Thursday, January 20, 2005

Family Time

I'm going to be gone for the next 10 days or so, fulfilling a long-planned and unbreakable (not that I want to break it!) family commitment. We'll be visiting with my family this time, not Melissa's, and specifically just my folks. We haven't spent any real amount of time with my parents--that is, without a couple of dozen other siblings and nieces and nephews running around--in quite a while; over a year and a half, I think. So when they gave us the chance to join them on their annual wintertime trip, we scrambled to clear the time in our schedules to do so. Hopefully we have everything covered (my classes, Megan's school work, etc.), but even if we don't and return to find ourselves buried, it'll be worth it. Where are we going? All in good time. I'll write a post about it when we're back--or maybe I'll blog something brief once we get there; I think we'll have computer access. Maybe. Anyway, expect more simplicity posts when I return: I'm still committed to reviewing Alperovitz's America Beyond Capitalism, and then there's that restaurant post that I've been meaning to write for about five months now. Plus something else will come up, I'm sure. Bye for now.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The DVD Changed My Life! (Simplicity, Part 2)

The Timothy Burke post I alluded to below has a lot to say in defense of all the alluring and complicating stuff which modern life confronts us with, but it begins by focusing on just one slice of it: TV shows. Tim, it turns out, is a huge fan of The Avengers, The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy, Firefly, Batman and more, and thanks to the DVD can happily surround himself with them. A few years ago--even a few months ago--I suppose I'm not sure what I would have thought about all that. Unlike my brother-in-law, I've no problem with TV itself; I'm a TV watcher, and always have been, though not as much as some. My TV watching, and Melissa's too, goes up and down depending upon innumerable factors; right now, besides Melissa's beloved Trading Spaces and What Not to Wear and the occasional PBS special, the only program we watch at all regularly is CSI (the original, of course). But I can't deny that at least one of those factors has been an old and deep bias against TV, a sense that it consists of little more than utterly disposable entertainment. Books and music and, perhaps, movies make for a durable aesthetic architecture in one's life; TV does not. I'm sure this prejudice of mine goes back to when I was young, and simply wanted to make myself distinctive somehow; since then, however, I'd like to believe that I've been able to develop arguments in support of that bias, arguments that cohere together and amount to something. Call it leftist puritanism, call it liberal snobbery, call it cultural arrogance--but the fact is, it just never occurred to me to take anything the tube presented (that is, any television program; movies and specials and miniseries are a different story) "whole," as a complete work of art in itself. Rather, I figured anything produced and marketed as long-term entertainment was hopelessly compromised and frivolous, whatever momentary insight and enjoyment it may have provided. It was just . . . TV. Our collection habits reflected this sense: especially in the early years of our marriage, we recorded on videotape lots of stuff to make part of our (at that time quite primitive) home entertainment collection--mostly music specials of one sort or another, plus Ken Burns's The Civil War and some other documentaries. But never did we record television the way both of families did while we were growing up (the 1980s--the Golden Age of VHS). We just didn't have the desire, and perhaps more importantly, couldn't see clear to how we could bring such into our lives without becoming more addicted to the tube than we wanted to be.

The real problem with TV programming, from the point of view of someone who'd like to maintain an ordered home without the tube constantly forcing its way into a family's time and space, is that it's relentless, driven by far more than just storyline or any other aesthetic purpose. No, it's a commercial enterprise, meaning that those working in TV, as is no doubt obvious to everyone who thinks about it, are obliged to find ways to layer, arrange, package and deliver their entertainment and news and snippets of the world in such a way that will lure viewers, keep viewers, please viewers, while also juggling performers, producers, advertisers, and a dozen other interrupting interests. Rare is it that a television writer or director can put together something that isn't almost immediately torn away from them, and put onto the usual commercial treadmill. Again, everyone knows this, or at least everyone who has seen great--or even just modestly entertaining and informative--stories and series and programs stretched way beyond their credibility point, such that all affection and spirit in the enterprise is lost. (In other words, they Jump the Shark.) But it's significance for collecting TV, recording it and cataloging it and making the watching of it part of the cultural infrastructure of a home is that, very quickly, there's just too damn much of the stuff, and most of it is crap--but what are you going to do? Can you just shut off the tap? Of course not: you're invested, you have to follow the damn thing until it ignominiously ends or you simply can't stand it anymore, and meanwhile the VHS tapes pile up and gather dust, waiting to be recorded over or filed away. That's why it's called "addicting," and that's partly why I was rarely interested in actually viewing any of it as something worthy of lasting, much less permanent, attention. Books and music and film: all of those I can see playing a legitimate role in creating a cultured environment, though things can get excessive there too. But TV? Not a chance.

Expect that, there were exceptions. I said I was only "rarely interested" in television programs in any sort of permanent way, and that's accurate--because the truth is, as in many things, I'm a hypocrite. As I mentioned in a previous post, there's been a few programs which Melissa and I just got sucked into, and were loath to see disappear into the ether. Northern Exposure was one; the original Star Trek is another (though that's my geekiness, not hers). Yet even there I was torn and reluctant. It's not just that I didn't want to turn into one of those people obsessively ordering lengthy sets of The Honeymooners or Upstairs Downstairs from the latest PBS catalogue--it always made me think of an old episode of Cheers, in which Frasier's proud ownership of a complete collection of I, Claudius was the punchline to some joke--but also, and more importantly, that it just occupies so much space, temporally and physically. All those tapes, all that fast-forwarding through so much junk that I can't stand, just for the sake of the one or two episodes that transcend the genre. It's pointless.

Well, you can see where I'm going: the DVD has changed all that. Not only has it made the storage of television more compact and manageable, but it's changed our relationship with it. Like what Peter Jackson managed to do with Lord of the Rings, the DVD enables the sprawling, interconnected, trailing-off and then starting-over, multidirectional and multifocused aspects of TV programming to be contained, filed, put together in the way that a book or a piece of music or movie might be. I never would have thought of this before I started working through Monty Python and the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episodes on DVD, but now it seems obvious: while the depressing realities of television entertainment aren't going to change, and thus its addicting, interruptive, distracting, and disposable quality will continue to suggest that TV deserves to play only a minimal role, at most, in the culture of the home, technology in this case has allowed us to master the medium to a certain extent. Given time and some creativity, even the most ridiculous and forgettable television series can potentially be turned into a tidy little bit of art, to be tucked away on the shelf and pulled out when you want to look up and show your kid that one episode when all the tribbles fell on Kirk's head. Whereas I once would have thought that Tim's TV collection was over the top, now I can see how he can keep a handle on it, use it, make it part of his artistic environment rather than being sucked into the relentlessness with which TV mixes decent entertainment with schlock and throws it out for us to catch hurriedly and indiscriminately.

One reader of my post on simplicity framed the issue even more explicitly in terms of technology, though not in a Luddite sort of way. I'm not as up on the philosophical literature regarding technology as I once was, but I can still cite Martin Heiddegger and George Grant as appropriate. I'm not a Luddite myself, as should be apparent, but I know that at least part of the attraction which a structured, "simple" existence has for me is that such a life would make it easier, at least in theory, to resist that technology which I consider invasive, the sort that seems to provide convenience but actually makes more and more choices and external events incumbent upon one's time and life. (I've no idea how much longer we'll be able to go without a cell phone, given that the infrastructure of the world--as the near-total disappearances of pay phones on street corners suggests--has embraced the cellular world so thoroughly that my resistance may soon be reduced to mere crankiness, if it hasn't already.) Very early on, I wondered whether or how DVD players would fit into this; I don't any longer. In a very simple way, this is one invention that has taken a truly disruptive yet, I think, wonderfully necessary technological and social development--the television set--and enabled us to more easily accommodate its primary product (TV shows) to our own choices for our home and time. It occurs to me that the same might be said for TiVo, which I first thought was ridiculous (oh great, a toy that will keep throwing even more TV programming at you!), but now seems rather more impressive. Records programs on its own, takes out commercials, files them away for your own convenience? Sounds like a much better away to find the time to distinguish the art from the dreck than obsessively running home every Saturday night at 9pm. Something worth considering, anyway.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Simplicity (and its Complications)

I have a brother-in-law earning a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Michigan; he's a brilliant guy, involved in all sorts of challenging research. Yet, increasingly, he doesn't seem to take it very seriously; that is, while he likes the math and research and puzzles of it all, he doesn't seem all that impressed with the world which high technology and science is inducting him into. In a recent e-mail, he was talking about one of the Dune books (what can I say? he's an old school sci-fi geek), and brought up the Butlerian Jihad, which was a revolution against thinking machines which had ended up enslaving humanity. (Don't write me if I'm getting details wrong; I'm just paraphrasing my brother-in-law, and anyway, I never cared for Frank Herbert.) He wrote: "Have we become slaves to our machines already? If we live too far from work and have to drive to work, then are we slaves to our cars? If we can't grow our own food, are we slaves to the trucks that drive in the food and to the machinery that plants and harvests and processes our food? I have often thought of our trips to the gas station as a type of worship service--we go to pay homage to the gods of petroleum--the gods that dictate how we live our lives and to whom we must pay our tribute."

It's not just talk with him and his family. They've thrown out their TV (though they still have his computer, and watch DVDs on it occasionally), and his wife has taken up spinning her own thread from wool and knitting their clothes. (She's good at it too: she made our daughter Megan a Gryffindor scarf for Halloween.) Talking with them doesn't give you a feeling of that they're self-consciously rejecting the world, becoming elitist cranks with a puritanical streak. On the contrary, they seem almost giddy about their ability to step away from the choices and structures most of us take for granted. We gave them a copy of the Wendell Berry essay collection The Art of the Commonplace for Christmas, and we talked for a while during our vacation in Michigan about what Berry has to say about community and simplicity, about the agrarian lifestyle and living close to the land. I really do believe that, given the right incentives, one day my brother-in-law and his family could just quietly drop off the map, relocate to some small farming community and raise goats and tomatoes, becoming completely self-sustaining. And I can't help but think that such would be a deeply admirable thing, even if it wouldn't necessarily be our preferred life.

As far as Melissa and I go, we already live a relatively simple life, comparatively speaking: one car, one computer, one income, no cell phone, no satellite dish, a garden in the back yard, etc. We're not acolytes of Wendell Berry, or any other explicitly antimodern thinker, though I enjoy dipping into The Essential Agrarian Reader from time to time, and we've discussed on and off what small steps we might be able to take to further our family's ecological independence (possible next step, depending on where we end up living next year: get some chickens). But basically my engagement with simplicity--and in particular the structure of it, what makes it possible, or better yet plausible--is theoretical: I want to understand what advocating simplicity (politically, economically, socially, culturally) means, what the arguments for it are, what the history of those arguments are and what we can learn from such. Because living a simple life in a complex world is hard. The modern world is premised upon fluidity, calculation, specialization, transformation and speed; that's how we have framed the acquisition of knowledge, economic transactions, social organization, and the development of the person for a few centuries now at least. That such speeding means many good things may be lost by the wayside is a commonplace and mostly uncontroversial; what is controversial is believing that controlling our pace is within our collective power, and amounts to more than easy, cranky condemnations. Of course, attacks on modernity are legion, have been around since Rousseau (the original modern crank, perhaps) and the Romantics at least, and have only been made easier by apologists for globalization who see some new kind of human emerging from Thomas Friedman's Golden Straightjacket. But just because there are lots of lazy Heidegger-quoting antimodern posers out there doesn't mean the problem is real, and isn't painful. To stick with Friedman, most people don't necessarily want to live their whole lives under olive trees, but they'd also rather the olive trees not be mowed down by Lexuses. To insist that the only remaining route to simplicity, to preserving the olive groves, is to live there and never move again is to engage in what Christopher Lasch called a kind of Gemeinschaftsschmerz, a longing for homogeneous and traditional communities which invariably privileges the perspective of educated (and usually wealthy) elites who feel themselves in possession of some custom or tradition with inherent, superior value. Many of the sort of intellectuals you find flirting with various antimodern arguments have often seemed to me to be oblivious to the limited and ordinary lives of actual families, their pleasures and labors and hopes and fears. (Neil Postman comes to mind, Bill McKibben is another, and I say that despite having learned much from and agreeing with much that both men have written.) Actually living out the traditions or customs or ways of life which constitute "simplicity" requires work, memory, openness to change and a chastened sense of possibility, which also means somewhat less respect for the content of said customs and traditions than high-minded reformers might think. This is part of the reason Lasch was so suspicious of communitarianism, and preferred to describe himself as a populist: attacking the technological diversification, and consequently the alienation, which the acquisition-focused modern economy thrusts upon us demands sacrifices that many people without adequate political, economic, social or cultural resources may not be able to make, at least not without causing themselves and possibly others (in particular their children) a potentially great harm. Far better to focus on the people who desire simplicity, than the simplicity itself. While Lasch was something of a crank himself, I agree with him, and hence want to be careful about what I think the simple life does and does not mean.

As is often the case, my thinking along these lines has been stimulated by Timothy Burke, who among other things is a superb defender of the modern and the popular. Some months back he wrote a stimulating essay on the "dizzy, glorious excesses of the current cultural dispensation, warts and all . . . What I see is the unlocking of human imagination, the democratization of creativity, an explosion of meaning and interpretation and possibility." The made stuff of the world is all good, in his view. Well, that stuff is stuff that the people want, surely; borderline socialist I may be, but I hardly think the whole modern marketplace is a matter of false consciousness. So Burke is right when he condemns "those who want less not just for themselves but all the world, who want only their own vision of what is refined and elegant to propagate, who so fear the authentic popularity of global popular culture that they imagine its successes to be impossible save by conspiracy, subversion and subjugation." But he goes too far when he observes:

[I]t's true that those forms of expressive practice which are fundamentally antagonistic to a cultural marketplace--the equivalent of usufruct ownership of land, the kinds of cultural practices that are unowned and unownable, collective and communal, and that require a protected relation to power, are threatened by the explosive force of market-driven popular culture. My feeling about that is the same feeling I have about gemeinschaft in general: good riddance. . . . All that is lost are the forms of social power that reserved particular cultural forms as the source of social distinction or hierarchy, all that is lost are the old instrumentalities of texts, performances, rituals. The achievement of liberty loses nothing save the small privileges of intimate tyrannies. Culture, even in the premodern world, is ceaselessly in motion and yet also steady as a rock. In getting more and more of it for more and more people, we lose little along the way.

I've disagreed with Burke about this point before, at least insofar as I believe that, if nothing else, progressive politics and egalitarianism can lose a great deal when a sense of the "collective and communal" are driven out of people's life experience--that is, if they become convinced that one needn't concern oneself about olive trees anymore (hey, I hear Proctor and Gamble just bought a 10,000 acres of now-cheap land in Indonesia and is experimenting with some new fast-growth olive hybrids, so fear not!). But my point here isn't about the link between social justice and the popular community (especially since I've beaten that to death before), but rather about what all that has to do with living a simple life. But perhaps I ought to define my terms.

What is the simple life? It's not necessarily agrarianism or an avoidance of technology, though such elements of the equation probably can't be entirely ignored. What I really mean by it is an environment which isn't likely to multiply out of one's control, making one simultaneously dependent upon and divorced from those forces and decisions which shape one's options; that is, a world where one can see clear through from basic personal choices to dependable public outcomes. Of course, the world is never really going to be like that: ours is an often random, frequently tragic, always unpredictable existence. But nonetheless, some environments lend themselves to being enclosed more easily than others, and enclosure doesn't just mean retreating from reality: sometimes it means cultivating the better parts of it. Again, the danger of imposing an authoritative content upon one's--and others'--acts of cultivation lurks: the number of hippies who just wanted to drop out of modern life and tune in to their communes who ended up embracing Maoism and talk of purges in the bean rows was probably pretty small, historically speaking, but that doesn't mean such a slipperly slope should be ignored. Burke wasn't kidding when he spoke of "intimate tyrannies." But not all intimacies are tyrannical, and he is, I think, perhaps less attendant than he should be to how much that rock of culture he speaks of can be shattered by the roar of Lexuses driving by. John Stuart Mill scratched his head in his essay "On Nationality" over the "half-savage relics" who choose to "sulk on their rocks" rather than embrace the liberty of (English) civilization; there is just the barest hint of a similar condescension in the assumption that wanting to holding onto the rough and rocky soil in which "social distinctions" and olive trees take root is likely about "hierarchy" and holding dominion over others. Maybe, instead, wanting to enclose off certain areas of life, to set at least of few aspects of one's life into a "protected relation to power," is about wishing to exercise dominion over one's place in the world--which is at least part of what is meant by "self-government," after all. (One of the things I find so interesting about the work of Gar Alperovitz is that his is not just an economic argument; it is also a political and cultural one, about what we can do towards creating a socio-economic environment wherein the speed of modern life doesn't run over people who have every reason, and more importantly the democratic right, to prefer to stay in their chosen, enclosed place.)

Echoes of the concern for the structure of simplicity that I'm talking about here can be found in what I've written about education (at least insofar as one can interpret egalitarian choices about schooling to reflect a desire to structure one's public environment, and not just engage in pedagogical exploration), marriage and social policy (in that covenant marriages and other tentative conservative moves against the divorce culture reflect the realization that such factors are not solely personal, but have deep economic and social ramifications), and dozens of other issues. (I guess when it comes to community I'm a hedgehog, according to Isaiah Berlin's typology, but that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog.) Honestly, a broad engagement with the complexities of simplicity can arise out of almost any aspect of contemporary life, so thoroughly does modernity challenge the very idea of limits. Lately, for example, I've been thinking about it in relation to such banal matters as home entertainment and eating out (both of which I hope will get their own posts this week). For the moment though, I'm thinking about coffee.

No, I'm not a coffee drinker, but I know most people in the U.S. and Europe are, and I know a little bit about the coffee economy. The transformation of coffee consumption into a status marker, via Starbucks and others, has increased the demand for certain kinds of coffee, which pulls the world market towards ever greater specialized production, shifting patterns of work and prices in order to maximize profits while keeping costs down and thereby making coffee cheap enough that its consumer base will continue to grow. In short, coffee becomes--as most manufacturing in our globalized world has become--part of the "pull economy," where power is no longer in the hands of producers and laborers but in the hands of retailers and marketers. Buy coffee, and you're buying a good that's been hurriedly yanked away from one place and out of one form to then put into another, and then yet another, and then finely delivered to you, nice and hot. Nothing we all don't already know.

Daniel Brook wrote an interesting article about Sweden in the most recent issue of Dissent, about how this highly egalitarian country, where more than one-half of the total GDP goes to the government in the form of taxes, has been able to weather the storms of globalization with its high standard of living, generous welfare state, and low wage differentials mostly intact, despite that fact that, strictly speaking, Sweden is poorer than every American state except West Virginia and Mississippi. It tells an interesting story, and not one I wholly admire, despite my egalitarian preferences (for example, rather than being honest about the trade-offs of immigration, the Swedes have been content to continue a policy of de facto exclusion of immigrants from the work force, paying them, in essence, to keep quiet, study Swedish, and assimilate--a policy which hasn't worked out well over the long run for countries like Denmark and France). But what I find most powerful about the story Brook tells is when it gets down to what it means to provide and serve coffee in a country of "capitalism without capitalists":

[C]all it the $3 cup of coffee debate. One of the most striking things for foreigners about Sweden is the high price of consumer goods. A simple cup of coffee at a café in Stockholm costs nearly $3. The main reason a cup of coffee in Sweden costs two to three times what it costs in the United States is the labor costs in the café. Pouring coffee is a minimum wage job the world over, but in Sweden the lowest wage is much higher than in the United States, and the employer is responsible for more social benefits. On top of that, a 25 percent value-added tax is paid by the consumer. I would gladly have paid $1.25 for a cup of coffee in Sweden, but . . . consider what my $3 bought. The added cost made sure that the person who poured my coffee lived in decent housing, enjoyed health care coverage, and could send her kids to college if they could get in. Swedish society had decided that coffee would cost more than anywhere else in the world in exchange for these public goods. Weren't they worth the money?

When I offered this analysis to Mauricio Rojas, a libertarian Member of Parliament, originally from Chile, he pointed to the other side of the coin. "When you pay your $3, you are paying for the black market, you are paying for exclusion [of low-skill immigrants from the workforce]. You know that." Choosing between the American and Swedish systems is a matter of choosing one's problems.

As I said, it's not that I admire everything about Swedish society--but wage controls, universal education, and other actions by the government have constructed in an environment where certain basic social realities are protected, reliable, even guaranteed: jobs and neighborhoods and vacations and so forth. In essence, Sweden has determined, in at least few key areas, to resist the Golden Straightjacket of the globalizers, and instead to impose some rules and controls of their own, directing (many would say warping) the local coffee market so that it became a part of their own larger, egalitarian enclosure. There's nothing about "simplicity" in Brook's article; and indeed, one might argue--looking at the rather lurid picture he paints of the extreme cosmopolitanism and secularism of the Swedes--that they've been able to "buy off" the frustration which must inevitably arise from controls such as these by making sure numerous cultural and social outlets remains unobstructed. He makes a point that, for example, thanks to near total unionization and close coordination with the government, labor unions in Sweden feel little need to call for protectionism; the stability and equality they value in their lives isn't dependent upon any specific material production, and so feel no real attachment to keeping such in Sweden. (Perhaps an argument could be made that there is a relationship between the secularism of Sweden and the lack of any defense of specific material ways of life.) But still, the essential point remains--this is a society which has undertaken the work to construct an environment wherein a certain simplicity, a certain socio-economic humility, abides. Coffee is not native to Sweden; if they want to drink it, it has to be grown and processed and shipped from somewhere else. The decision made in Sweden is, in effect, that if Swedes want coffee to be part of their environment they need to pay the price for it, and they need to put that price to work in sustaining what they already have. This narrows the margins of invention, of course; it encloses things (though only partially, never wholly), places and plans them, in the same way that a concerned agrarian might think hard about her every purchase, reflecting on the space with the item bought may take up and the waste which will likely result, with the aim of hammering down every cost: only in such a way can her footsteps be light and her personal ecology resist being swept away by the lure of low-cost, high-impact goods. No, Sweden is not a place for mad, brilliant, disruptive entrepreneurs--but it is a place for working citizens and families, most of whom would (as, I think, most every human being would, if the options were put plainly before them) prefer to exercise a little control over the vicissitudes of existence, and preserve a place for a reliable and secure everyday world. Few people would describe Sweden as a conservative country, and it's possible (perhaps even likely) that their particular approach to choosing what to put into a socio-economic enclosure has had political and cultural consequences that make different types of conservation impossible. Yet there is a sense that, compared with the U.S., they "conserve" far better than we. In their analysis of their own situation (and in the analyses of many other social democratic countries) you can see, if you look for it, the evidence that socialists and egalitarians of many (if not all) different stripes share an intellectual pre-occupation with agrarians and others: the conservative concern with tending to what one has, and a willingness to structure life so that one's tending isn't made moot by realities that ought to be subject to the will of the people. Karl Marx and Edmund Burke, as I've written elsewhere, aren't that far off, at least not at their roots.

An important, and concluding, point: very possibly no one, or almost no one, in Sweden would actually describe their collective socio-economic decisions in this way. Does that matter? It may, because to conserve without knowing what or why you are conserving--to ignore, that is, the communal aspect of one's project--can make it easy to forget about the way of life lived by the people being so enclosed, and reify the enclosure instead. That way lays jingoistic proclamations about "identity" that liberals assume (often, unfortunately, correctly) wait hidden in the heart of every claim to community. Identity is more problematic than that, but it will not seem so to those for whom the normative work of valuing the simple things a people may desire to set apart is absorbed into unthought presuppositions about those people. (The above Dissent article is loaded with references to how the Swedes tend to frame their actions in terms of an anti-Americanism, which is to say the least a potentially troubling moral ground to employ for one's collective actions.) In a very different context one can see something similar in David Brooks's recent column on how American women (meaning the middle and upper-class women that Brooks interacts with) struggle with the costs of adapting to a work environment which was designed for men and which "discourage[s] other options"; he suggests that what is needed is a little (government-led) restructuring so the choices of women may be broadened beyond the parameters of the workaholic marketplace world. Good for him, and Matt Yglesias rightly praises him for it--but then just as rightly faults him for leaving men out of the equation. As the thread which followed Matt's post makes clear (with me chiming in here and there), the problem is that Brooks is oblivious to the fact that he's not making a simple economic, choice-maximizing argument--he's making a normative, cultural argument about families and forms of life, hypothesizing about those simple things which he assumes women want. Maybe they do. But putting the simple life of raising kids--or any life for that matter--within the control, or at least more within the control, of any person must be ultimately measure by what people do with that life, not what some elite thinker believes is most natural, most beautiful, or best.

Okay, enough conceptual work, enough on the complex politics of enabling simplicity: how about some personal, ethical applications? If it is possible to slow things down, what does that mean? What junk shouldn't I buy? Where shouldn't I eat? Those aren't the most important questions to ask by a longshot, and I've no easy answers regardless (hey, I said this was the hard and always tentative part). Still, I'll try to get some thoughts down on both over the next couple of days.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Some Respect for Spanglish, Please?

I don't expect James L. Brooks's Spanglish to be nominated for any Oscar awards, much less win any. (I think the odds are looking good for The Aviator, a perfectly competent and entertaining bit of Hollywood moviemaking with some scenes of real bite, drama, and flair, to walk away with a fair number of awards, most especially the Best Director Oscar which the Academy has been half-heartedly trying to give to Martin Scorsese for years.) Frankly, Spanglish isn't award material: it's narrative focus is too confused, the tone bounces back and forth between melodramatic and gonzo; all in all, it doesn't sell itself. But it bothers me that the mixed reviews it has received (hammered by A.O. Scott in the New York Times; praised by David Edelstein in Slate (scroll down)) have likely partly contributed to its failure to develop much momentum. Of course, it's not really a movie with much momentum, and it's certainly not building to anything monumental; it is a slow, observant, humble film, cobbled together out of a lot of glorious parts, many of which are, on their own, better than the movie as a whole. More than most domestic dramas, this one is well served by being taken apart. (The following assumes you've seen the film; if you haven't, please consider checking it out tonight.)

What's going on in Spanglish? Two kinds of liberalism are on display: for Deborah Clasky (and husband John too, though less so), one's liberty is tied up in mobility and accomplishment; for Flor Moreno, liberty is identity and holding true to one's authentic self. Both are obvious caricatures, of course, and it's not as though there's a real or even accidental political parable to be discovered in this movie. Nonetheless, as you think about the interactions of these two mothers, the Anglo homeowner and the Hispanic housekeeper, you realize that scene after scene sharply and painfully describes the differences between them and their worldviews. Deborah takes Flor's daughter Cristina out for a day of (very expensive) fun, buying clothes and getting streaks in their hair; Flor, for her part, freaks out when a boy puts his hand on her daughter's butt during a dance, and harshly chastises two rich gentlemen at a bar offering to buy her and her daughter a drink. Deborah can't understand Flor's reaction, and even when Flor insists she must leave the Claskies can't do anything besides give Cristina lots of parting gifts; for her part, Flor is at a loss of words (literally) to describe her feelings when Deborah offers to relocate Flor and her daughter to Malibu for a summer. (May I say that the critics haven't paid nearly enough attention to the timing and range of Shelbie Bruce, who played Cristina; her reactions to the adults around her, her delight in the material opportunities the Claskies offer her, the attention grown-ups direct towards her, the superior feeling her new upper-class friends impart to her--all of it resonated with me as deeply, and painfully true. There is another field in which this conflict of ideals is taking place, involving the daughters. Cristina is gorgeous, like her mother, and smart too; the meritocracy will open wide for her. Bernice (played by Sarah Steele, also excellent), struggling in school and with her weight, by contrast feels little love from the materialistic liberal order around her: liberty is for people who can push ahead, as is made clear by her mother's intense and proud physicality, and the behavior of her erstwhile "friends," who are instantly captivated by the possibilities of the exotic daughter of a housekeeper thrust into their midst.)

I can easily point to the movie's flaws: Flor (Paz Vega) is ridiculously beautiful and principled, Deborah (Tea Leoni) is ridiculously monstrous and insecure, and the idea that easy-going John (Adam Sandler) is "America's finest chef" is just plain silly. Mike Leigh-type realism this ain't. Too much is painted over too easily. Flor and Cristina sneak across the border pulling paisley luggage behind them; they end up dwelling in an L.A. barrio that looks like some happy little ethnic paradise straight out of Brigadoon; and in the end, while Flor does pull her daughter out of the private school which Deborah had opened up for her, Cristina gets to apply to Princeton anyway. But, look beyond what it all adds up to, which isn't much: look at the scenes. Look at the race up from the bus stop, Flor in her working outfit, desperately trying to assert herself in the face of Deborah's easily domination of her daughter, while Deborah, after playing along momentarily, hurls her sculpted body past her maid (commenting easily about how the cable guy has arrived while she does so!), then turning around and with--painfully condescending sincerity--tells Flor, quite honestly I'm sure, that she "loves her for trying." That's maybe the best scene, but there are dozens of other good ones. John's multiple confrontations with Flor, pitch-perfect renditions of frustration, temptation, and confusion. (Adam Sandler wears the wisdom the screenplay endows him with easily, deepening it with some nice scenes at his restaurant and elsewhere, making it clear that he's the sort of person who desperately wants to evade details and confrontations and just concentrate of that which gives him pleasure. That sounds like he's a narcissist, and in some ways it does make John an oblivious, weak character, slow to pick up on the pain his wife is inflicting on their housekeeper; but in other ways it makes him sensitive to the small pleasures of others, such as when he reproves Flor for being so principled that she'd make her daughter give up the money which she'd earned in a job which John had thoughtlessly but nonetheless honestly extended to her.) Cloris Leachman as Deborah's mom, Evelyn, is terrific; again, it's not clear how or if she's supposed to fit into the whole arc of things, but she brings grace to the messy reality (tactfully and believably presented) of jealousy, infidelity, and forgiveness. (And brush off those reviewers who say that Brooks tacked a false happy ending onto the story of the Claskies--we don't know the end of their story; it's left hanging, in Deborah's first mature words in the whole movie, and in Bernice's and John's caring arms.) Is Flor's triumph over Deborah a cost-free, unambiguous one? Is she too much of a noble heroine? Maybe; in terms of philosophy, I may prefer Flor's insistence on recognition over Deborah's financing of rights, but I've no illusions that you can ever comprehensively stipulate one over another, especially in a world as socially and economically unequal as our own. (Probably a great many actual illegal immigrants housekeepers across America seeing this film would consider Flor a monster for trying to prevent her daughter from "turning American"--isn't that what they sacrificed coming here for?) But then, we've had plenty of inverted-Spanglish movies over the years, in which climbing the ladder of assimilation is made easy and celebratory. (Bend It Like Beckham, anyone?) I don't mind Hollywood embracing class and using it to turn the authenticity arrow in a different direction, if just this once.

This is a great movie, a great study, of two very different ways of addressing parenting, barriers (of money, morality, language and sex), false judgments and unmeant hurts, competition, etc.; Melissa and I thought it one of the best dramas we'd seen in many years. (Plus: it's often pretty damn funny.) I've no idea if anyone reading this will get as much out of the movie as we did, but if you're a parent, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

I've Been Nominated...

...for Wampum's Koufax Award for "Blog Most Deserving of Wider Recognition". The greatest honor, to be frank, was who nominated me (Jacob Levy and Henry Farrell, among others), but of course it would be cool to win. So please click on the link and vote for me, if you haven't already voted and you feel so inclined. (I'm listed as "Russell Arben Fox," so you should probably use my name--if you write "In Medias Res," you might want to include my name along with it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

What Amy Sullivan Gets Wrong

I've been reading Amy Sullivan's writings ever since I first ran across her old blog, Political Aims. There, and in her occasional essays since at The Gadflyer and The Washington Monthly, she's consistently urged the Democratic party to talk more about religion and take more concern for people of faith, in particular those socially moderate Christians that, as she sees it, would be voting Democrat if the party wasn't so often tone-death on religious matters, and so often gave the impression of being absolutely uncompromising on abortion rights and other controversial issues. She's been knocked a lot for her crusade (both by secular liberals who don't understand her concern, and by right-wing Christians who assume she must be a hypocrite or a fake), but I've always admired it. I've made it clear how much I hope for some kind of rapprochement between the Democratic party's egalitarianism and the populist concern of many religious conservatives, but Amy's one of the few activists who have really been involved in trying to make it happen. She's a hell of a writer, and her aims are right on. But I think her basic approach to her chosen problem has always been, unfortunately, rather limited, and her latest piece in The New Republic shows why.

I don't write much about my Mormonism on this blog (I save most of that for Times and Seasons), but you'd think I'd be all over Amy's argument in this case: all things being equal, don't I want my own faith community to start supporting Democratic candidates? Of course I do! More importantly, I'd like to see them start supporting social democratic and economically progressive causes. (Heck, I'd like them to become full-fledged Christian socialists.) But what kind of grounds for thinking such a shift is possible (much less can plausibly be pursued by the Democratic party as it presently exists) does Amy give us? Well, a couple of Mormon senators have disagreed with the Bush administration over stem cell research. And there's evidence that a certain number of libertarian-inclined Mormons are bothered by the Patriot Act. I'll grant her those. But what else? She notes that President Gordon B. Hinckley, the current leader of the Mormon church, declined to support the Bush administration's faith-based initiative. But all that ultimately stands behind that is a statement from President Hinckley during an interview with Larry King on how proud the church was of its independence and how determined it was to avoid government regulation; not exactly a thorough, much less official, political rebuke of Bush's Republican agenda. Amy also talks about Elder Russell M. Nelson (one of the apostolic leaders beneath Hinckley) urging Mormons during a conference just before the Iraq war to "renounce war and proclaim peace"; she somehow missed President Hinckley's subsequent sermon (which I wrote about at the time) in which he essentially (though not enthusiastically) defended the war in terms of an "overriding responsibility" we have, as a "freedom-loving people," to "fight for family, for liberty, and against tyranny, threat, and oppression." Doesn't sound like "fissure" between the Mormon church and the Republican party to me--certainly not enough for the rise of Harry Reid (who is both neither shunned by the Mormon hierarchy, whatever Matt Yglesias may think, nor universally beloved among Mormons, as this thread fully attests) to the position of senate minority leader to signal an opportunity to begin picking off even a small slice of the Mormon Republican base (which, as she notes, consists almost 9 out of every 10 Mormon voters in the U.S.). It's a pretty huge leap from the fact that a lot of evangelical Bush-supporters have theological disagreements with Mormons to the idea that any number of Mormons might therefore stop being Bush supporters.

I'm not saying anything that hasn't been said already by Matt, BTD Greg, Ross Douthat and several others. The problem with Amy's article isn't that Amy hadn't done all the research she might--she did enough to support her thesis, however minimally, and besides it was just a short "Daily Express" article anyway. And certainly no one can fault her creativity. No, the problem is with the thesis itself--that there are, out there amongst the believers, people who would readily vote Democratic if only they could be led to personally emphasize, and if only the Democratic party itself could recognize, those rather disparate positions and policies which they both have in common. Stem cells, government interference, maybe few other cherry-picked issues here and there; upon such a foundation, an alliance can be built (or at least a few swing voters can be swung). That sounds like smart political strategy: identify interest groups, speak to them on the basis of various shared interests, and enlist their support. But it's conceptually short-sighted; it refuses to acknowledge what Amy, as a committed believer herself, ought to see is obvious: that religious people for the most part believe what they do not because those beliefs consist of a bunch of discreet perspectives and principles which they happen to agree with (and hence which can be targeted by those who wish for political reasons to advertise their agreement with said believers), but because they embrace--as part of their culture, their family history, their personal philosophy, their whole gestalt--a worldview which makes certain perspectives and principles inherent to their thinking about political matters. (Of course, just as your average citizen doesn't think much about politics, your average believer doesn't necessarily think through the political implications of that which they believe. But if Amy's point is to act politically to reach out to Christians and Mormons and other believers, then she's already focusing on those who do work out the politics of their worldview.) See the difference? I'm afraid Amy consistently puts the cart before the horse, thinking that if Democratic candidates and leading figures in the party could show, in their talk and behavior, a certain level of sympathy for key elements in the moderate Christian political grab-bag (in this case by, perhaps, getting Reid and some other bigwig Democrats to meet with Mormon leaders and talk worriedly about how they're concerned about protecting stem-cell research from the Republican evangelical machine, too...) then certain voters could be brought around. But in fact, the sort of Mormons--the sort of people, period--who pay attention to the religious talk and behavior (or lack thereof) of candidates for the most part don't so much carry around a political grab-bag as dwell within one, and the shared interests which Amy hopes to emphasize have to be drawn out of that place where the believer's faith is. As I put it back in the days immediately after the election: "What is necessary is not translating liberal political imperatives into an evangelical or culturally conservative idiom, but rather taking such faith seriously as a legitimate basis for thinking about politics, and drawing progressive concerns out from it. It probably won't be a liberalism which gives you abortion rights, but maybe it'll give you health care. Isn't that worth something?"

Certainly, a lot of what I and many others said the first week or so after the election was overwrought; there was a lot more to the 2004 election than just "moral values." But the revisionist story--that religion didn't matter that much after all--is false too, and Amy deserves credit for never having gone overboard either way. As even Ruy Teixeira admits, the white, working-class, socially conservative vote in this country isn't getting smaller. And the Republicans have built themselves into this country's existing religious base, by painting their opponents (which much help from progressives themselves!) as culturally insensitive civil libertarians who have no interest in the concerns of communities of faith. As a friend of mine wrote in an e-mail: "Which party is the bigger defender of foeticide, pornography, vulgarity in film and music, drug use, the welfare of criminals, sexual misconduct and (from an orthodox Mormon perspective) deviance? Most Mormons would say the Democrats. What most Democrats call freedom, most Mormons call destructive license. Why Mormons shy away from the Democratic Party is no more a mystery than why social conservatives in general do so." This is not an electoral reality which can be broken apart by trying to polish up neglected facets of the Democratic diamond; it requires being willing to substitute one progressive gem for another, one that makes different, more populist arguments. Either that, or continue to hope that either American desecularization reverses course (again?), or that--after being smothered by Democratic candidates trained in religious sensitivity--the occasional rural or working-class Christian will suddenly realize on their own that they ought to oppose the economic libertarianism of the Republican party on the basis of their deep concern for social welfare, even though they're still not allowed to pray in schools. Good luck.

Of course, one can reject all this, sign up with Howard Dean's vision for the Democratic party, and condemn both Amy's approach and my critique as characterized by an unwillingness to defend liberalism as it is. And you'd be correct, in my case. But in Amy's, I don't think that'd be correct, and that's where you see limits in her article on Mormons, and her whole crusade. In the weeks after the election, those of us who argued that progressives in America needed to make at least partial common cause with the widespread communitarian religious sensibility which the religious right itself mostly ignores were often dismissed out of hand; our project, it was said, would involve lashing the Democratic party to a population which is "vanishingly small." But that's simply not the case. For better or worse, the population which is "vanishingly small" is, I suspect, Amy's hypothesized Christian voter: a liberal believer who, for some comparatively minor reason, doesn't vote Democrat. The election of progressives in America will not be helped by trying to make more comfortable a handful of liberal Christian cranks who nonetheless don't vote for liberals. It will be helped by making progressive politics populist and religious enough (and honestly, even a little bit could go a long way) so that a few--not all, not half, but a perhaps just enough--red-state Christians who don't consider themselves liberals might nonetheless see in the Democrats a progressive connection to what they already believe, and start voting accordingly. Amy's agenda is, I think, a good one--but it barely scratches the surface of where religious progressives (like me, and her) actually need to be digging deep.


The semester begins in earnest today, and with it, the audiovisual portion of my ritual opening lecture in Modern Political Theory:

ARTHUR: I am your king!
WOMAN: Well, I didn't vote for you.
ARTHUR: You don't vote for kings.
WOMAN: Well, how did you become King, then?
ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king!
DENNIS: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
ARTHUR: Be quiet!
DENNIS: Well, but you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!
ARTHUR: Shut up!
DENNIS: I mean, if I went 'round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away!
ARTHUR: Shut up, will you? Shut up!
DENNIS: Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.

As I've said before, I think this little comedy bit works well in the classroom; it helps demonstrate "how massive a change it was in European history, when the individualist ethos finally began to emerge and truly challenge traditional, holistic hierarchies." But mostly, I just really like Monty Python.

When did I first begin to watch Monty Python's Flying Circus? I guess around my junior year in high school, which means 1985 or so. Somehow I'd managed to get an old television installed in my bedroom, and I got into the habit of staying up late, watching all sorts of programs that we'd never be able to stay up and watch on the family set. Actually, I think my primary aim was to stay up until 12:30am, when Late Night with David Letterman would come on, which I would watch through the opening monologue, Top Ten list, first guest and first sketch, after which I would hit the sack around 1:00am. So the goal was to find something to do or watch for an hour and a half after primetime ended and/or I finished my reading or homework. That's when I discovered that our local PBS station just happened to run, beginning at 11:00pm, an episode of SCTV followed by an episode of Flying Circus. I was hooked. SCTV was good, often great, but Python was from some other world. I laughed, I marveled, I was flabbergasted, my world changed. Like millions of others, the impossibly intelligent and yet brilliantly absurdist satire-slash-potty-humor of Monty Python turned me overnight into a comedy snob. In time, I saw all their movies (though Meaning of Life doesn't impress me much), and as the above indicates, I make frequent use of Holy Grail and Life of Brian in my classes to this very day. But my first love remains the television series.

Which made this Christmas one of the most rewarding in memory: The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus Megaset is finally my own! The Cheese Shop. Alternate Endings. "Dimsdale!" Njorl's Journey to North Malden. It's all right at my fingertips, via space-age, cutting-edge DVD technology. We'd taped numerous television programs over the years, and some we've even kept around for ages, but I'd really never taken seriously the desire be a completist, to really take up a whole work of television as a possession or work of art (for reasons that I'll have to go into in another post), before now. But as soon as I unwrapped this collection and settled down in from of the TV for many a good, long laugh (shared with Melissa, frequently; she's quite unfamiliar with the original show), I couldn't imagine being without it, anymore than I could imagine being without a favorite book. Yes, it's that kind of relationship.

I can't think of another TV program with which I have or could possibly have such a relationship. Well, no, I guess I can think of a couple: the Sherlock Holmes productions with Jeremy Brett, which is finally entirely available in America and which I'm slowing working through. Star Trek, the original series--I have about 30 episodes of that which I recorded long ago off the Sci-Fi Channel; I suppose it'd be worth owning on DVD, except that I prefer to be selective, as so many TOS episodes were just terrible. Oh, and Melissa and I adored--and stayed up late recording old reruns of--Northern Exposure when we were first married; it's finally (slowly) becoming available on DVD, but again, I don't think I'd care for the whole package, just select episodes. Speaking of which, which season featured "The Election," when Holling was challenged to a mayoral contest and lost? I've shown that in U.S. government classes before, but it was recently accidentally recorded over, and I'd love to get a copy. Anyone got any old tapes of NE they're willing to sell?

Friday, January 07, 2005

What a Week

Finally arrived back in Arkansas late Monday night; since then, after unpacking and recuperating, I've been desperately working through all sorts of stuff which piled up over the holiday, much of which I could have finished before the break. No one to blame but me, I know.

I'm off to New Orleans in about a half-hour for the Southern Political Science Association conference; unfortunately, I'm returning on Saturday: no chance to explore New Orleans further, which I've only visited once before. (But then, I won't have Melissa or the girls with me, so it wouldn't be that much fun anyway.) Classes begin next week; maybe, if I use my time right on Sunday, I'll actually have my syllabi finished on time. Maybe.

Upcoming posts include some reflections on television programs, fine dining, and other modern middle-class luxuries, with some thoughts thrown in alongside on how and if they conflict with living a simple, hopefully relatively egalitarian life. Also, look for a review of Gar Alperovitz's America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy, a book I'm getting a lot out of. And maybe some more posts on education as well. Plus, it's about time I do some more housecleaning around the blog. But that's for later. Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

A New Year

So, it's 2005. Certainly the year is already a horrible one for those who haven't lost the ability to be moved by empathy for the victims of the tsunamis in southeast Asia. Like so many other bloggers, I wish there was more I could do to help, and hope and pray that what little I have to give will make some difference. As the saying goes, there but for the grace of God go I.

It's been a good vacation, all things considered. We've put over 1300 miles on the rental van so far, and there's over 700 yet to go. Next week will be a madhouse--the drive back to Arkansas, some applications to quickly send off, syllabi to prepare for classes the following week, a paper to write, and a conference in New Orleans that weekend. But for now, we can still relax. The whole Madsen clan (my wife's family) has gathered to watch Michigan in the Rose Bowl. (No, none of them went to the University of Michigan, but after living in the Ann Arbor area for 20 years it's gotten into their blood.) I meant to get some reading done, but mainly have slept, watched the kids play, and gorged on crackers and dip. A good New Year's Day, I think.

What a terrible disjunction between those two paragraphs: mourning over a catastrophe which affected millions of people on the one hand, enjoying the banal pleasures of spinach-artichoke dip in the other. Maybe, in a future post or three, I can attempt some sort of mediation between the two. I've been thinking a lot lately about simplicity, popular culture, and the ways in which the stuff which the latter coughs up conflicts with the former. I tend to assume, as I'm sure many others do as well, that a life guided by compassion and charity, one which attends to the needs of the poorest and most hurt, will also have to be a more restricted, more basic, smaller life, one with much less stuff (including dip). How much does that require a compromising of, or withdrawing from, the delightful (though unevenly distributed and sometimes even alienating) plenitude of the modern world? Not a new obsession for me, but one which there certainly remains much to be said.

Well, that's for later. If you're reading this, then your year is probably off to a better start, whatever your other problems, than that of hundreds of millions of others all around the globe, and that's some worth celebrating (humbly and gratefully, of course). Best wishes for the new year. I'm not sharing my resolutions, particularly those dealing with the blog, as I'll probably end up breaking them anyway. But I'll be around, you can be sure of that.