Yeah, we told that one a lot.

                      So as for “what they deserve”, they will see their plans crash around their ears because commie-demism, as has been demonstrated by the 20th Century, is not sustainable and will not work for more than a generation or two.

                      I’m a culture war pacifist, for the most part.

                      The Gods of the Copybook Headings are right, of course… and they’ll come back as soon as enough call for them. In the meantime, there’s little I can do beyond tending me and mine.

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                    • Why is it, then, that I am driving around in a 2004 Altima with the Darwin Fish on its rear end, while I seem to see those “NOTW” stickers exclusively on the back of 2010 Escalades and Lexuses? By the objective standard that really counts (the quality of the car one drives), those “NOTW” people seem to be living a much more comfortable lifestyle in this world as opposed to the next world in which the Bible tells them to expect to do even better.

                      (“Lexuses”? “Lexii”? I still don’t think there is a definitive ruling on that one.)

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                    • Why is it, then, that I am driving around in a 2004 Altima with the Darwin Fish on its rear end, while I seem to see those “NOTW” stickers exclusively on the back of 2010 Escalades and Lexuses?

                      My assumption is that there isn’t a God, let alone a Holy Spirit.

                      One would think that if there were one, He would make Himself manifest in His followers so that those of us who could not hear His voice could at least see His fingerprints.

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                    • Well, you know from your ‘raisin’ up’ that He’s calling you..but we gotta listen for that still, sometimes ‘small’ voice….sometimes thunderous. Somewhere in this dialectic we might stumble across the idea of the ‘fear of God,’ but maybe not.
                      I don’t think the ‘spirit’ can be totally destroyed in a living being; surpressed, damaged, beaten, and rejected yes, but not destroyed.

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                  • Well JB my favorite interlocutor, we’re going to have to agree to disagree re: His Magnificence, as I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions.
                    This Son of the Third World, the Scourge of America, is God’s punishment on the nation for turning away (apostrophe) and embracing the demon, Amor sui (formerly known as Pazzuzzu, god of the east wind).
                    Whatever Barry is, he is not ‘mediocre.’

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  6. We inflame wild beasts with the smell of blood, and then innocently wonder at the wave of brutal appetite that sweeps the land as a consequence.

    – Mark Twain

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