Friday, October 16, 2009

\\\\\\\ interview with the conservative: reihan salam

One of my favorite things we've done at Gordon Gartrelle was DAP's interview (and especially the followup) with Martina "the titless wonder," as Dap put it, from Will They Grow. Thus, I figured we should start interviewing hell of people. We're a popular bunch. We know people. We'll start with people who would typically be interviewed for something though I hope to eventually interview entire strangers who no one's really cared to ask questions to because we're all about equal opportunity at Gordon Gartrelle. Also, I really want to know what the dude at the bodega thinks of Greg Kinnear. Or if he misses Jon Secada. (Jon Secada if you have a google alert set up, we miss you!). On that note, myself, Kool A.D., and Bob Weisz drew up a bunch of questions. Some will be relevant. Some will be not. Who are you to tell me what's relevant anyway. I hate you guys. Why don't you just leave me alone. I can't wait until I'm finally 18 and I can leave this hell hole and this terrible town. NOBODY UNDERSTANDS ME.

okay... first up to bat is Reihan Salam:

According to Wikipedia, which doesn't lie:

Reihan Morshed Salam (born December 29, 1979 [1]) is a Bangladeshi American conservative political writer and journalist. He writes a weekly column for, and is a fellow at the New America Foundation. He has written for numerous publications, including the National Review, Foreign Policy, Slate, The Spectator, The Weekly Standard, and The New York Sun.[1] He previously worked as a producer for NBC News, a junior editor at The New York Times, and a reporter for The New Republic. He co-authored Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream[2] with Ross Douthat and blogs regularly at The American Scene. In June 2009 he began writing a personal blog at National Review Online, titled The Agenda.[3]

Before we get there, a couple of other notes. I was lucky enough to have the homie Sam Han, an author and academic and good friend himself to chime in with some smarty questions for this one. + if I knew how to do a "read more" thing where you click if you care I would but I don't so just deal with it would you? And also, this interview is long. So if you're like the commenters on our and don't like reading "too many words, lulz" you could be out though.

Yo Reihan Salam, you ever make a sandwich and call it the Reihan Salami? (This awesome question comes courtesy of Alec aka famed rapper Despot).

It actually goes far beyond -- in high school, a debater named "J.P." also incorporated my middle name, Morshed, into the mix: my name became "Moore's Head Salami on Rye-han." "Moore's Head" is, I assume, an homage to "Boar's Head," a popular brand of sandwich meats in the Tri-State area at the time. But in fact "Morshed," my mother's first name, means "wise religious figure," or so I've been told. I believe "Reihan" means "basil," or "sweet basil," which is why one of my early rap monikers was "Sweet B.," though I ultimately settled on "Hash Brown," as I love brunch.

You recently caught some street heat for saying "Karl Rove never imagined that opposition to same-sex marriage would cement a permanent Republican majority. It was a distraction that I'm sure he found distasteful." while chatting with Sam Tanenhaus. For real man? You serious?

I think I was seriously, seriously misunderstood here. If I could write it again, I would definitely write it differently. Note that this isn't a position that's very flattering to Rove -- it suggests that he was a hypocrite who was using this position to political advantage. And I certainly shouldn't have said, "I'm sure," as I don't live inside Rove's brain and I've never met the man. I was basing this, rather carelessly, on news reports concerning his warm relationship with a gay father-figure, and I thought, "Surely he can't be a hateful goon in his personal relationships."

More to the point, I think it really is true that Bush and Rove were, when they were setting out to win the presidency and remake the country, had in mind a domestic policy agenda focused on spreading asset ownership -- Social Security reform, encouraging low-income families to buy homes, etc. It turns out that almost all of these ideas were actually pretty bad ideas, at least in the form that Bush and Rove had in mind. But that doesn't change the fact that they cared about those issues far more than "social issues." (The scare quotes are there because I think a lot of "economic issues" are in fact "social issues.")

The main thing is this: people who seek elected office convince themselves that they must win. So Republicans in 2004 convinced themselves that if they didn't win, civilization was doomed! And of course that's probably not true, as civilization is pretty resilient. This apocalyptic perspective is pervasive among liberals and conservatives and all people with the leisure time to think about this stuff rather than eke out a meager living as indentured brick-layers.

What do you think of Obama winning the nobel peace prize?

I think it was incredibly strange and a definite lost opportunity, as there are a lot of causes and people who would've benefited from the attention more. I also don't think it's ultimately that big a deal.

Over the last few months, I've really tried to give the president the benefit of the doubt. I really liked and admired him from as far back as 2000, when I read about his race against Bobby Rush. He's clearly a tremendously smart guy, and there's a gut-level at which I want him to do well, not least because I'm 29 and I don't want to spend my middle-aged years in a burned-out retread of the 1970s, complete with Fort Apache-style urban devastation. And there's another thing. As atavistic and crazy as it sounds, I think of myself as an "ethnic" and I'm happy when "ethnic" people do well. Like a lot of people, I see Obama as reflecting the dramatic post-1965 demographic transformation of this country. This hasn't all been a totally peaceful and lovely process, but it has been remarkable and consequential in the world-historical sense. V.S. Naipaul -- who I have a lot of issues with -- described the postwar migration from South-to-North as the most significant development of its kind since what he called "the peopling of the Americas." On a symbolic level alone, Obama's election was huge and inspiring.

That said, I'm not very happy about how his presidency has gone so far. Because I'm clearly right of center, I get that some people will see this as crocodile tears. My hope was that Obama would be a truth-teller, and my sense is that he's a politician. Which is fair enough. As far as I know, we haven't had a truth-teller in office since Carter, and Carter was also an ineffectual, self-righteous blowhard who could be extremely cynical when he needed to be. And the "truth" that Carter told was built on a lot of faulty, narrow premises.

Do I think that McCain would have done a better job? What was most shocking to me about the 2008 presidential election is that I don't think that any of the four major-party candidates -- for P and VP -- had the judgment and experience necessary to do the job well. Being a governor is not sufficient experience, as demonstrated by GWB -- who was a governor in a weak-governor state -- but it certainly helps. Obama ran his campaign extremely well, yet that's a very different kind of gig. Basically, I worry that America is ungovernable. It's not a Democrat vs. Republican thing. The system is deeply dysfunctional, and Republicans have a lot to answer for.

Who had the better Katie Couric interview, Lil Wayne or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Is Lil Wayne really the best rapper alive?

This is an extremely difficult question as I see both men as very similar figures: both are, like yours truly, extremely physically tiny dudes. This is also true of Vladimir Putin and Nicolas Sarkozy. Putin in particular seems like a bastard, yet he's also insanely witty and charmingly devious, and his strategic sense is so far beyond any other major world leader that it's almost pathetic. And Sarkozy is, for all his flaws, including extreme hypocrisy, just an amazing Nixonian dude, clearly a force of nature.

So Ahmadinejad, in a similar vein, strikes me as deranged and flawed for reasons that are presumably rooted in personal history and psychology. Yet he's also a wild man in this amazing way that you don't see a lot of on the international stage. Does it help his deeply wrongheaded cause? Probably not. But it's impossible not to admire his savoir-faire.

The fact that Lil Wayne fathered Lauren London's child is just incredible to me. She was excellent in Good Hair -- very charming. And he had a child at 14, after attending a gifted-and-talented elementary school. Who is this man? I was in a gifted-and-talented class in elementary school and to this day I have no children, acknowledged or unacknowledged. I wouldn't say that fathering children out of wedlock is admirable. I do think, however, that Lil Wayne is operating on a different level -- he's kind of a Nietzschean figure who has managed to bend reality to his own purposes. I can imagine him sucking all of the carbon from the atmosphere through an enormous glass pipe and then smoking it out of existence.

Which is a long way of saying that Lil Wayne really is the best rapper alive. Also, he had the better interview.

What kind of conservative do you consider yourself to be? What intellectual tradition of conservatism do you position yourself, if at all?

The boundaries between the various traditions are, by nature, extremely ill-defined. I definitely identify with a lot of the 1970s-era neoconservatives like Irving Kristol, who embraced certain aspects of the welfare state while also emphasizing the limits of what planners and governments can realistically achieve. Kristol was a great admirer of Jane Jacobs, who led the fight against Robert Moses's various efforts to raze old neighborhoods in New York city in the name of "rational urban planning," in the process obliterating flourishing institutions that were hard to discern from a planner's-eye-view.

I'm a deep believer in the power of bottom-up institutions that are controlled by families and individuals. I worry about sapping authority from ordinary people because I think it undermines our capacity to experiment and to create new and better solutions to social problems. I definitely think the state can and should help give people the tools they need to improve their lives -- and sometimes this just means the state can tax some people and give other people money. But again, we have to have a clear sense of what governments can and can't do well.

In this regard, I'm definitely a great admirer of Hayek, who was a believer in the power of decentralized approaches to achieving social goals. That's not to say that I'm a doctrinaire libertarian. I recognize that, for better or for worse, richer societies demand more in the way of social protections -- actually, Hayek understood this too, and he noted that the basic social minimum guaranteed by the state would vary across societies according to overall wealth and thus overall expectations.

People think of neocons and libertarians as very much at odds, not least because the former are very interested in the idea of promoting "virtue," in a non-sectarian way. While I think that neoconservatives have taken lots of wrong turns -- if we can even talk about this as a coherent category outside of foreign policy -- I tend to think of the 1970s-era folks as social policy realists.

How do you reconcile this belief in bottom-up institutions and the fact that Kristol and other neo-cons' main means of growth were not "bottom-up" institutions at all but magazines like Public Interest or Buckley's National Interest? I guess the more interesting question is how do you see the tenuous relationship (which those of us on the left would consider a fundamental contradiction) in American conservative thought between populism (Buckley's famous Harvard vs. Boston phone book line) and the conservative cathexis on elitism(economic and otherwise)?

I guess I disagree with you on what is meant by "bottom-up." I'm lifting the idea from my friend Tim Lee. The following is a quote from him:

// The last couple of decades have brought us the dominance of the open Internet, the increasing success of free software, and the emergence of the free culture movement as an important social and political force. More generally, Silicon Valley is a place with extremely low barriers to entry, a culture of liberal information sharing, and a respect for the power of individual entrepreneurs. Conversely, I think many of the world’s problems can be traced to the actions of institutions that are too large, too powerful, and too out of touch with the people over whom they exercise authority. I’m an unapologetic advocate for a bottom-up agenda that seeks to make these entrenched incumbents more accountable, more subject to competition, and ultimately less powerful.//

There was no centralized authority that decided that people would read The Public Interest or National Review. Both magazines had fairly small circulations for most of their existence and both received support from small foundations and private individuals. Most of these little magazines fail, even those that are very well-funded. But these magazines found devoted audiences and, in different ways, flourished.

I actually don't think of myself as beholden to a "conservative traditon" or a "liberal tradition" or a "Marxist tradition," because any rich intellectual strain is going to be contradictory. We choose a certain identification because it imparts some very crude and basic information about what we value, etc. I describe myself as an "Asian American" because I see value in the totally synthetic panethnic creation of a bunch of Census bureaucrats -- it's a potential basis for organizing, and for thinking about ghettos and enclaves, the distinction between diasporas and "assimilable" minorities and a lot else. Also, it's because I grew up in an environment that was hyperattuned to ethnicity, and I liked the idea of being part of a coalition defined by experience rather than by language or culture per se. I describe myself as a "conservative" because I think that the libertarian right is more sensitive to the dangers of an excessively centralized political order. Many on the left object that they seek to undermine centralized economic power, and that's a fair point -- yet "managing" the process of distributing economic power more evenly is fraught with danger, as it assigns tremendous authority to the managers. This is one reason why I see a lot of value in paradigmatic or philosophical anarchism -- I'm interested in how we can prevent elites from calcifying and entrenching themselves.

So when you describe conservative elitism, I find the observation a little beside the point. In intellectual inquiry, some degree of "elitism" is inescapable. We ask, "Can the subaltern speak?" -- but it is Guha or Spivak who is asking the question. "Bottom-upness" isn't about being a Chavista. It's a broad model about how to make institutions more resilient and how to activate the senses.

So Kristol and Hayek, you mentioned. Who else are you a reader of? Any non-conservatives? (And no, Daniel Bell or Irving Howe, do not count!)

I try to read a lot. Deeply influential on my way of looking at the world? This is a far from exhaustive mish-mash of old favorites and new jams, and also some friends. I don't agree with all of these people on every particular issue, obviously. Conservatives and non-conservatives are mixed together.

Ed Glaeser, Andrei Shleifer, James C. Scott, Jeremy Waldron, Amar Bhide, Keith Joseph, David Graeber, J. M. Coetzee, John Robb, Roger Waldinger, Yasheng Huang, Roberto Unger, Jane Jacobs, Jan-Werner Muller, Brian Barry, Jacob Levy, Matthias Risse, Lula, Kevin Murphy, Neil Gilbert, Katherine Newman, Luigi Zingales, Aaron Wildavsky, Milton Friedman, Randall Collins, James Burnham, Aijaz Ahmad, Mark Kleiman, Fred Kagan, William Wohlforth, Ferdinand Mount, Oliver Letwin, Peter Schuck, Yochai Benkler, Clayton Christensen, Perry and Benedict Anderson, Christopher Caldwell. I think of Andrew Sullivan and David Brooks as mentors. Ross Douthat is a close friend and collaborator, and I think we've shaped each other's thinking in a lot of ways. Jesse Shapiro, an economist at the Booth School, has been a tremendous source of insight since we were at Stuyvesant together. There are lots of people at the New America Foundation who've had a big influence on me as well. Among bloggers, I identify very closely with Tyler Cowen. I like his discursive style and I share his highly fragmented/granular framework, and the way he collapses the economic into the social into the cultural.

What was the last movie you cried while watching?

Damn. I watch movies constantly, and I'll even come close to crying during trailers. I remember that when I was in high school, I cried during House Party 2 because Kid and Play had a misunderstanding that was destroying their friendship. But more recently, probably the 2008 film I've Loved You So Long, which I just saw a few weeks ago. That was really sad, dude.

Have you ever been fully or subconsciously convinced to buy something directly from it showing up on a commercial, despite you not wanting to feel like you've been tricked? This happens to Gordon Gartrelle contributor Bob Weisz with Taco Bell ads a lot.

Yes. The ShamWow. Possibly the most awful product I've ever purchased. And I actually asked for it for my birthday.

What do you think of Hugo Chavez?

He's a clown. Unfortunately, he's a clown who is destroying a beautiful country full of people who deserve better. I certainly don't think we should play into his hands by pretending that he is of serious consequence to us. On the other hand, millions of lives are at stake when he bullies his opponents, expropriates wealth to give to his friends -- with a cut going to the slumdwellers he's supposedly fighting for. That same megalomania exists in almost all people who want power, but in other societies they are restrained by countervailing institutions and a sense of shame. Chavez doesn't have to deal with either. He's a goon.

Have you seen those european half-packs of cigarettes with only 10 in them? Why hasn't that caught on in america? or even mega-packs with like 40 cigarettes in them?

I'm not sure -- maybe it's a regulatory issue? That seems unlikely. I would like to see more varied packaging. At McDonald's, you can buy the 4-piece or the 6-piece. While it's true that two orders of the 4-piece are cheaper than one 6-piece, sometimes you really want exactly 6-pieces. And that should be okay. Portion control is important.

You are critical of the republican party. Summarize your criticisms.

This will take too long. I'll say something slightly different: a lot of the conservative types who also have criticisms of the Republican party fall into a trap of hectoring and condescending to people, which is a mistake. I think that the Republican consensus on fiscal policy is wrongheaded. But I don't think that's because people who disagree with me are stupid or dishonest or corrupt. It's an honest disagreement, and you have to try to persuade people through arguments rather than sneering at them. The same goes for dealing with people "on the other side."

My basic criticisms of the Republicans also apply to the Democrats: too short-sighted. Yet Democrats have the advantage of knowing that they have to be a big-tent coalition to win. Republicans don't always get that -- they tend to want to boot out dissidents for being disloyal.

Why don't more conservatives listen to good music?

I reject the premise of the question! For example, I think Taylor Swift makes excellent music. It's not exactly my cup of tea, but I can certainly listen to it on a long drive and get into it. And lots of conservatives listen to Taylor Swift.

Editor's note: yo I love Taylor Swift.

Another question is why don't conservatives listen to the music that I listen to, and I think that has more to do with me: I really like a few genres that evolved out of "alternative" music circa the 1980s and 1990s, when my older sisters were going to Stuyvesant. So they turned me on to The Smiths and Kate Bush and PJ Harvey, and later to the Beastie Boys and trip-hop music and The Pharcyde, etc. This broad sensibility had a lot to do with being an aspirational middle class kid living in the outer boroughs, I suspect. My sisters picked up their accents from PBS, and latched on to really random stuff, like the movie A Room with a View and the actor Isabella Rosellini. They had a Europhilic, and more specifically Germanophilic, sensibility that shaped their approach to cultural and creating a pastiche identity. Unsurprisingly, they embraced a lot of political assumptions that generally go with those aesthetic instincts. I took a slight detour.

How excited were you to get the fuck out of Cornell and transfer to Harvard? (Editor's note: this has more to do with my own hatred for Cornell and specifically the kids from my (and Reihan's) high school who went there).

My first year at Cornell was in some respects the most intellectually rewarding year of my undergraduate career. I spent a lot of time in the library, reading biographies of Walter Reuther and weird intellectual histories written in the 1940s and 1950s, and I got really into the idea of "racial" discourse in China and ethnographic ordering, etc. At the same time, my only friends were an Israeli academic in his 40s, a Belgian poet in her 60s, and a bunch of very jaded seniors and grad students, who tended not to be very happy to be in Ithaca. I thought to myself, "if all of the cool people I know are cranky and depressed, I need to escape." And the truth is that there were a lot of cool and well-adjusted kids at Cornell -- I just didn't get to know them. My guess is that a lot of them were in different scenes that I would have found intimidating. Because I had a lot of friends at Stuyvesant, I figured, "This isn't me, it's the place."

Transferring to Harvard was a tremendously lucky break. My three best friends went there, and that was the main reason I badly wanted to go. I actually hadn't applied when I was in high school, in part because it seemed square and, more to the point, because it seemed unimaginable that they'd accept me, given my checkered academic past. I'm very grateful to the person who decided to give me a shot -- I have no idea who it was. I made a huge number of friends, mainly in the theater/arts/literary universe. I felt very much at home. That said, people were still socially weird, and the experience might have arrested my social development in a lot of ways. That's okay, though.

What's your opinion of Piyush Jindal?

I think he is amazingly smart and dedicated, and I get the impression that he is an incredibly good governor.

On a totally separate note, I would be really excited if a South Asian American who was an observant Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh, or who was nonobservant or secular, could build a similar national profile. Nikki Haley, a serious SA candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in South Carolina, also converted to Christianity. Which is great! But I think seeing someone from a religious minority break through would be cool.

Did you like 808s and Heartbreak when it came out? Did you change your mind later?

I have a serious problem with dropping things when they blow up. I'll be into a band, and then other people will start Tweeting about in 6-7 months and I'll feel long since over it and slightly judgmental. This is pathological, and I've been trying to fight it, e.g., I've been revisiting Chairlift despite their popularity after seeing them perform in D.C. The problem with the "I stopped listening to them when they blew up" mentality is that if often punishes real talent, and it has more to do with signaling to other people -- "I'm in the know," etc. -- than with the pleasure of listening to stimulating sounds.

All this is to say that I was reluctant to really get into 808s and Heartbreak when it came it and still haven't given it an adequate listen, and I probably never will. I did buy it, however, in the interests of completism.

There are exceptions, incidentally: there are bands I like so much that I'm indifferent to their blowing-up-ness, and of course there are bands that have transcended such categories. I still listen to the Why? album from last year a lot. I listen to the new one far less. What I really want to listen to, incidentally, is a Das Racist LP.

How do you reconcile this simultaneous appreciation of Why? and Das Racist? I mean... Anticon!?!?!

I'm pretty ecumenical. As I write this, I've been listening to Xiu Xiu, Can Ox, and Frankie Valli. My all-time favorite musicians are Arthur Russell and Supersystem, who are pretty damn different from each other.

Where do you see the GOP going in the next ten years?

Well, I see them doing well in 2010, because the midterm electorate is older and whiter than in presidential years, badly in 2012, and then having four years to figure things out. I'm not sure how the figuring things out part will go. In 2019, the United States will either be in the middle of an insane nanotechnology boom that solves all of our problems, or smart kids like yourself will be emigrating to Argentina or Singapore to get awesome jobs and raise families.

I reckon you don't believe the world will end in 2012? Are you excited about the film 2012?

Yes! I have an unhealthily high level of interest in all post-apocalyptic scenarios -- with the possible exception of The Road.

Also, do you hella like nuclear weapons?

Sort of. I think its possible that the US has too large a nuclear stockpile. Some have argued that we risk endangering the nuclear stalemate by virtue of building, by default, a credible first-strike capability.

I also think that there is a coherent case for what Kenneth Waltz called "horizontal nuclear proliferation," that is the spread of nuclear weapons to more states. The argument is that this encourages "nuclear stability" via deterrence, and it's been made by John Mearsheimer among others.. Some argue that a nuclear Iran would thus not be a grave danger. I'm not so sure about the Iranian case, as we'd likely see security competitions emerge and further horizontal proliferation that would divert valuable resources and (of course) increase the risk of nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands. Very honestly, I'm not certain about how to weigh these different risks. My instinct is that an Iranian bomb is materially different from an Indian bomb or a Japanese bomb.

Perry Anderson had a clever argument about this that was strongly pro-proliferation. I don't agree, but he's always smart.

Perry Anderson? Will they take away your conservative card for reading Benedict's brother?

I think conservatives are generally pretty into reading. I was also a big Gramsci fan, but I was ultimately down with Hayek.

Awesome. Good lookin out Reihan.

AIGHT PEOPLE - expect more interviews soon with some more interesting folks! For real.


Philly grrl said...

Love his answers. Such candor. Great interview, thanks for sharing. Question: did he go to high school with you?

KOOL A.D. said...

dang i dont knoe where 2 start readding hahaha maybe i should start idk nvmd hahaahahaha

Breezy said...

Holy Mole

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