Thursday, December 21, 2006

Our Sunny Kansas Midwinter

I rode my bike into campus today, to try to get some last-minute work done before Christmas. It was a beautiful morning--a little cold (probably in the mid-40s), but the sky was blue and the drifting clouds let the sunshine through. I didn't have to race into campus, so I took my time to enjoy the ride. While much of Colorado, Utah, Nebraska, and even some of western Kansas has been buried in snow over the past 24 hours, here in Wichita we got some rain, and then everything turned dry and bright. So much for midwinter, the darkest day of the year!

Last year, I wrote about how much I had missed snow in previous Decembers, how I found it a wonderful and needed surprise, an important part of how I and so many others imagined the holiday season. I stand by what I send then. It is, I think, reasonable to believe that one of the reasons Christmas and wintertime have worked so well together, have dug so deeply into the consciousness of so many millions of people, is that the Christmas story--with its juxtaposition of the humble and the grand, of a mundane moment in a stable that nonetheless was, as C.S. Lewis had Lucy say in The Last Battle, bigger on the inside than out--resonates well with the "bleak" lessons of midwinter: the gathering together in places of shelter, and the discovery in that gathering, with the outside world seemingly sealed off by the silence of snow, of joys and good times whose expansiveness is inversely related to the closeness within. And so, today, as I rode my bike down Wichita's streets, I found myself wishing we had snow. But only a little bit.

Theological speculation and metaphors can only take you so far; if you, like me, have to depend on a bike for getting to work, then deep snow drifts is the last thing you want. Melissa, for her part, is delighted to be living once more in a relatively southern part of the country, especially here, with it's cold temperatures and occasional blizzards during the winter months (a rarity in the Southern states we used to call home), but sunny skies and snow-free streets most of the rest of the time nonetheless. This is something we didn't expect about south-central Kansas when we moved here (thought we should have: in one of our favorite Christmas stories, Santa Comes to Little House, an illustrated version of the beloved chapter from Little House on the Prairie when Mr. Edwards traverses many miles and swollen streams to bring Mary and Laura presents from far-away Independence, KS, Mr. Edwards explains to the girls that the Santa he met in Independence, from whom he obtained their presents, didn't have his sleigh, because there was no snow: "Santa always rides a pack-mule in the southwest"). We assumed that the characteristic winter storms of the Great Plains made it this far south, only turning into rain around Oklahoma and Texas. Apparently not. Chalk that up to global warming, if you will. Still, as long as we get our four seasons, and maybe at least a smattering of snow for the girls, I think we--and our Christmases--will survive just fine.

Oddly enough, just a week or two after I wrote that post last year, I found myself in Riverside, CA, interviewing for a job. (How long ago that seems now!) I was nervous, and one morning I woke up quite early, long before I was to be picked up for breakfast, and I went exploring. I was staying in a grand old hotel in downtown Riverside, the Mission Inn, and the surrounding streets were decked out in Christmas wreaths and holly and lights, including the orange trees. As I wandered the streets in the early dawn light, listening to recordings of Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles coming from speakers attached to the streetlights, I had to admit to myself that the sunny California thing--the decorations, the light displays sharing space with fresh fruit, the poinsettas and luminarias everywhere, the sweater-worthy morning chill--worked every bit as well as my Illinois snow-bound speculations about wintertime had. I'm glad for that experience--even if it didn't change my deepest preferences, it gave me a hint of what it would mean to enjoy, as I am today, a midwinter's day with the sun shining through my office window. I'll be wrapped up here in a few hours...and wonderfully, the holiday is coming on just the same.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Apologies and a Bleg

Well, it's been a pretty slow month since the elections as far as blogging is concerned. The Thanksgiving holiday, the big move, a manuscript review, and now finals and designing next semester's classes, have taken up most of my spare time. Fortunately, I see a light at the end of the tunnel; by next week (yeah, I know, famous last words...) I should finally have the time to start getting around to several half-written posts of mine that have been begging for completion for the past few weeks--and, in a couple of cases, the past several months. I've missed Liberalpalooza entirely, but I'm going to follow through with my Berube review anyway, and maybe try to say something about Brink Lindsey's liberaltarians too. But, for today, a bleg.

Over the past few years, I've gotten deeply involved in trying to rethink conservatism, especially in conjunction with various populist and agrarian concerns. I was all set to teach an upper-level class next semester on exactly this topic; I was going to title it, "Politics on the Prairie," and we were going to trace political trends and ideologies in the Midwest and Midsouth (Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, etc.) over the past century, moving from the radical socialist and populist movements of the late 1900s to the red-state Republicanism of today, and consider what the future of white, rural, conservative populism in the Prairie states may be. Unfortunately that class didn't make for a variety of reasons, and so to keep my preparations intact, I merged it with a regular history class on the schedule, History of Kansas. Since this class will need to include a fairly standard historical overview of the state, I'm not going to be able to do as much theoretical reading as I would have liked. Still, I intend to focus the class as much as possible on the history (and future) of these same trends. I've already decided what main texts I'll be assigning (Virgil Dean's John Brown to Bob Dole, Rita Napier's Kansas and the West: New Perspectives, and of course, Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas?), and I've identified some books that I'm going to be assigning extracts from (Michael Kazin's history of populism and his biography of William Jennings Bryan, Jeffrey Ostler's and Peter Argergsinger's histories of agrarian radicalism, Lawrence Goodwyn's excellent The Populist Moment), but they won't be enough to do what I want to do.

What I'm looking for are good, accessible, hopefully provocative articles or book chapters--whether in history, political science, or political theory--that summarize or advance different arguments about conservatism in the Midwest, about how the Republican and Democratic parties (continuing up to the present day) have either incorporated or rejected rural populism, and about how changes in race, legal and illegal immigration, and American agriculture (much of which are tied together in states like Kansas) have played a part in that incorporation or rejection of conservative and populist themes. It doesn't have to be something specific to Kansas politics, or even the Midwest necessarily; if it points out an important consideration regarding these topics, then I want to see if it's something I can weave into the class.

Let me know what your thoughts are, any and all of you. Perhaps I'll post the syllabus when it's all done. In the meantime, my thanks, and I'll try to get back to all that other stuff soon.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Home for the Holiday

To paraphrase Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young...
Our house / Is a very very very fine house / With three trees in the yard / Life used to be so hard / Now everything is easy / 'Cause of you...

As I frequently do, I've let a lot of time slip by since my last post. But this time, I've actually got a pretty good excuse. On November 20, after much (I suppose typical) scrambling and bargaining and inspecting and worrying, we became homeowners. For this Thanksgiving, we have a place we can truly call our own. Now that is something to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody (those of you who are in the U.S. and celebrating it, that is). I'll try to get a couple of long delayed posts out before the month ends next week. In the meantime, enjoy your meal, and count your blessings. We look forward to doing both.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Updating (and Extending) the Theses

Ok, never imagine that you can conclude too much only hours after the polls have closed. Here are some more and some further thoughts.

1. More on the Blue Dogs.

As Right Democratic points out, not a single member of the (mostly rural, mostly socially conservative) Blue Dog coalition in the House lost their seat, and nine more declared future members of the coalition were added. Again, I don't think this means that socially conservative, economically populist Democrats are suddenly in a position to define their party's platform--basically, they benefited from a good night for Democrats just as everyone else did. Still, it's a pronounced enough development to have sparked the interest of bloggers like Henry Farrell and Victor Muniz-Fraticelli. The consensus is clear: there definitely are legitimate socially conservative elements that contributed to the election of thisDemocraticc congress, just as there are populist economic elements, and libertarian elements of different stripes as well. The question is: how to put them together into something that can last once the electorate's rejection of Republican incompetence has exhausted itself? More on that below.

2. Democratic Strength at the Grassroots.

It appears that the Democrats did better than I'd expected, even better than I'd hoped, at the state level, taking control of nine legislative chambers across the U.S., most of them in the Midwest. This is really important, and not just for the districting reasons which Matt Ygelsias cites. It's important because state politics has an enormous influence on determine the context within which delegates are selected to national conventions and consequently within which discussions over the nature of the party take place. When Democratic states were concentrated on the coasts, as much as the national party tried mightily (and, with Bill Clinton, to a degree successfully) to appeal to at least some portion of the rural vote, their efforts still too often struck most voters in that part of the country as foreign and condescending. Once we have more rural and Midwestern Democrats in place, the rhetoric and context of the party will change enough that you may start having more "homelanders" listening in. Speaking of which...

3. The Homelander Choice.

By this I mean a choice for both the homelanders, and the Democrats. Obviously this election shows that it is possible to get certain parts of rural America to vote along with liberal Democrats (as Brian Mann himself notes, the impressive thing about Webb's apparent win in Virginia was not his dominance of the liberal, urban/suburban Democrat vote in the northern part the state, but that he actually came within four points of taking rural, southern Virginia away from Allen as well). But can that be repeated; can the gains the Democrats have made on the state level be translated into anything that will last beyond, as Henry put it, "when the tide goes out?" John Judis writes today in The New Republic about the group whom Henry called "soft libertarians"--people who are, to Judis's mind, the same folks who voted for Ross Perot:

[These voters] include libertarian-minded professionals and small-business owners--especially in the West--and white working-class voters in the Northeast and Midwest. They are equally uncomfortable with the feminist left and the religious right. What they dislike most is government interference in their personal lives. They see Washington as corrupt and want it reformed. They favor balanced budgets but also Social Security and Medicare. They worry about U.S. companies moving their plants to Mexico and about China exporting underpriced goods to the United States. They favor a strong military, but they want it used strictly against foreign aggression.

Now, this is the same line that Judis has peddled along with Ruy Teixeira for years: the secret to the new Democratic majority will be to let the "ideopolises" grow, inevitably turning their surrounding suburbs blue, and wait to pick up the moderates consequently driven off the (increasingly GOP-dominated) farm, as it were, and bring them into the Democratic camp. The "ignore the South" strategy is just another iteration of this. Mann's book, and the developments of Tuesday's election, make it clear that there's some real demographic sense behind this approach. But that still doesn't make me like it. My dislike for it partly arises from my desire for the success of this new, different kind of Democratic agenda: there are simply more populists out there than libertarians, so trying to focus on a particular kind of cross-over libertarian/populist niche that basically only exists in the American West strikes me as somewhat foolish (or, at least, foolishly beholden to an urban Democratic base that assuredly did not deliver the aforementioned wins in state legislatures). Ed Kilgore has more on this point.

But more importantly, I don't like it because of the egalitarian economic aspirations which I think the Democratic party ought to have. I simply doubt that any sustained egalitarian argument can be made absent a real connection with moral authority, or at the very least a reference to the sort of moral presumptions that obtain in local communities. I've argued that point way too often to go over it again here; suffice to say, it's an argument grounded in the history of ideas as well as the nature of populist thought. What populists are concerned about--what Jacob Weisberg wrongly calls economic "nationalism"--is really a matter of economic sovereignty, and as I wrote two years ago, recognizing sovereignty--recognizing collectively worked out limits and boundaries--"is essential to allowing a sense of affection for one's lived context to develop," which is what all communitarianism whether economic or moral requires. Of course, if one's notion of social and economic justice has no collective aspect to it whatsoever, then this plea is nonsensical. But if it does include such an aspect, then one needs to keep in mind the linkages between conservatism and populism, linkages that some think are simply random and thus irrelevant, but which are in fact regularly demonstrated, such as by the fact that there are more populists of every type in the American South than in any other part of the country, or the fact that across the country the two most consistently popular ballot initiatives this year were those taking a conservative line on marriage and those taking a "liberal" line on wages.

But here I am oversimplifying, and making things too easy for the white, rural, mostly Southern homelanders as well. An exchange I got into with Steve Lebonne on Henry's Crooked Timber thread unintentionally makes this clear: is Jon Tester, the new Democratic senator from Montana (farmer, church-goer, gun-owner, pro-choice, fair-trader, stem-cell-research-supporter), a homelander-type populist or a Perot-admiring soft libertarian? Well, he's both; speaking in broad, ideological terms, he's someone who feels that the best way keep one's communities fair and moral is to prevent the concentration of power, whether in business or the national government. Perhaps a truly committed opponent of abortion rights would question that principle, and perhaps the result would be to oppose Tester. Then again, perhaps such a person might acknowledge that defending farms and small towns, keeping their economies alive, is a good way to keep local churches and schools alive as well, with their ability to instruct and guide the next generation outside the influence of (equally power hungry) cities and media empires. At the very least, there could be a real conversation there, one that wouldn't be possible if the traditionalist homelander had been marginalized from the get-go. Or worse, if the homelanders had marginalized themselves.

And here's where the choice becomes one for those 15 million or so white Protestant voters in rural areas that have become key to the GOP's strategy over the past couple of decades: to what degree will their votes and their sense of identity be continue to be locked into an understanding of Christian morality and social responsibility that, frankly, is way too Southern and way too theocratic and way too statist for their own good? Even establishment Republicans are recognizing that their party's recent reliance upon, not all populists and religious believers, but rather mostly just those confined to the South, has allowed similar groups of voters to reasonably decide that they've had enough of the Republicans and their big-spending, top-heavy, ineffectual ways. Yet it is the organized base of Republican activists, spread out amongst America's sparsely populated yet electorally powerful rural states, that have driven the party in that direction. There were and still are hopes amongst Republican operatives that the Hispanics (supposedly all good Catholics) would come to the Republicans' salvation here, and they might yet, but with the politics of immigration complicating things for both Democrats and Republicans, I wouldn't count on it. So the ball, I think, at this moment lays squarely in the homelanders' court.

I sincerely hope that the way the Democrats govern will continue to allow both traditionalists and populists to find a foothold in and thus shape the party's agenda, both because I think it is the right thing to do and because I think it makes more electoral sense. But to a degree, that possibility is contingent upon the demographic slice of the country where left conservatism arguably makes the most sense--the farming states of the Midwest, Great Plains, and the South. If the homelanders refuse to shake themselves from their narrow party allegiancess, refuse to begin to rethink what their religion might mean, then the possibilities of this election--or at least, the possibilities which would be best for them, as well as the country--are going to be that less likely to be realized, if they are ever to be realized at all.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Theses on 2006

Am I happy? Of course I'm happy! (Not as happy as I'd be if Harold Ford, Jr., had won, but happy enough.) But rather than dancing about in delight and at length, let me try to keep this short for once.

1. Blue Dogs and Populists?

While a part of me really wants Rod Dreher and Larry Kudlow to be correct, I strongly suspect that Matt Yglesias's take on the election is much more accurate: "the overall impact is clearly to shift the composition of the House to the left without having any particularly dramatic impact on the balance within the Democratic caucus." (Though Jacob Weisberg suggests that, if you leave social conservatism out of the mix, the economic nationalist strain amongst the Democrats has definitely grown this election cycle.) I still stand by all my previously expressed hopes (both on Monday and two years ago), but I've no illusion that last night saw us populist communitarians cross over some sort of Rubicon and into the mainstream. Thanks to various Democratic wins, there are now a few more socially conservative, economically liberal folks in the House and the Senate than before, and that's a very good thing, but their victories do not appear to have had much to do with their particular mix of views (consider that Jim Webb, strong basher of open borders and free trade, drew most of his support from the Democratic northern Virginia suburbs, which is surely the most cosmopolitan and least populist part of the state). This election isn't telling us anything, unfortunately, about an emerging populist/left conservative movement; it's merely telling us that the Democrats, this time around, were more somewhat more willing than in the past to recruit, work with, and build a national campaign alongside such candidates.

2. The New Democratic Party?

Clearly the party has some momentum now, and momentum means a lot when you're doing the difficult, complicated work of simultaneously cultivating ideas and constructing an organization. But I'm going to want to wait and see data on more state races before I claim too much for the Democrats. Here in Kansas, it was a very good day for the party: Democratic candidates for governor and attorney general won, and the party picked up several seats in the House (including one race where one of my students was the candidate's campaign manager!). But if you look through other state-wide races, you'll find Democratic coattails to have been pretty short. I suspect that will be the case throughout the nation: to the extent that Democratic candidates could plus themselves into the anti-Republican mood (as the Kansas Democratic candidate for attorney general did, making the race into a referendum on the huge influence which the anti-abortion lobby has on Republican politics in this state), they did well; when such connections couldn't be drawn, the results were far less impressive (but still, as above, worth noting and building upon, where possible).

3. Whither the "homelanders"?

The best book this political season as far as I'm concerned was Brian Mann's Welcome to the Homeland: A Journey to the Rural Heart of America's Conservative Revolution. It's not a perfect book by any means--much of his research is sloppy, or at the very least confusing presented--but it does two things very, very well: it actually sympathetically considers the coherence and the motivations behind the white, rural, Protestant embrace of socially conservative and religious priorities (thus showing far more imagination Thomas Frank and many of his imitators); and it explains in detail exactly how much of a minority this perspective is. Eight out of 10 Americans live in either cities or suburbs; the number of Americans that constitute the exurban and rural "homelander" (as Mann calls them) base makes up, at most, perhaps 50 million people, only about 15 million of whom can be reliably counted on to vote Republican on Election Day. Which is still, when it comes to building coalitions, nothing to sneeze at: John Kerry received only 12 million African-American votes in 2004. Nonetheless, the homelanders don't constitute a stand-alone majority. While they aren't going to just go away anytime soon--which is good; I don't want America to lose the religious, communitarian, small-town sensibility they can bring to our society--but they've definitely punched far above their weight in recent years, almost solely because our political structure (with the Senate, the Electoral College, etc.) has allowed their hard work and activism to translate into a great deal of power when united under a single banner--namely, the Republican party. The question is what they will do as the Democratic party wises up and starts doing more to appeal to moderates and religious believers in the exurbs and even some rural areas. (See, for example, Bob Casey winning the Catholic vote in Pennsylvania, and Nancy Boyda winning over moderate Republicans here in Kansas.) The homelanders, like I've long said about the South in general, can and should be a big part of any change in the Democratic party; but if the homelanders refuse to rethink their allegiance, and thus rethink their own priorities, they may lose out as the Democrats realize that populist economics and social conservatism isn't the sole province of white, Southern Baptist farmers from Oklahoma.

4. And Next?

No major thoughts at the moment, except that I hope 1) the Pelosi and Reid will be able to resist the calls to fill the next two years with investigations and subpenas, and 2) that I hope Harold Ford, about whom Josh Marshall says the right things here, will stick around his state for the next two years, taking folks about to dinner, building up favors, developing a little more local cred in Nashville, and will give it another shot against Lamar Alexander in two years. It won't be nearly as positive an environment in 2008, with Alexander as an incumbent and a presidential race to boot. But Ford is too impressive an individual not to try make use of; he's hoping the Democratic party keeps him as front and center as possible.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Joining the Party

Well, the midterm elections are upon us here in the U.S. Let's hope that, come tomorrow night, President Bush will find himself confronted with a Democratic House of Representatives, and maybe a Democratic Senate too. I'm not a Democrat, but this time around, the Democrats are a vehicle for not only providing a desperately necessary rebuke to and limitation upon the current administration, but also--and more importantly, to my mind--an opportunity for populist, socially-traditional-yet-economically-progressive, "left conservative" communitarians like myself (all eight or nine of us) to actually see some real expression of our ideas. Not as much as we'd get if the Christian Democratic Union suddenly swept into power, but steps.

The truth is, like most Americans these days, I'm not registered with any particular political party. There was a time when this didn't bother me; I liked to style myself an "independent" who voted on the basis of issues and candidates, not the party, and I took that as a sign of political maturity. I suppose, to the extent that I connected my habits to any larger theory of politics, my motivation was vaguely republican in the classical sense: "party politics" meant professionalized politics, meaning impersonal and corrupt politics, and as one who believed that proper self-government required civic virtues like prudence and personal involvement, I figured that by refusing to support party organizations in any formal I was doing my bit to support more responsible elections. There was probably a fair amount of general religious and/or moral distaste for the power-hungry, coalition-building aspects of parties in there as well; I thought politics and political ideas were important, of course (I mean, I've studied them them whole life!), but I didn't see them as so serious as to mandate the kind of desperate, ethically compromising shenanigans that parties give rise to. So better to downplay that aspect of the political game as much as possible, I thought.

In a lot of ways, I still think that way. I'm a goo-goo at heart, concerned about voter turnout and campaign finance rules and media bias and state boundaries and a dozen other issues that have more to do with the process and effects of politics than the outcome of any given election. (See here and here and here for examples.) But I suppose there came a point where I stopped fitting the pure good-government stereotype. I never could sign on with term-limits in principle, for example; while I suppose I recognize them as a useful tool for increasing turnover and thus preventing professionalization (and hence corruption) in political office, and something that ought be able to be legitimately imposed if democratically chosen, in general I've always thought they were much too blunt an instrument: why not actually address the failures and limitations in our voting habits and options, instead of arbitrarily restricting who the people can vote for at any certain point? And there were other deviations on my part as well--as much as I've agreed with campaign reform efforts, for example, it's become clear to me that addressing the distorting power of wealth in a democracy has to begin with thinking about ways to empower all citizens, rather than merely restricting those citizens who happen to be in a position of influence. Basically, I've become a lot more democratic, a lot more populist and expressive in my political outlook over the years, and that means I've become a lot more sympathetic to parties.

Of course, to some people an "expressive" defense of parties makes no sense; a party is an organizing tool of elite interests, nothing more. Admittedly, if your understanding of democracy is a pluralist or protective one, then you probably think elections are entirely about who governs, and believe that the ideal democracy is one which channels the people's will into various groupings which are constructed so as to ensure the protection of individual rights and the larger economic and administrative structure of society. In that case, there really is no such thing as an expressive political party--but then, in that case, you're probably against all populism and expressivism in politics anyway. My understanding of democracy is a lot more beholden to participatory and developmental models; I think elections are about governing, yes, but are also--and more importantly--about creating and maintaining those assumptions and perspectives within which we recognize good government. Voting alone can't do that, of course--there are a hundred important ways in which citizens can participate in the generation of potential political worldviews. But contributing to, supporting, and voting for parties is perhaps the most time-tested and important of all those ways. (And no, I don't think that means contenting oneself with merely "strategic" options at voting time; my votes for Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000 were not deluded attempts to disrupt the party system, but small but sincere effort to give expression to views that need to be included in it.) Hence, I've found myself becoming a party person--sometimes even complete with the buttons and funny hats. Democratic politics is about building a party through your vote and other efforts which carry and thereby refine your ideas, not waiting for the perfect vehicle which can express those which you've refined all on your own. (In short: what Todd Gitlin says.)

So fine, I'm willing to commit myself to parties. But why the Democrats? Have they moved any closer to where I wanted them to be two years ago? To some degree, actually yes, they have. The Democrats of 2006 have are in the position they are today primarily because the faults of President Bush and his administration in the handling of Iraq have become manifest to many more people, but that is not the only reason. In fact, when it comes to particular races, running against the Republican management of Iraq alone is, as Senator Lieberman's all-but-inevitable trouncing of Ned Lamont in Connecticut is making clear, far from sufficient. Down in the trenches, what you have are Democrats who have also benefited from their party leadership having spent two years thinking about all the moral and religious and cultural values arguments over the past couple of years, whether expressed in connection with abortion or immigration or outsourcing or same-sex marriage or school choice or a dozen other issues that have resonance with rural, small town, and exurban voters far beyond what elite economic and political opinion usually acknowledges. The result is that the Democratic party has gotten behind some great people, like Senate candidates Harold Ford, Jr., in Tennessee, James Webb in Virginia, and Bob Casey, Jr., in Pennsylvania, as well as dozens of similar House candidates. Conservative Democrats, of course, have always trumpeted these folks, but even mainstream secular Democrats seem increasingly aware of their value to a stronger, more populist, more religious party coalition. An genuinely Democratic argument against unlimited abortion rights exists in embryo out there, one that can be properly combined with a smarter, progressive argument about human rights and personal dignity. A lot of success by some of these candidates, and it could grow in strength.

Of course, all the success in the world by these and similarly minded folks won't mean a complete change in the whole platform of the Democratic party. As such, that means that this time around I'm supporting a party that is going to probably do a mildly better job than the Republicans at expressing my interests and aspirations in regards to matters of social justice, especially in regards to trade, education, job creation, social insurance and welfare, international affairs, and so forth, but a much worse job at defending religious and moral priorities, promoting moral and family-friendly media and cultural reforms, etc. Does that mean I'm prioritizing my economic and egalitarian concerns over social and traditional ones? I don't think so; I think I'm saying that, while also doing something good for the county's political health, I can potentially do something long-term for my preferred vision by supporting a party that doesn't admittedly doesn't adhere to those parts of it I perhaps care most about. If those parts really were on the line this election, my feelings might be different. But what I'll see on my ballot tomorrow is indicative of the larger reality in which party thinking becomes necessary. I've got a choice before me for Kansas House District 95. On the one hand, an experienced Democrat, Tom Sawyer (yes, that is his name)--an accountant, responsible legislator, predictable Democratic supporter. On the other hand, a nice old fellow put up by the Republicans by the name of Benny Boman. In some ways, I much prefer his direct and hard-line approaches to abortion and casinos in Kansas (basically, "stop abortion" and "no casinos") over Sawyer's Democratic boilerplate...yet Boman, if elected, would surely go to Topeka and be lined up with the same evolution-obsessed, tax-bashing Republican machine which has run the state government for decades. Sawyer, besides all the obvious good things he'll do (like promote decent educational standards), will be part of a minority, and thus will have to be creative, and maybe that'll even mean he'll have to be open-minded. And with open-mindedness comes change: change in a party's approach, and even--and more importantly in my book--in their ideas.

It may be happening nationally; certainly it's happened here in Kansas, where the Democrats, though far from wielding real power, have nonetheless changed the landscape somewhat by picking up voters that single-issue Republicans have left behind. It's not enough to get me to register as a Democrat; I'm still holding out for the Christian Democratic Union to start running some local candidates. But in the meantime, for this election at least, I figure there's a party worth joining, and voting for. I hope enough others do the same.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Harry Potter Predictions

(Update, Monday, April 02, 2007: see here for thoughts about the cover art for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)

Basically, this all came to me in rush last November, while we crawled westbound through the hellish construction traffic on 1-80/90 just south of Lake Michigan on our way home from visiting Melissa's parents for Thanksgiving. We'd seen Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at the beginning of our vacation, which led me to spend the rest of the holiday break rereading the fourth book (to confirm my memory of various things), which then led to rereading the fifth, and then the sixth, which I'd argued about at great length the previous summer. And so there I was, driving the minivan slowly through two-lane traffic, surrounded by huge trucks, Alison screaming, about 5 miles (and 45 minutes) to go until the next exit, and suddenly, whoosh!--I had the basic plot of book seven in my head. By the time we finally escaped the bad traffic, I was well beyond guessing what seemed likely to happen in the concluding volume of the Harry Potter saga; I was practically writing fanfic. Since then, I've tried to write it all down a couple of times, and I've changed my mind about a few things, but for the most part I've left it alone. But now, since some have demanded it, here it is, in all its geeky glory. With any luck, we'll find out how wrong I am next July.

First, a few long predictions that describe what I think some of the basic set-ups and themes of Book 7 will be; then, some shorter, more specific predictions. And no, I have no guess as to what the title of the book will be.

1. Harry returns to Hogwarts as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.

J.K. Rowling has said that she's written her last Quidditch match, so clearly our protagonist--who states at the end of HBP that he's through with Hogwarts anyway--is not going to come back to Hogwarts as an ordinary student. But the whole series has been built around Harry's years at Hogwarts (that's even a subtitle for the books); and moreover, can we really believe that Hermione won't return to finish her education? (And that Ron will follow her?) This would make it difficult for their pledge to stick with Harry wherever he goes in pursuit of the Horcruxes to be fulfilled. Rowling's solution will set all this straight: Harry will go back to Hogwarts, but as a teacher. He has to! No matter how successful the erstwhile members of the Order of the Phoenix (see below) are at keeping the whole story from coming out, the truth of the matter is that the wizarding world will see Hogwarts as a place where a famed Head can be killed by one of his own teachers. There will be enormous pressure to simply close the school, from the Board of Governors and from some of faculty as well, to say nothing of all the parents who will keep their children away. What could possibly keep it going? Why, the "Chosen One," of course. If it was widely known that the "boy who lived," the young and brilliant wizard Harry Potter, now all grown up and ready to teach and defend Hogwarts' students, was going to be on hand, I suspect Hogwarts will be kept open by wide proclamation. This will keep Harry, Ron, and Hermione together, continue the legacy of Dumbledore's Army, allow us to see Harry developing other aspects of his personality (interacting with other teachers as peers, for one; facing down internal challenges from Slytherin House, for another), enable Harry to have access to information that is only going to be available through and around Hogwarts anyway (again, see below), and not least, inject a little bit of light-heartedness (Harry learning how to deal with new students and grading papers) into what is bound to be a pretty dark book.

But is Harry going to come up with this idea on his own? I don't think so.

2. Percy Weasley's redemption.

No, I don't imagine that Percy is going to change overnight; not only would that make little sense, but I really don't think Rowling is interested in doing that much with his character either. But somehow, I just think there's something more to be done with him, and getting Harry to Hogwarts just might be it. Think about it this way: from the beginning, Percy has had an entirely different perspective on both magic and magical accomplishment than both his family and Albus Dumbledore. In the first book, he's calling Dumbledore crazy--a genius, but crazy. Everything he has said or written since has confirmed that opinion. But he's never disliked Hogwarts; on the contrary, he adores Hogwarts, as that was his first step into the wider wizarding world. He won't want it shut down. And it's going to occur to him that, if convincing Harry to become a Hogwarts teacher will keep it open...well, there'd be some advantages to that. We're going to see Harry in the first part of Book 7 going through a serious re-evaluation of Dumbledore--not of his affection or admiration of Dumbledore, but of his opinion of him (once more, see below). Percy will be able to approach Harry on those terms: not necessarily as a tool of the Ministry of Magic, but as someone whose suspicions of Dumbledore's methods have been at least partially born out, someone who nonetheless loves Hogwarts and wants what's best for it. Pitching this route to Harry will go along with Rowling's plan to get Harry to recognize that Dumbledore's death will be understood differently by different people: that maybe Percy and Rufus Scrimgeour, while not entirely to be trusted, have a reason for seeing things the way they do. Harry will be persuaded by Percy's suggestion (which will be given early in the book; perhaps at the wedding of Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour?), and the result will be softening between Harry, the Weasley family, and their son. Which will be good, because the clear lines distinguishing those who are, like Harry, a "Dumbledore man," and those who are not, are going to get confused.

3. The Order of the Phoenix breaks up.

The more that I think about this, the more I believe that is an obvious one to predict. Simply put, some members of the Order of the Phoenix--Hagrid, probably Arthur and Molley Weasley, perhaps Nymphadora Tonks and Remus Lupin--are going to be absolutely certain that, whatever Dumbledore had planned with or known about Snape, his death at Snape's hand is no reason not to continue to trust his basic plans for fighting Voldemort. But others--Kingsley Shacklebolt, Alastor Moody, maybe even Minerva McGonagall--are going to have their doubts. Why didn't Dumbledore ever fully explain why he trusted Snape? Why was he so impish and secretive and solitary? Maybe his generous attitude towards even his enemies wasn't the best policy? Maybe he was just a little bit, well, out of touch? And so you're going to see the Order fall apart; Grimmauld Place will be left to Harry, and even the good guys will find themselves doubting their path. The breaking up of Harry's most immediate adult support system will, along with the aforementioned choice that I believe Percy will present him with, force him to grow and change, to recognize and respect--as an adult must--the numerous shades of grey even amongst those on the good side on any conflict. In fact, I suspect that Harry's struggles will themselves contribute to this break up, because--even while he is affected and challenged by the various interpretations of the events around Dumbledore's death which the members of the Order of the Phoenix come to--he still won't share with them his Horcrux quest, keeping that to himself as a duty that, perhaps, we will come to see as his fate to accomplish, since Dumbledore, for whatever reason, simply could not do it. Again, more growing up, more learning how hard it is to figure out how to do the right things for the right reason. (Rowling has said we will learn a great deal more about Voldemort in the final book; I suspect one of the things we will learn, at the same time Harry learns it, is all about Dumbledore's and the original Order's efforts to defeat Voldemort during the First War, and about Dumbledore's successes and failures as a leader in that war, failures that Harry will need to learn from.)

Okay, now some more particular bits.

4. Harry visits Godric's Hollow, learns that Peter Pettigrew was there the night his parents were killed, and more.

It has to have been Peter who went with Voldemort to kill James and Lily; unless I misunderstand how being a "Secret-Keeper" works (as demonstrated in the beginning of OotP), then Peter could not have simply told Voldemort the whereabouts he had been entrusted with--he would have had to physically direct Voldemort to the Potters' hideout. So Peter was there, and he heard what happened; he was the one who presumably moved Voldemort's shattered body out of the wreckage (thinking he was dead? probably...), as well as grabbing James's wand and invisibility cloak. Perhaps he thought to hide himself from everyone who was going to come after him now that the Dark Lord was out of the picture? I think we'll learn that he ran to Snape, whom he thought would be in despair over the apparent death of the Dark Lord, but who instead went into a rage at hearing of Lily's death, took the cloak from him gave it to Dumbledore, along with all the news that Peter would have given him; this is how Dumbledore came to now what was actually said that night before the murder of James and Lilly. Peter flees for his life, and we know what becomes of him.

How will Harry learn all this? I don't know. Best guess is that he talks to a neighbor, an elderly man or woman delighted to meet the son of the poor couple who lived in Godric's Hollow so long ago, and who remembers the comings and goings around the house that Halloween night. He or she will also be able to tell Harry something about his mother's genealogy and her eye color (and Harry's too), though what all that will mean, I have no guess.

5. Harry breaks into Azkaban.

Why? Because Mundungus Fletcher is in there; Rowling told us at the end HBP that he'd been locked up because of a botched robbery. Harry is going to figure out what most of Potter fandom has already guessed--that the locket found in Grimmauld Place that could not be opened was the locket containing a Horcrux which Regulus Black, who turned against Lord Voldemort once he realized what the Dark Lord had planned, stole before the Death Eaters could track him down and kill him. How Harry will figure this out I don't know, but once he figures it out, he'll have only one option: talk to Mundungus, and find out what he knows. But the Ministry of Magic is hardly going to allow Harry to go into Azkaban, especially when he won't tell them what information he's trying to find. So he'll have to break in (with help--Ron and Hermione, certainly, maybe Luna Lovegood and Neville Longbottom too) and go get him, which means that Rowling will finally be able to give her readers an inside look of the infamous prison. With any luck, this will turn out to be a major battle in the book (and I hope that partially because I think it could look fantastic in the eventual film!). Perhaps there will be others involved in the break-in as well, with different agendas...remember that Lucius Malfoy is in Azkaban too, and there are people who may want to get at him, his son not being the last in line there.

6. Harry confronts Alberforth Dumbledore.

Who knows that the bartender at the Hog's Head is Albus Dumbledore's brother, Alberforth? My guess is, almost no one--the teachers who were involved in the Order of the Phoenix, presumably, and perhaps a couple of others. Harry will find out when Mundungus tells him after they break him out of Azkaban, and confesses that he sold the locket back to Alberforth. Back? Yes--because Alberforth was with Regulus Black when Black stole the Horcrux-cursed locket in the first place. Look at the trap which Rowling gave us in the cave where the Horcrux was hidden; no one could have managed to take the locket without help, as Dumbledore needed Harry's. So, somehow Regulus convinced Alberforth to go with him; Alberforth helped him through the ordeal, they placed the fake locket there together, and made their escape. Did they fall out later? Was Alberforth present when Regulus was killed, and became so frightened for his life that he withdrew from the Order, and kept to himself thereafter? Beats me. But I believe it will be Alberforth that will give Harry the two essential bits of information that the plot will turn upon (though Harry's secret visit to the Headmistress's office--you know he's going to manage at least one such visit, perhaps with Fawkes's help--in order to talk to Dumbledore's portrait will be vital as well). First, Alberforth will be able to hazard a guess as to where the remaining Horcruxes are. (Why? Because Regulus told him? Maybe Regulus managed to snoop around, do some research, discover some secrets--maybe there is more to Regulus and his relationship with his brother Sirius that remains to be revealed? Kreacher is the only one who can say...) Second--and this will be the big reveal--he'll know the real truth about Snape.

7. The real truth about Snape.

He loved Lily from afar, watching her excel from across the room in Potions, but he hated her too, for being popular and decent and a Mudblood like himself, and thus he hated himself for loving her. He was a confused and wretched young man, and chose to become ever more hateful and self-pitying for that reason. He signed up with Voldemort. But he was both appalled by and contemptuous of what the Dark Lord was planning. He overheard the prophecy, all of it. But he only told Voldemort part of it. Why? Part of him must have been able to anticipate Dumbledore's hastily hatched plan, a plan to drive Voldemort into marking as his chosen enemy the boy who Dumbledore knew would have--unlike Neville for some mysterious reason--the power or lineage or luck to someday bring the Dark Lord down. But part of Snape must have also just been delighted at the prospect of James dead and Lilly miserable (a person like him probably could never imagine that a mother would sacrifice her life for a mere baby). The accounts that Dumbledore has given Harry about the night Snape overheard Sybill Trelawney's prophecy, and Snape's subsequent behavior, have not been entirely true: it will be revealed that while Snape did pass information about Voldemort to Dumbledore and the Order, he was always playing both sides, seeing himself as equally justified in treating both as enemies. When Voldemort returned, so did Snape's wretchedness, his hatred of Dumbledore for obliging him to use his unique talents in such a miserable way, and his equal hatred of Voldemort, for having killed his beloved Lily. Placed in an impossible situation by the events at the end of HBP, he murdered a man who trusted him to follow through on his promises and fled; by so doing, he continued his balancing act, only by extracting the maximum pain possible on all while doing so. (No, I am NOT changing my opinion that Snape is a bad guy. Snape is a bad guy, and Dumbledore is dead, and that's that. But I've been helped to realize that Snape is, in fact, a deeply conflicted and self-loathing bad guy, a tragic bad guy, a bad guy who sees himself as a martyr to both sides, forced to play a role everywhere he turns, a bad guy who, when he saw a "solution" to the crisis on the tower that would allow him to commit a little murder along the way, did not shy away.)

Okay, now a few housecleaning bits.

8. Who will be who at Hogwarts?

McGonagall is now the Headmistress of Hogwarts; who will be the new assistant head? To everyone's surprise, Minerva will choose Horace Slughorn. He will also be appointed Head of Slytherin House, and will find himself faced with a far more demanding task than he faced last time he held that post: dealing with students and parents who, as the stories of Snape and Draco Malfoy become known, will be viciously divided between denial, shame, and a desire for outright revolt. I think we'll find that Slughorn has far more decency and strength in him than he might even suspect. And along the way, Rowling will be able to finally give us a glimpse of Slytherin from the inside-out (Harry's being a teacher at Hogwarts will make this possible too). It's been too easy for Slytherins to always show up in the books simply as heavies, villains, buffoons, or all three; in Slughorn, Rowling has for the first time given us a vaguely admirable Slytherin character, and I suspect that she'll make use of it.

Someone will also have to take Minerva's place as Transfiguration teacher and Head of Gryffindor House. For the latter, by huge popular acclaim, she will choose Hagrid. For the former, by similarly huge acclaim on the part of at least half of Hogwarts's population, she will choose Viktor Krum (who already demonstrated enormous talent in transfiguration magic way back in GoF). What house will Krum be associated with? My guess is, again, Slytherin. Not only has that been foretold given the whole style of Krum's education at Durmstrang, but it'll make the ensuing fireworks as Ron, Hermione, and Harry negotiate student-teacher-lover-friend relationships all the more interesting, as well as providing an important aid to Slughorn as he attempts to overhaul Slytherin House before the final battle with Voldemort (which I am convinced will take place at Hogwarts--heck, maybe we'll even see the Chamber of Secrets opened again!).

9. Who is going to die?

As the Player puts it in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, it's going to be a slaughterhouse. I predict eight corpses, all told:

Mr. or Mrs. Granger. This is the one which reveal just how bloody-minded J.K. Rowling can be. Why would the Death Eaters target Hermione's parents? Easy--because they can. Harry has lost everyone close to him, save his Hogwarts friends; death will no longer trouble him. The Weasleys are too well protected. But to kill (or perhaps just drive insane through the Cruciatus Curse) one of Hermione's parents...well, this is not the sort thing our scholarship girl is well-prepared for. It'll devastate her, make her blame herself, and thus doubt herself, and end up being of little help to Harry, at least for a time. Take out Hermione by going after her family, her vulnerable spot, and you remove one of Harry's greatest supports, and possibly remove Ron as well (what if he's forced to choose between sticking with Harry and being with Hermione when she needs him?).

Luna Lovegood. C'mon, you know it's going to happen, no matter how much we don't want it to. Is there any character that Rowling has given us to who is more at peace with the prospect of dying, who is less likely to be too afraid to sacrifice herself should that moment come? I don't think so. For years, I thought Neville was a marked man, but now I think otherwise; it will be Luna who, at some crisis moment in the book, will see clearly what has to be done and will do it, fully aware of the cost to herself. For a Ravenclaw, she is decidedly non-rational, which means she won't go down trying to think her way through whatever impossible situation she and her friends may find themselves in; she'll just embrace it. And moreover, I think Harry will realize this, and will have to at some point make a choice that turns on Luna's fearlessness. Neville, in his heart of hearts, may never forgive Harry for this, even if he does understand why it will have been necessary, and even why Luna was capable of choosing to die freely.

Lucius Malfoy. And you know what...I think Draco will be the one to do the deed. Not because he's on Harry's side, but because his dad will have put Lord Voldemort before his own family, and Draco has absorbed his father's lessons and pride too well: never let someone else take charge. Draco would happily follow Voldemort, but he will not stand for being played by him, for being his servant. Having been forced into playing Voldemort's hired killer once, he won't do it again. No, if Draco unintentionally helps out Harry by dealing with the Death Eaters, including his dad, it will because it serves his agenda, not our hero's.

Peter Pettigrew. In this case, Dumbledore will be proved completely correct: when the moment comes, Peter will not be able to witness a repeat of what he observed 17 years earlier, especially not in the case of the boy who saved his life. Peter will save Harry's life, perhaps while giving him the key to a remaining--or the final--Horcrux, or perhaps even in the final battle with Voldemort. And he'll pay for that act with his own.

Severus Snape. Hating Voldemort, hating Harry, and most of all hating himself, Snape will spin webs, lie and deceive, work towards the destruction of everyone and feed his own self-loathing, with everything he says and does. In the end, it'll catch up to him: everyone will know the truth, and his every plan will be revealed, probably including some that extend all the way back to the moment he first heard the prophecy of Voldemort's doom that day at the Hog's Head. What will be left, then, but for Snape to take his own life? He'll bring some cavern ceiling down on himself, probably taking out some of Harry's enemies or destroying the last Horcrux along the way, and cursing both Harry and himself while doing so. Snape's end will be, I think, the penultimate point of Book 7; after it, what could be left but the final showdown? The suicide of Snape, and Harry's exposure to such a deadly mix of yearning and spite, will be the greatest lesson he learns from all his years at Hogwarts; he will never love or forgive Snape, but he will come to understand him, and that will be enough.

Minerva McGonagall. If I'm right, and the final battle takes place at Hogwarts, then its Headmistress will fight to the end, and pay a deadly price for it. Before she goes down, I hope Rowling shows us what a true master of transfiguration can do.

Lord Voldemort. Um, yeah, he's going to die. Good will triumph and all that.

10. And in the end?

Lupin and Tonks will marry, as will Bill and Fleur. I suspect there will be a scene in Book 7 where Bill comes to terms with his lycanthropy, not overcoming it entirely but definitely keeping it in check, and Lupin will be key here. Perhaps Fenrir Greyback will try to pull Bill over to the "dark side," maybe even by pretending to offer himself as an occasion for Bill to let his wolfish bloodlust take over, but Lupin will get him to choose restraint, even if that means Fenrir gets away. Anyway, these two couples are going to stay together and stay close.

Fred and George, meanwhile, will become a couple of the richest wizards in Britain, eventually opening up branches of their joke shop all around the world.

Draco Malfoy will not change his spots, but neither will he be dragged down like many other Slytherins and pure-bloods when Voldemort is finally destroyed. He'll inherit the full Malfoy estate, maybe disown his own mother or at least keep her on a short leash, spread money around like it grows on trees (since he'll have even more once he marries into the equally wealthy, pure-blood Parkinson clan), successfully hide his "youthful indiscretions" and his hatred of Harry Potter and all he will have accomplished, and find himself ending up one of the most admired and feared men in the wizarding world: in the eyes of the public, he'll be considered one of those intimidating, "old-school" aristocrats (no one will say "pure blood" any more, but everyone will know what you mean) who didn't go bad. He won't ever sully himself with politics, but I expect to see him pulling a lot of strings behind the scenes in the end. If it wasn't for all the practical jokes the Weasley twins keep pulling on him (and which he can never prove their responsibility for), his life would be pretty good.

Horace Slughorn will become the new Headmaster of Hogwarts, and will be credited with having managed to unite the school, bringing Slytherin House back into the fold with the other three houses, at the moment of the school's greatest crisis. His favorable reputation will cover up for a lot of his subsequent abuses of his position, but overall he won't be considered a bad Head, especially since, once Rufus Scrimgeour retires, Slughorn will find a near-perfect personality match in the newest Minister of Magic, who also will happen to be the youngest Minister in history--Percy Weasley.

Neville Longbottom will go on to become the Herbology teacher at Hogwarts. He'll be beloved by his students and praised by his peers, though he'll never take the lead in anything. On the contrary, we'll see him puttering along as the years go by, a confirmed old bachelor, cheering lustily for Gryffindor at Quidditch matches, forgetting names and being something of a lovable stick-in-the-mud, always waiting for the end of the day, when he can return to his quarters, put on a kettle of tea, sit down in his chair, and enjoy another evening of talk with his very best friend in all the world--the ghost of Luna Lovegood. (Perhaps she will have taken the Grey Lady's place as the Ravenclaw House ghost.)

For Hermione and Ron, the future holds naught but love, marriage, children, accomplishment, praise, honors, domesticity, travel, and peace, despite the lurking presence of Malfoy out there. I think it is inevitable that Book 7 will introduce a real change in how the wizarding world views and interacts with Muggles and other races; Dumbledore implied such several times. Hermione, no doubt, will take the lead in articulating this new, more open and humble wizarding society, through her books and lectures and workshops and activism. Ron will mind the kids, teach chess lessons, and be perfectly happy.

Ginny will leave Britain in sadness and look for a new life elsewhere, perhaps in America, perhaps even changing her name. A sequel series, eventually? We can only hope.

And Harry? Well...I only listed seven of my eight predicted deaths up above, didn't I? Remember what happened to Frodo at the end of the Lord of the Rings? There you go.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Internments, Then and (One Hopes Not) Now

Yesterday, Friends University was visited by a traveling exhibit on German Americans (both residents and citizens) who were harassed, detained, and frequently interned in various camps and prisons by the U.S. government during World War II. Did you know that had happened? I didn't. And if it wasn't for the amazing dedication and hard work of Michael Luick-Thrams, the executive director of Traces, the organization he put together to gather and share the stories of those who suffered internment more than 60 years ago, I still wouldn't know about it.

Fortunately, not only did the arrival of Michael's labor of love (because he sure isn't making money off this tour) give me the chance to learn a few things, but it also allowed me--because I was asked to speak at a panel discussion the evening of the exhibit's visit--to put together some of my thoughts about the Military Commissions Act, which the president signed into law on Tuesday. I've actually spent a good part of the last three weeks reading up on and arguing about this bill; back when the bill passed, I posted a rant at my co-religionists in Congress who voted for the bill, accusing them of failing to remember our history as a minority faith that should know very well the consequences of facing a hostile government without legal recourse or defense. I was taken to task for that rant, and was subsequently drawn into some heated e-mail discussions about the bill. So, in a sense, last night I got to make my own position clear, to myself and whomever else cared to listen.

Are there parallels between what the Military Commissions Act allows, and what was allowed to happen to German-American citizens and German residents of America from 1941 until the end of the war (and, in a few cases, as late as 1948)? Yes--not many parallels, and not strong parallels, but there are some there nonetheless. It's important to understand--as I did not really understand until my crash course in this little-known part of our history began a couple of days ago--that the internment of Japanese-American citizens and legal Japanese residents during WWII is entirely the wrong model to look at when trying to think about the war on terror today. (Something that Michelle Malkin's atrocious book completely misunderstands, as many justifiably harsh reviews of her book have pointed out.) With the Japanese internment, you have a paper trail that extends all the way up to the president, with President Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066 in February, 1942. You have whole regions of the U.S., particularly the west coast, designated "military areas" from which people with "foreign enemy ancestry" could be excluded. This was not a matter of criminal or conspiracy charges being leveled against particular persons; this was a collective, top-down, straightforward relocation program, that swept up somewhere between 110,000 and 120,000 citizens and residents of Japanese dissent. All the suspicions and motivations behind the relocation were on clear display, and many were specifically documented as soon after the order as 1944, when the Supreme Court issued a reluctant 6-3 decision in support of the government's actions in Korematsu v. U.S. (I say reluctant because the majority refused to call the president's actions correct; only constitutional, with a lot of handwringing over the inevitable injustices and confusions of war). That a relocation scheme of this size and scope was even possible testifies of the numerous racial and economic motivations behind it, as well as the demographic logic which made it possible: General DeWitt's famous "A Jap's a Jap" dismissal of claims that some of those being relocated were patriotic citizens; the white agricultural interests in central California that were anxious to pick up farms owned by Japanese-Americans at rock-bottom prices; the simple fact that Hawaii, while placed under martial law, never engaged in a program of Japanese relocation, because targeting an ethnic group which constituted over 30% of the state's total population (in contrast to the mainland, where Japanese communities were small and rarely integrated into surrounding society) would have resulted in the collapse of the state's economy. No, what happened to the Japanese residents of the western U.S. (and occasionally elsewhere as well) during WWII was an essentially unique situation; it can provide few warnings and even less guidance today.

What happened to German-Americans and legal German residents was different. By that time, Germans constituted the largest non-Anglo ethnic group in the U.S.; while there were still numerous predominantly German communities in the 1930s and 40s, particularly in the upper Midwest and Plains states, their distinctiveness was far less than it had been only a generation earlier, during the anti-German hysteria of World War I. As a result, the "relocation" of Germans was an entirely different ball game. For one thing, the number of people affected was far fewer; perhaps 10,000 to 11,000 ethnic Germans disappeared to camps and prisons scattered across the country. Moreover, there was apparently little rhyme or reason to who was targeted. Being a German-American citizen with an Anglicized name might make a difference in how various authorities (whether from the army's Military Intelligence Division, or the F.B.I., or the Office of Naval Intelligence, or special agencies of the Department of Justice, etc., all of whom had spent years compiling lists of possibly suspicious aliens and citizens) might react to a random order or accusation--then again, maybe it wouldn't. There was no executive order, no clear authorization, no public debate in Congress, for the internment of these people: just a desperate desire to act, a series of presidential proclamations immediately after Pearl Harbor which revived the Alien Enemy Act of 1798 (as codified in 1918) which required those identified as "enemy aliens" to register with the government, and then, here and there, for this reason or that, various local authorities who decided that occasional acts of secret internment, forced conscription, or even deportation, was needed for the war effort and to intimidate any possible German-American fifth columnists out there in the heartland.

And I do mean "heartland": one of the reasons Michael brought his display to Friends University is that one of the few accounts he has recorded from a living adult internment survivor, as opposed to someone who was a child at the time, comes from Mathias Borniger, a resident of Wichita and a former photographer at Friends:

Mathias Borniger, a photographer who made templates of plane parts for Boeing, was arrested in the middle of the night a day after Peal Harbor was bombed, December 7, 1941--about a week before he was scheduled to become an American citizen. "I had some friends in Wichita who were not my friends; they didn't like me too much. They reported me, and said I was a photographer and had a camera strapped to my leg and would go down to Boeing and take pictures of new planes and sent those pictures to Hitler, and a bunch of other nonsense. They said I knew a lot of things about chemicals as a photographer--that I might poison the water supply of Wichita. It was so grotesque and so ridiculous it's not even funny anymore." He was handcuffed in front of his pregnant wife, who divorced him while he was interned, saying she did not want to be married to a spy. [The actual story is even rougher than this: after giving birth to twin girls, Borniger's wife, Betty Jo Borniger, desperate to escape the taint of an "enemy alien" German husband who had disappeared from their neighborhood in the middle of the night, obtained her divorce and then abandoned her newborn children and disappeared herself; the twins both died.]...Borniger was sent from Camp McCoy to Stringtown, an internment camp in Oklahoma, never being allowed to contact anyone outside the camps. After a family lawyer was finally able to vouch for Mathias's loyalty [for which there was plenty of support; in fact, while Mathias was being interned, his brother--who had immigrated from Germany at the same time as him--served with distinction in the U.S. Army], he was released in the fall of 1943....Unsure of who had accused him, he cut off ties with nearly all his acquaintances. "A few came up to me and said, 'Hi, Matt; I'm so glad you're back.' And they wanted to shake my hands; I kept my hands in my pockets and said 'I don't even know you,' and just walked away."

Mathias's story hardly captures the worst of this haphazard program; our government also worked with--and sometimes pressured--Latin American governments to round up and ship to the U.S. over 4,000 ethnic Germans (some of whom were wealthy landowners, whose property thus fell into the hands of other, more America-friendly elites) as suspected Nazi sympathizers, and then occasionally made use of those individuals, along with a few of the 11,000 or so German-American civilian detainees, in making prisoner-of-war exchanges with Germany. (And almost unbelievably, some of those caught up in these "exchanges" were Jews.) Still, you might say, well, the fortunes of war and all that. The stripping of habeas corpus rights, the detention without trial of suspected populations, some of whom are surely innocent--that's the way it'll always be, right? Better safe than sorry, correct? Maybe so.

However, there is an important difference between the slow accumulations of decisions and fears and suspicions that made possible the German-American internment program, and the accumulation of decisions and fears and suspicions that is taking place today. That difference is, very simply, that our war with Germany was a war with a state, one that could be defeated, meaning the war could end. Whereas, under the terms of the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) granted to President Bush--in which he is "authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons"--we have the makings of a war on terrorism that could go on for a very long time.

Why does that matter insofar as the Military Commissions Act is concerned? Because as time goes by decisions accumulate, compound one another, and sometimes end up pushing in directions no one originally anticipated. (Reading different accounts of German-American internment makes it clear, to me at least, that the actions of the government were often inconsistent, reacting to immediate bureaucratic pressures or personal agendas than any clear policy.) In my original rant against the Military Commissions Act, besides attacking it for the semantic distinctions it sets up over the interpretation of Geneva Convention prohibitions against torture, for its casual treatment (even apparent contempt for) of habeas rights, and so forth, I also alleged that all this would apply to citizens as well, even citizens who are only accused of having "materially supported" an "enemy combatant," even if having done so unknowingly. Under pressure from some lawyer friends of mine, I had to acknowledge that the "would" in that sentence is far too strong. Is substituting a "could" in its place a possibility? That's the question. A straightforward reading of the law says both "yes" and "no." It is clear that those whom the law allows the president to name "unlawful enemy combatants" can include citizens; there is no other definition of the term operative on the federal level which would exclude that possibility. At the same time, the MCA's procedures--which is where detainments come in--are defined in the relevant section of the law as limited to "alien unlawful enemy combatants." I certainly hope those who attacked my initial reading of the law are correct in insisting that this restriction would be pretty hard for any Solicitor General to argue around. And both Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and Padilla v. Hanft, the executive branch has been determined to have the authority to detain citizens pursuant to the AUMF as enemy combatants. It is therefore not wholly unreasonable, I think, to suspect that precedents exist for an aggressive--or genuinely concerned, or politically fearful, or all three--chief executive to, given time and cause, make the leap and argue that, a fortiori, the means exist under the expanded definition provided by the MCA to broadly enact the sort of policies which, 60 years ago, affected citizens and aliens alike. And even if that is not the case, and we can be certain that whatever the upshot of the MCA, it won't ever fully affect regular citizens like me and, perhaps, you...well, Mathias Borniger's experience makes it clear that, for some other people, that distinction could turn on the most arbitrary of conditions, such as a mere matter of days.

Nobody likes to think about this. And, having already done my bit as a scold and ranter, I'm not interested in putting forward an exceptionally hysterical case here. (Michael, unfortunately I think, puts statements like "Internment: it could happen to YOU!" on a lot of his material, which doesn't, I suspect, help his case.) But just in reviewing all this again, and in thinking about these stories that as of a couple of days ago I had no knowledge of, and putting it all together here and now, I get angry and worried and depressed once more. Ultimately, even if everything I (and more than a few legal scholars, I should add) fear about the MCA and so forth is proved groundless, there remains the bald political fact that, as Scott Horton writes, invoking Carl Schmitt, the "entire thrust [of this administration's war on terrorism has involved] a massive channeling of power from the legislature and the courts to the Executive." It is that kind of concentration of power, particularly a concentration which is opaque and not subject to public review, that makes all sorts of abuses, perhaps including especially those which are in the end just ill-thought-out, ugly and unjustified overreactions to real problems, possible. Certainly this was the case with the internments of WWII. Of course the prospect of putting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on open trial is daunting, and of course I have respect for those JAG officers (one of whom is my cousin) who may end up being responsible for deciding who gets a military tribunal and who doesn't and under what conditions. There are a lot of hard decisions which terrorism confronts us with. But as important as hashing out those arguments is the need for--as Tim Burke put it while engaging in just such a hard and drawn-out argument--"drawing some lines in the sand." The law President Bush signed yesterday is an overreaction, and a dangerous one. Thanks to Michael's hard work through Traces in collecting and sharing these stories, perhaps many more will start asking questions that will lead them to conclude the same.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Can a Populist Shop at Wal-Mart?

I've been meaning to write a post with this title for a pretty long time. We lived in Arkansas for three years, from 2002 to 2005, and during that time we did probably 80% of our grocery shopping at Wal-Mart. There was a Kroger in town, but we rarely went there, as we couldn't feed ourselves and three kids on our budget at their prices. (Things have improved a little since then.) The city of Jonesboro was surrounded by farms, but they were almost without exception huge cotton, rice, and soybean operations; homegrown vegetables or fruits were hard to come by on the eastern, Mississippi Delta-side of the state. As for locally produced fresh meat, there was little of it. And so, we shopped at Wal-Mart--it had low prices, and it had what we needed. And, of course, they were everywhere: it was Arkansas, after all. (Melissa used to joke that shopping at Wal-Mart was justified because we actually lived in the state where the Sam Walton's corporation is based, and so we were supporting the tax base...though actually Wal-Mart doesn't exactly shower a lot of money around anywhere besides their little corner of the state around Bentonville.)

So anyway, why am I writing this piece now? Because Rod "Crunchy Con" Dreher put together for the Dallas Morning News a package of Wal-Mart editorials a couple of weeks back, and they touched all the bases. First there was Stephen Bainbridge's take, which directs the whole debate over Wal-Mart, wages, market centralization, community impact, and so forth, towards what he thinks is most important: the question over what Wal-Mart's real relationship to the free market is. His conclusion is that "Wal-Mart [is] not...a rugged free-market capitalist [operation], but [is] a leading recipient of corporate welfare." Which isn't exactly a new point, but one that warrants emphasis nonetheless: if you don't like some of the broader consequences of the arrival of a Wal-Mart in your vacinity, then it's good to know that those consequences are mostly made possible by economic development subsidies--subsidies that, one hopes at least, can be debated and even voted down democratically, thus giving communities some collective power to counter the Wal-Mart hegemon.

But Bainbridge's argument reflects his perspective on most things economic: he thinks deviations from the free operation of the market, while sometimes justifiable, are items of concern simply on their own. And that automatically grants a kind of normative authority to the operations of the marketplace that I don't agree with. I see another question here: not how or to what degree Wal-Mart benefits or abuses the marketplace, but how we are to think about what happens in the marketplace in the first place. Obviously, lots of people shop at Wal-Mart; we did, for three years straight. Is the fact that they (and we still today, sometimes) shop there itself an argument that Wal-Mart, whatever its other sins from either a Republican or Democratic take on what a market-based economy ought to look like (with folks like Bainbridge calling it "a creature of big government" and others like Barbara Ehrenreich attacking it for its low wages and union-busting), is providing the people with a genuine good? Or can something be popular and still not, well, populist?

George F. Will, in his contribution, clearly takes the first option. After detailing at length the low prices, economic productivity, and job creation which Wal-Mart's business strategy has made possible, he concludes by claiming that the criticism of Wal-Mart by liberal pundits and politicians is all about elitism:

Liberals think their campaign against Wal-Mart is a way of introducing the subject of class into America's political argument, and they are more correct than they understand. Their campaign is liberalism as condescension. It is a philosophic repugnance toward markets because consumer sovereignty results in the masses making messes. Liberals, aghast, see the choices Americans make with their dollars and their ballots, and they announce--yes, announce--that Americans are sorely in need of more supervision by...liberals. Before they went on their bender of indignation about Wal-Mart (customers per week: 127 million), liberals had drummed McDonald's (customers per week: 175 million) out of civilized society because it is making us fat, or something. So, what next? Which preferences of ordinary Americans will liberals, in their role as national scolds, next disapprove? Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet?

Will used to be capable of writing thoughtful meditations on conservatism and what it means to "conserve" arguably elite values in an atmosphere of liberal freedom (including, you guessed it, consumer freedom); now, he's mostly a hack, though admittedly one who can still write well. But even this isn't a particularly good effort. There's a couple of snarks packed into that conclusion of his that are just begging to be smacked down. Liberals (foolishly?) drive McDonald's "out of civilized society" (I had no idea we'd been so successful...) because it makes Americans fat, "or something"? With Fast Food Nation a bestseller (and a pretty good, if somewhat confused, book too), Supersize Me a hit film, and everyone and their dog (including Republican presidential hopeful Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas) realizing that obesity is a major health problem in the U.S. and that fast food is a major contributor to the problem, Will here is relying on an attack that even Rush Limbaugh would consider a Golden Oldie. But even cutting Will that much slack won't do; in actuality, making the above argument also pretty much undermines his conservative bona fides entirely, as Caleb Stegall makes clear:

Arguments from preference for, say, complete sexual freedom, unlimited abortion license and illicit drug use have never been very convincing to conservatives. Instead of asking what conditions most Americans prefer, postwar conservatives have traditionally asked the more important question: What conditions will make common Americans free--free not just to pursue their baser appetites, but to fashion an independent and virtuous life?

Now, I suppose Will could argue that base eating habits aren't an obstacle to developing civic virtue, and maybe he'd even have a point (G.K. Chesterton was fat, after all!). But of course, this is an argument about Wal-Mart, and Will has just defended it on the basis of base popular preference; hardly a conservative perspective. So much for him. But, unfortunately, not so much for his argument. Because if you're a populist and a communitarian--as I am, for the most part--then taking seriously the preferences of a community is not incompatible with my claimed worldview; it is, on the contrary, close to the heart of it. So, the question is (finally) asked: should populists like Wal-Mart? Should they shop there?

I am forever having to deal with people who are convinced that populism is majoritarianism, pure and simple. Any and every demogogue who promises to attack an elite (any elite) and deliver some good (any good) to the majority of the people (which people? it rarely matters) is called a "populist," which of course just drags the label through the mud. Hugo Chavez, Ross Perot, Huey Long: all these power-hungry types get thrown into the same pot, the contents of which then get stirred around and splashed all over those of us trying to articulate a populist political revival. And to a degree we have to take it, because an authentic populism probably always will have a touch (or maybe more than a touch) of "do what the plain people tell you to do" rhetoric about it. Christopher Lasch, who came around to calling himself a populist in the end, argued that one had to accept (not uncritically, but not without some sympathy either) that a kind of "working-class authoritarianism"--as Seymour Martin Lipset defined it--is bound to be associated with any attempt to develop a responsibly and morally majoritarian society. (I tried to argue this point in a long post on Ralph Nader and John Paul II--yes, I put them together--way back here.) But the emphasis there is on a politics that is "reponsibly" and "morally" majoritarian: that is, a politics that is trying to deliver moral reponsibility into the hands of as many people as possible. Obviously, this does not mean always doing whatever the polls say; it's not even necessarily always anti-elitist (assuming those elites emerge out of communities whose residents can genuinely see themselves in their representatives and leaders, and address them as members and equals within the community). Its only real measurement is in the democratic empowerment of the people; their ability as citizens to socially and culturally and economically define and manage their polity. And, not to put too fine a point on it, the presence of an economic behometh like Wal-Mart removes much productive responsibility from peoples' lives. It streamlines and minimizes economic life within a community to such a degree that locals can no longer exercise as much collective control over what kind of life they want to live. Giving the people back greater and greater choices in terms of consumables is admittedly valuable, especially when you're dealing with a situation (like in America today) where the rich get richer and set a pace (a social and cultural as well as economic pace) that the poor and the midle-class can barely keep up with. Wal-Mart wouldn't have taken off in the first place if it hadn't put in place production and delivery chains that could get a lot of previously unavailable consumer goods to poor and isolated Southern and Midwestern towns. Still, the trade off--from local authority to consumer freedom--isn't worth it. Caleb explains:

One of the primary conditions of freedom is a widespread distribution of capital, both economic and cultural. This accounts for conservatives' long-standing skepticism and mistrust of centralized and concentrated enclaves of money and power with their tendencies toward societal management at every level. The oppressive effect of the management elites is essentially the same whether those elites sit in the board room, the judicial chamber, the legislative halls or the Oval Office. [Hence,] the sheer size and power of Wal-Mart ought to make any conservative wince. A private entity the size of the U.S. military with the economic clout of the Federal Reserve is no friend to liberty.

What is this "liberty" Caleb is talking about? Liberals of a certain stripe might consider it "positive liberty," in the sense praised by T.H. Green and attacked by Isaiah Berlin; the freedom to do something, the liberty that comes through empowerment and a communitarian, organic vision of society. Clearly the parallels between Caleb's argument and those theoretical constructs are there, and worth pursuing. But a better parallel might be the "ordered liberty" that was accepted as an ideal by thinkers as different as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (and arguably Hannah Arendt): a citizen achieves freedom by situating him or herself within, and working to maintain, ordered arenas of free action wherein he or she can take productive responsibility for themselves and their situation. Freedom means shaping your own choices, not merely being able to make choices, however many options there may be out there.

Caleb follows up his above comment by writing:

In contemporary America, this presumption toward freedom may no longer be valid, as Mr. Will makes clear. The lower middle classes and nearly everyone else, for that matter, really do love Wal-Mart and are quite happy to sell their American birthright of independence and self-sufficiency for a bowl of processed--but cheap!--soup. This is the challenge facing the new populists of the right: how to advocate and promote the free and sturdy democratic qualities of the common man--qualities that made America great--when the common man has apparently turned his back on those virtues?

My answer to the question in the title of this post arises from my instinctual response to Caleb here: that the "populists on the right" he mentions have the best kind of conservative notions, but perhaps not the best grasp of what it means to conserve something. I'll be the first to agree that civic virtue ain't what it needs to be in America today. But I would also suggest that--even allowing for all I said above about the trade-off from self-sufficient liberty to consumer sovereignty--the sources of order and authority that make virtuous choices possible don't always have to be the same. Simply put, there really are some good reasons we are more mobile and less rooted today, and there really are some good things that have come from it; and not just liberal goods, but truly communitarian ones as well. Not all populists can see this--and, of course, one doesn't want to settle for a facile and Pollyannish reading of our situation today...but nonethless perhaps the left conservative approach might make some headway towards drawing out virtue at the present moment in a way some other populisms cannot.

In a world where comparative advantage and global trade and urbanization and specialization have done their work, a world where the ability to live a wholly self-sufficient life has been rendered often incompatible with the demands of information-based economies, a world where farms are shrinking and unions are on the run and guilds are almost wholly a thing of the past, something like a Wal-Mart is probably necessary if we are not to condemn a good portion of any given population (such as those outside of metropolitan centers or who lack sufficient incomes, or both) to deprivation. So sure, you can shop at Wal-Mart (in truth, it's not like Kroger operates on manifestly different principles either). But our responsibility at the present moment--besides our obvious and primary one to doing what's best for our families and communities--is to figure out ways to limit the Wal-Marts of the world, discipline them and fit them into a new "order" wherein citizens can find themselves to be more than consumers. This might sound like simply an appeal to the sort of liberal egalitarian regulations which Bainbridge's column suggested as legitimate. The populist response to Wal-Mart (and the WTO, and Clear Channel, and...) which I'm imagining will involve some of that, surely. But it'll also have to involve something more, something that will have to involve a rethinking (though not necessarily a complete change) of our estimation of the nation-state and of progressive movements within them.

But now I'm hearkening towards those long promised posts of mine on populism and progressivism again. I'm sure I'll get to them eventually. Hopefully they'll be shorter than this one.