Saturday, September 24, 2011

Old Post: Does Conservatism Exist?

Sept 24, 2011: I wrote this on June 5, 2009, and for some reason never took it out of draft status. I don't know why it slipped past, and now it's terribly stale. So stale, in fact, that I'm not going to even attempt to do a job of final editing. So I'm publishing it as a draft, complete with half-completed thoughts, poor structure, and jarring segues.

This past weekend I joined in a discussion regarding Sarah Palin resigning her office. Someone commented that Palin has done more harm than good for the conservative movement. Since I haven't asked permission to name him, I'll paraphrase his main points:
  • Conservatism is no more than empty words.
  • No conservative candidate is really conservative.
  • Sarah Palin hurt the ticket as she came across as cocky and insincere.
  • Mark Sanford always held himself up as a Christian Conservative, but his move toward fiscal conservatism was more to gain national support down the road than what might have been bad for this state.
I pointed out that a philosophy isn't the same as the representatives of that philosophy. It's true that some conservatives aren't "real"... but that's a far cry from conservatism itself not being real. The challenge for conservatives is to find people who can honestly represent the philosophy.

He responded with this, which I won't paraphrase:
"The problem is there isn't anyone. Conservatism in politics dosn't exist. Never has. Anyone who points to Reagan either doesn't know better or is too young to remember."
Now, that's blind, absolute cynicism, but I think it's probably not terribly uncommon in broadcast media. Now, as I'm about to explain, this is B.S. And if something is B.S. when someone else says it, it's B.S. when I think it. That's why I thank God for comments like this, because in refuting them I find my own cynicism dispelled and I find that my belief in my ideals and this country are renewed.

Now, I'm neither too young to personally remember Reagan, nor do I not know better. In point of fact, I worked two years at the Presidential/VIP radio station, under Reagan, and seven years in the network overall. I did this as a member of an all-volunteer military, who had joined in peacetime, during the Cold War. So I have more than a little experience with living according to my ideals. To be told that these ideals do not exist by someone who has not shared those experiences is, quite frankly, a little off-putting.

It would be easy to dismiss such flawed reasoning out of hand. After all, if your mind is clearly closed to opposition, then I'd be fully justified in simply dismissing your own argument in kind and out-of-hand, simply saying, "You're wrong, case closed."

But I'm not that cynical. The problem here is that the speaker has been distracted from the true nature of conservatism. He continues to confuse the philosophy with the individuals that promote it. Since he brought up Reagan, let's start there.

Now, Reagan did compromise, no doubt about it. But politics is the art of compromise. I'm going to engage in my own bit of hyperbole, and state that anybody who doesn't understand that has no business discussing politics. I'm fairly certain that the speaker did understand it, though the knowledge has been overshadowed by cynicism. But compromising on issues is not the same thing as abandoning an ideal. Rather, it's a pragmatic understanding that in order to govern effectively, you can not ignore those people that do not agree with you on every single little point. The idea that compromise = betrayal is naive, to say the least.

Even as he compromised on some issues, Reagan never lost sight of his conservative ideals. He continued to espouse them and promote them, eloquently and vigorously; with the result that even his detractors had a hard time making mud stick. So much so, in fact, that representative Pat Schroeder coined the term "Teflon President" to describe him. Keep in mind that Reagan himself didn't coin or seek that label (nor did Rep. Schroeder mean it in a positive way). He didn't espouse ideals because they would allow him to maintain his popularity... he wasn't terribly concerned with popularity at all. He espoused conservative ideals because that's what he believed. And he believed that most Americans shared those beliefs, when they're communicated directly, clearly, and without distraction. I happen to think he was and is right.

Part of the art of compromise is to pick your battles, and recognize what can or can't be accomplished during your term in office. Reagan compromised on budgetary issues, but picked the toughest battle of all of our lifetimes, and made the ending the Cold War possible. And it happened. Those of use who "know better" and aren't "too young" to remember actually practicing cowering under school desks in the '60s in preparation for a nuclear Armageddon that we were dead certain was just a matter of "when" rather than "if" thank him profusely to this day. Sadly, some people quickly forget what a scary place the world can be. To them, "never forget" is no more than the fickle promise of a mayfly.

Ronald Reagan was a true conservative in politics. Was he the last?

Hardly. But rather than go through politicians person-by-person, let's tackle the flawed reasoning directly. Here's the flaw, as I explained it:
The problem here is that you don't know what you should be looking for. You can't find perfect people in the world, so you conclude that the ideals of real people are non-existent. Wrong answer. We all aspire to things that are greater than ourselves. By definition, that means as individuals we're less than our ideals.
Pretty simple, right? You don't say "chairs" don't exist simply because you can't find the perfect chair for you. Nor do you say that "liberalism" doesn't exist, though the Democratic party is utterly devoid of "true liberals", filled as it is at the top with millionaires who satisfy a lust for power by appealing to the class envy and greed of constituencies with which they have precious little in common.
People aren't perfect. Christians aren't Christ. We can't demand unwavering, absolute perfection from politicians any more than we can demand the same of our flawed and human pastors. To suggest that we even should make such a demand, or expect such perfection is outrageous to the maximum extreme.

The real question is, can we find people who move us toward our ideals?

Yes, we can.

Now, Sarah Palin left her office for reasons she herself has stated. Cynical reporters are looking for some hidden meaning, but there's no reason to take her at anything but her word. She's a lame duck. She's run up a half a million dollars of debt defending herself from charges that it costs nothing for her detractors to levy... charges of which she's been acquitted in their entirety, by the way. She agrees in matters of policy with her Lt. Governor. She can count on him to continue her policies through the 18 months left in this term, and has placed him in the strong position of being an incumbent in the next election.

I have no sympathy for Sanford, or any other hypocrite. He set a torch to his life and knew (or should have known) what would happen. It may be that he simply has no further interest in politics; I won't guess. But he chose to live with the consequences of his actions, and I won't change those consequences just because I've voted for him in the past.

But being wrong on one subject doesn't mean that a person is wrong on every subject. These "bailouts" simply heap long-term debt atop real problems that won't get fixed because they're masked. He was right to turn down Federal bailout money. It was the conservative thing to do.

Friday, September 23, 2011

REVIEW: Digital Fortress

Note to Dan Brown: If you insist on making your heroes look like idiots at the end of the story, do NOT talk up how super-intelligent they are at the beginning.

As you can tell from the note above, I didn't like this book. It's nominally about cryptography and computer security, which is something with which I have a passing familiarity. Now, if you knew nothing about either you'd probably come away from this book thinking it was an entertaining read... even a thriller. But for me, Dan Brown's treatment of these subjects is about as accurate as The Flintstones' treatment of archaeology.


I am going to shamelessly include SPOILERS in this review, as I cannot possibly spoil it any worse than the author already has. DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW if you are completely ignorant of computers. You might actually like this the story... just remember that it's a juvenile fantasy, and that the "facts" and events depicted within have no relation whatsoever to reality.


Here's the summary: the NSA (National Security Agency) has a big honkin' supercomputer that can break any code. A Lone Genius writes an unbreakable encryption algorithm which he puts on the Internet in encrypted form (encrypted by itself, no less), and offers the passkey to the highest bidder. The NSA wants to get their hands on the passkey so they can surreptitiously re-write the algorithm to include a back-door so they can easily read any encrypted message that's encoded by what is sure to become a world-wide standard.

Now, even this far into the story we see a glaring hole. You see, what's being auctioned is simply a passkey to unlock the program that's already in the hands of the bidders. There's no way the NSA could possibly re-write the algorithm and get it into the hands of the bidders. These "super-geniuses" display astounding ignorance even to contemplate their course of action. A twelve-year-old as enough savvy to say, "OK, so you re-wrote YOUR copy. What's that got to do with the guy in Japan who downloaded it last month?" Dumb and dumber.

Back to the story: the NSA director has been using the big honkin' supercomputer to try to break into the code, with no luck, so he sends Joe College Professor (who's not a cryptographer and not an agent, but who is inconveniently dating the plucky Crypto-Geek-Babe) to Spain to retrieve a ring on which the password is engraved from Lone Genius, who's just died most inconveniently. Apparently this is high priority because if anybody knew what the password on the ring meant then they'd have an unbreakable code.

They shouldn't have bothered. The ring, which occupies our attention for all but the final chapter of the book, is a red herring. The program isn't encryption code after all, it's a computer worm, and it's intended to expose the NSA's top secret databases. Lone Genius was going to blackmail the NSA then turn it off with the passkey. If only he hadn't died. But the passkey was never on the ring. The clue to the actual passkey rests in orphaned code within the file itself, which I don't feel bad at all about revealing since Dan Brown never mentions it once until the final chapter, thus cheating you of any possibility whatsoever of solving this on your own merits. He then proceeds to misunderstand how code is 'orphaned'. It's just code that through inattention or bad editing never gets executed. Often the entry point to the routine is simply commented out during debugging. Orphaned code may be fragmentary and distributed about the program. In this case it can be retrieved in its entirety and assembled in order, on the first try. Meh, we'll let it slide because this is deliberately orphaned. Then we are treated to Joe College Professor telling them how to solve the puzzle while all the geniuses at the NSA (including his crypto-geek-babe girlfriend) scratch their butts and whistle Dixie. This yields a puzzle truly worthy of the Riddler, which you are to guess the prime difference between the elements responsible for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Again, this riddle is just thrown in at the last second with none of the foreshadowing that marks a great thriller. Then you get to spend several pages shouting at the moronic imbeciles who populate this story as they spin around in circles and chase their tails until (literally) the last possible second. Meanwhile we're treated to the visual representation of Internet "sharks" circling the NSA databank just waiting for the shields to drop so they can get at all that juicy classified data (I'm not joking).

It doesn't help that the thing reads like a screenplay. Most assuredly Dan Brown had the big screen in mind when writing this turkey. It's all Hollywood, from the quick-cut bite-sized chapters to the condescending "VR" (visual representation) of the "sharks" circling to the last possible second saving of the day. We have a stalwart hero (the professor) tossed into the middle of things he doesn't understand; the beautiful girlfriend; some steretypical comic relief in the form of "Jabba", the tech guru who programs with a soldering iron (I'm still not joking); a couple of black hats; an evil minion; a chase scene... hell, we even get giant explosions. It's as if Dan Brown had watched every Bond movie ever filmed in the company of an adolescent, and made a note every time he heard the kid say, "Cool!" Then he put it all in one book. The result -- needless to say -- sucks.

There's more to complain about, but I don't think I'll bother. I read the book all the way through because I was willing to step into an alternate reality where computers worked the way Brown describes. If I knew he was going to throw away EVERY SINGLE CLUE and pull a completely different ending out of his ass... one where his main characters suddenly become blithering idiots... I would've gone outside and done something more worthwhile, like waxing the grass.