Friday, February 29, 2008

Friday PSTSS: "If I Had a Boat"

This is probably apocryphal (if it comes from an interview, it's not one I've been able to find online anywhere), but supposedly when Lyle Lovett was asked about this song--from his excellent early album Pontiac, though you can also get it on collections like Cowboy Man--he said it was inspired by his childhood confusion over what he wanted to be when he grew up: a pirate, or a cowboy? Much as I doubt the story, I sure hope it's true. It's perfect! After all, what do most little boys want to do? To go after those open spaces, that's what, whether they be the distant horizon or the Texas plains. Why compromise? You don't need a masked ranger to make you do some dirty job, and you definitely don't need a Dale to domesticate you and make you clean up after yourself--you're young and free, you can move like lightning and leave no tracks behind you, and you can take your pony on your boat and ride him and take care of him and watch movies with him and steer across the open seas to your hearts content. Take that, Mr. Grow-Up-and-Take-Your-Place-in-Society!

I mock the individualist mentality here plenty, because I don't agree with it philosophically and because I think it's often harmful. But that doesn't mean I'd like to extinguish it: it's part of the modern package, an inheritance of millions of people struggling for hundreds of years to figure out social systems where, dammit, they can go buy a pony and boat if that's their dream. Lyle here is a poet of that sensibility, that longing which, at its best, is a mature, responsible, quiet insistence (if not defiance) that is a reminder to us all. So take it away, Mr. Lovett, you and all my Texan and libertarian friends (one of whom first introduced me to this song years ago, during a long drive across west Texas from Dallas to San Angelo). I probably won't ever join you on that boat, but hell, sometimes even I would just like to ride or sail away.

If I had a boat,
I'd go out on the ocean.
And if I had a pony,
I'd ride him on my boat.
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean--
Me upon my pony on my boat.

If I were Roy Rogers,
I'd sure enough be single--
I couldn't bring myself to marrying old Dale.
It'd just be me and Trigger--
We'd go riding through them movies,
Then we'd buy a boat and on the sea we'd sail.

And if I had a boat,
I'd go out on the ocean.
And if I had a pony,
I'd ride him on my boat.
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean--
Me upon my pony on my boat

The mystery masked man was smart--
He got himself a Tonto,
'Cause Tonto did the dirty work for free.
But Tonto he was smarter,
And one day said kemo sabe:
"Kiss my ass I bought a boat,
I'm going out to sea."

And if I had a boat,
I'd go out on the ocean.
And if I had a pony,
I'd ride him on my boat.
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean--
Me upon my pony on my boat.

And if I were like lightning,
I wouldn't need no sneakers--
I'd come and go wherever I would please.
And I'd scare 'em by the shade tree,
And I'd scare 'em by the light pole,
But I would not scare my pony on my boat out on the sea.

And if I had a boat,
I'd go out on the ocean.
And if I had a pony,
I'd ride him on my boat.
And we could all together,
Go out on the ocean--
Me upon my pony on my boat.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Taxation and Democracy 101 (on Lucky Duckies and Other Never-Ending Debates)

The back-and-forth debate between Megan McArdle (plus here) and Henry Farrell over taxation--specifically, over whether or not the fact that even people who proclaim their support for government programs and other high tax projects do not generally contribute to the government very much (if anything) beyond what is required by tax laws should be taken as evidence that what people really want is merely "higher taxes on other people"--has spilled over into Laura McKenna's blog, and sucked me in. Actually, Megan and Henry's original argument--which is really more a methodological one than anything, pertaining to how one discerns and attributes normative weight to various collective actions and presumably revealed preferences--isn't what has drawn me in (interesting as it is) so much as what seems to me to be the constant, vague disconnect between the libertarian-minded and those of us who have internalized the basics of Democracy 101. To wit: at some point in the evolution of the social contract towards democracy, the conceptual distance between, say, "slavery" or "extortion" or other conditions or methods which a given government may exercise directly or have the power to force you into on the one hand, and "taxation" on the other, has grown so great as to render (to most citizens in liberal democracies) the bare, conceptual relationship between the two so tenuous as to make conversations conducted in the light of that understanding mutually incomprehensible. Or in other words...

Laura says that she's willing to pay more in taxes for better schools. Seems pretty straightforward--she values her childrens' schools enough that she's willing to pay more in taxes to see them improve. But Megan says: you don't actually mean that; you're either saying something so banal it's pointless (as in "Of course I happily accept America's system of taxation; I'll take even more of it, if the alternative is living as a desperate, non-tax paying refugee in some lawless state somewhere"), or you're saying you're willing the state to coerce even more money about of really rich people (as in "This public good which I love is, in my mind, so important to all of us that we need to make certain it is suitably funded by the wealthy, and I'll even pay a little more in taxes to make sure the state does just that"). As Laura comments, that kind of makes sense--"in some sort of a crazy-assed world." (The zero-sum anarchist utopia, perhaps.) Whereas in actual liberal democracies, which most of us acquiesce to because we desire collective goods that are beyond our individual capabilities and purse strings, and within which we've more or less come to the conclusion that, so long as basic rights are acknowledged and defended, the blunt tools of taxation are to be accepted as the most equitable and efficient way to get most collective things done, it becomes a component of our membership as citizens to speak and act so as to build coalitions and compromises--in other words, to participate in the democratic machinery of the state--and thereby adjust taxes accordingly. In short: we're part of the same democratic collective that's doing it, to varying degrees in accordance with our general beliefs, to ourselves and everyone. It's not a competition over who can get the government to point its gun at whose head, no matter what P.J. O'Rourke may say. (Megan tries to complicate this point by suggesting that, if you're not making an extra-tax individual contribution to the government in line with your willingness to pay higher taxes just because you figure your personal addition won't make a difference, then that must mean you're mixed-up, and "morally justified in cheating on your taxes" to boot. Uh, right. So respect for the rule of law and/or your contentment with all the other things the government does with our money--like, pay cops--just goes out the window?)

This all reminds me of nothing so much as a blog-argument I had with Jacob T. Levy nearly five years ago. It was an outgrowth of the "lucky duckies" debate, if anyone remembers that. Jacob took the argument the Wall Street Journal made about how progressive taxation, by allowing poor and some lower-income people to avoid paying any at all, is undermining the "tax rage" needed to seriously shrink government, and used it in a TNR piece to explore the larger issue of commonality and equality in democracies. It was a great essay (which unfortunately I can no longer find online), but in its undercurrents, the basic (mis)understandings are the same ones lurking around Megan and her defenders: on the one hand, we have people who take the paying of taxes to be some sort of marauding enormity coming from outside ourselves, one which we wish to avoid or just have to reluctantly deal with as we get on with the business of living (which, if such business includes wanting better schools, consists of...I don't know, buying my oldest daughter's home room teacher some nice shoes?); and other hand, people who understand that, very broadly, paying taxes (according to whatever schemes we come up with) is part of us all being in this together. Is that a sappy communitarian justification of old-fashioned, gun-to-the-head exploitation? No, I don't think it is. Let me just clip one bit from my old post (with a couple of additions):

[Jacob writes:] "The 18-year-old conscript killed in a war he opposed in order to discourage politicians from starting wars, the child kept in a failing school in order to persuade her parents to support a better public school system, and the professional coerced into a low- or negative-return Social Security system in order to keep the entire system politically viable...the working-class parent whose taxes are kept high in order to expand support for tax cuts. As individuals, each would be better off if allowed to opt out. But, in each case, that individual's welfare is subordinated to the collective goal. 'We're all in the same boat,' runs the political message of shared citizenship. But the policy imperative is to keep us all there, chained to our oars if necessary."

But Jacob is wrong in thinking that all of these individuals are similarly being "used." He is treating huge differences in kind--differences that can be well-elaborated philosophically and sociologically--as mere variations on a single, collectivist impulse. His use of "exploitation" as a way to communicate the commonality between all these collective enterprises masks the legitimate communitarian difference between enlisting individuals in program where both means and ends can be expressed in terms of wholes, and enlisting individuals in schemes which, by their nature, cannot be (and should not be) wholly equalized....[T]o address his specific examples: so long as one's community is anything besides an Amish-style agrarian one, there will be economic differences and inequities which will divide the community, and thus require certain levels of "picking" in order to achieve certain collective goals (equal opportunity, economic justice, etc.). A strategy to equalize burdens which, from the standpoint of such goals, should not be strictly equalized, simply for the sake of engendering rage against the system as a whole, can certainly be called "exploitive," [whereas, a democratic process that reaches some sort of rough consensus about the appropriateness of differing types and levels of individual obligation needed to achieve something truly collective wouldn't be]....That we should always be aware of how politics can go wrong in communities is certainly true. I doubt, however, that it follows that every form of boundary-drawing and identity-building necessarily implicates us in a sense that we are violating someone's essential interests. There is the possibility that (some) wholes are actually greater than (some) parts, after all.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Friday PSTSS: "Learning to Fly"

Living in Wichita, you get to know a lot of pilots. (Hey, it's the Air Capital of the World, as they say.) Many are test pilots for Lear or Boeing or Cessna or one of the other aerospace companies with have a large presence here, and a lot are former Air Force or other military that ended up in Wichita because they wanted a job that allowed them to continue to do the sort of thing and be around the sort of people they were comfortable with. And then quite a few are engineers and accountants and others that don't have any necessary connection with flying in their jobs...but, being surrounded by people captivated by the air, they can't resist it, and they go back to school and get some training, and soon they're hitting the runways.

My father got his pilot's license years ago, back when he owned and ran some restaurants around the western states (Frontier Pies--ever hear of them?) and needed to make a lot of (relatively) short trips on a regular basis; I think there was a bit of a mid-life crisis going on their as well. He spent about 10 years flying quite often before he gave it up. I don't think he was ever possessed by the mystique of it all, the wonder of using a machine to bring yourself up into the atmosphere. I wonder if I ever will be caught by it. Not that it's a hobby we could at all afford, but still, I wonder. I just took a youth group out to the airport where were taken on the flight simulators, and a member of our congregation talked about his own passion for flying, a passion he'd had since he was a kid and was discouraged from pursuing; he didn't turn around and make himself into a flight instructor until his thirties. And I've just learned that another fellow I know in his forties, I man with a good company, a wife who just finished training to be a nurse, and growing children, has just resigned his job and is off to Texas to learn how to be a commercial airline pilot. That's his dream, he said--and I can't deny that it's a good one.

For years, for some reason, I thought this Pink Floyd tune (from A Momentary Lapse of Reason) was by Lou Reed. I don't know why that got stuck in my head, but no matter; I eventually figured it out. It's a brilliant, introspective rock number from Floyd's immediate post-Roger Waters years. It's probably about more than just flying (new beginnings? the fragility of earth? sex?) but no matter; it works just fine to capture those enchanted by the dream of the open air.

Into the distance a ribbon of black
Stretched to the point of no turning back.
A flight of fancy on a windswept field
Standing alone my senses reeled.

A fatal attraction holding me fast
How can I escape this irresistible grasp?
Can't keep my mind from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted just an earth-bound misfit, I.

Ice is forming on the tips of my wings
Unheeded warnings--I thought I thought of everything.
No navigator to find my way home
Unladened, empty, and turned to stone.

A soul in tension that's learning to fly
Condition grounded, but determined to try.
Can't keep my mind from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted just an earth-bound misfit, I.

Above the planet on a wing and a prayer
My grubby halo, a vapour trail in the empty air.
Across the clouds I see my shadow fly
Out of the corner of my watering eye.

A dream unthreatened by the morning light
Could blow this soul right through the roof of the night.

There's no sensation to compare with this--
Suspended animation, a state of bliss.
Can't keep my mind from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted just an earth-bound misfit, I.

Kong Really is the King...

...of traditional documentaries, that is.

I'm not nearly as knowledgeable about documentary films as I am about many other types of cinema (not that I'm any kind of scholar in any of those, either). If I'm in the mood to be pretentious and claim any sort of real expertise, it might be in relation to the films of Zhang Yimou or old Hollywood musicals (or, um, old animal movies), but definitely not documentaries. I know the ones I've seen that I've thought were really fine (Who Killed the Electric Car?, Street Fight, The War Room, and especially Roger & Me, Michael Moore's first film and in my opinion the only truly great one he's ever made) and the ones I consider to be overrated (The Fog of War, definitely). But the documentary we watched last night is definitely not overrated--in fact, it shoots to the top of this list. I'm not saying anything most of you haven't already heard before from a dozen places, but still: everyone run out and rent The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

You can find out everything you need to know about the movie, and more, just by hitting their constantly updated website. And you can find a thousand positive reviews of the movie all over the internet, so there's little I can add here. Just let me assure you--it really is a traditional documentary, with the talking heads and surprise interviews and sneaked footage and all that. No tricks, no reconstructions (which really astonished me after a while; I couldn't believe that the filmmakers managed to get all this stuff on tape); just very clever editing to put it all together. Through years of tracking about six different stories (involving, apparently, the various quests for and rivalries over the world records in such classic arcade games as Pac-Man, Q-bert, and others) the people behind the cameras somehow found themselves in possession of a truly awesome story: the clash of Billy Mitchell vs. Steve Wiebe to hold or maintain or recapture the title of King of (Donkey) Kong. The result is a movie that is clearly partisan (the filmmakers absolutely takes sides in this battle, no question about it), but nonetheless rings with authenticity. Some people really are completely dicks about their own success; we've all met them, and sometimes we are them. And some people--decent people, hardworking people, talented people--nonetheless can be, when the pressure is on, chumps; we've all been them sometimes too. And then there is the world of people who surround both types: friends and enemies, yes, but also sycophants and enablers, and the sometimes well-meaning but often inscrutable parasites that can only exist because of both.

It's probably not the world's greatest achievement in documentary filmmaking, if only because it doesn't use any of the aforementioned tricks to rethink and expand the realm of the medium (as did the greatest documentary, and one of the best films period, I've ever seen: Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line). But it's awesome all the same. If you've never seen it, rent it; if you saw it in theaters, go rent it anyway. Get into it. Cheer for the good guy and his wonderful family. Boo and hiss at the bad guy and his, er, augmented wife. Knowing there are real stories like this out there, everywhere, just waiting to be discovered, will make you feel better about your own life, I promise.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My Blogging Habits, Explained

Stolen from Rob Farley, right here (but he got it from these guys). Because the world needs to know--it's a hard job, telling the Plain People of the Internet what they don't know--but dammit, someone has to do it.

Laura Says: Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do, or Do Without

Did anyone else grow up with that phrase hanging around their living environment--as counsel, as a warning, as a reprimand? I did. We sure didn't live it as well as we might have, but still, I heard it recited often enough, from my parents and grandparents and church leaders and others, to accept it as the Gospel truth, long before I read any of the philosophy or politics or economics that persuaded me of its correctness on their own. Basically, the message is that the way to prosperity and happiness--at least insofar as the material world is concerned--is to live conservatively and renounce extravagance and stick with what you have and know. "Pioneer truths" is what we called it, invoking the memory of Mormon ancestors crossing the Great Plains in handcarts, and their descendants who built homes and communities in the midst of poverty and persecution and with next to no consumer goods. If it was good enough an ethos for great-grandma, it's good enough for us, or so we were supposed to think.

Such a mentality is somewhat rare in today's world, particularly in America, and especially around here, in the mostly American blogosphere. Oh sure, you can find some genuine "conservatives" that blog, agrarians and localists and self-sufficient types like Rick Saenz; and there are people who, even if they don't entirely live those "pioneer truths" either, have an intellectual and moral appreciation of the point of that saying, folks like Patrick Deneen, Lee McCracken, or the Caelem et Terra people like Maclin Horton. (All of whom you should read regularly, by the way.) But still, it's just not often than someone comes out full bore on the blogs and slams the world of planned obsolescence and over-consumption and clever capitalist expansion for being the personal and environmental plague upon us all that it truly is. Thankfully though, I now have the perfect blog post to send to everyone who doesn't quite get the point: Laura McKenna's short, brilliant, and vicious slam on trendy "eco-consumption":

You want to save the earth? Here’s a little hint. Don’t. Buy. Shit.

The greenest people are totally unhip....They’re still wearing their clothes from twenty years ago. They aren’t keeping their home spa-worthy clean. No need to worry about polluting the air with chemicals, if you aren’t dusting every five minutes. They aren’t constantly renovating their kitchens and bathrooms, all of which uses enormous amounts of energy and resources; they are still living with the Formica numbers from the 70s. They aren’t jetting off to Europe to browse the Paris markets; they go bowling in the next town over. They aren’t constantly shopping for new things and tossing out the old things. There is some poetry in all of this. Grandma with the Hummels has a smaller carbon footprint by doing absolutely nothing than the wealthy do-gooder in the Range Rover attending the NRDC fundraiser.

If you must have a hip home and global warming is a concern, then there are other ways to go. Pick up end tables from a garage sale and paint them. Buy an old house near the center of town. Don’t get your nails done. Don’t drive to the gym. Don’t join a gym and instead, burn calories by gardening. Stop recycling your San Pellegrino bottles and drink tap water. You could also elect politicians who are willing to make serious efforts in conservation, mass transportation, and in the regulation of industry....

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a dent in global warming. But to do it, you need a serious, non-cosmetic, un-cool, and un-trendy change in lifestyle and habits. And frankly there’s no need to make a big fuss about it, get preachy or show off to others how environmentally correct you are. Excessive non-consumption aimed at impressing one’s friends and neighbors is just as annoying — and as conspicuous — as consumption.

I honestly can't think of anything to add to that. I mean, really, it covers all the bases. You want to be environmentally conscious and help conserve what resources we have left, right? Of course you do--you're an enlightened individual! Well then, quit buying all that expensive and "cutting-edge" crap that gets shoveled out at us by the Powers That Be, crap that'll have to thrown away as soon as you're lured in by the next model car/range oven/purse/sneakers/lifestyle renovation/electronic gizmo. Resist change, cut back, slow down! Wear that sports jacket for another year! Exercise at home! Garden and eat your own food! Not everyone can do all of this; indeed, given how pervasively the habits of acquisition, competition, and consumption are threaded through most of our daily routines, most of us can't do most of it. But here and there, we can and should make a stand, however wired our professions or home lives may be. As Laura herself noted long ago, buying that Blackberry is only going to put you on the clock, make you run more errands, make you burn more gas, keep you away from making do with what you already have and make you compensate by buying more stuff you don't need and can't afford and will throw away that much more quickly anyway. So here's a radical idea--don't get one. Real environmentalism begins with "tending to" our environment, rather than upgrading it or ourselves in the name of continual betterment, and supporting those moral causes and political campaigns that are actually trying to make tending to our families and jobs and neighborhoods more possible, rather than selling us on constantly retraining and retrofitting ourselves and our world.

I've written a lot about this over the years, I know, at much too great length; I get caught up in the complexity of seeking simplicity, the difficulty and hardness of learning the discipline and thrift and acceptance of living in an "enclosed" world that came naturally to our grandparents and great-grandparents (and which have perhaps endured in some parts of Europe better than many conservatives imagine). Laura is definitely no enclosed great-grandmother or lifestyle conservative--she's cool and worldly and sarcastic and knows pop culture and loves the catalogs she gets in the mail. But alongside all that, she's got common sense: she knows about families and homes and communities and their all blessings and costs, and how we Americans, blessed as we are, seem particularly of confusing the former and thinking we can dodge the latter. I've always read and liked her stuff, but this Laura at her succinct, biting, contrarian best. Again, I can't say anything more than that.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Friday PSTSS: "I Ain't Goin' Nowhere"

Yes--the PSTSS series is back! Though perhaps we should hold off with the celebrations until I actually manage to do this two or more Fridays in a row.

None of you have ever heard this song on pop radio, and Rick Moranis--yes, that Rick Moranis, the most talented member of SCTV and the unsung hero of perhaps a dozen of what otherwise would have been at-best middling comedies--is hardly a pop star. He wouldn't want to be anyway. But what he is, or at least has become over the past three or four years or so, is a brilliantly sly, witty and sardonic country-western singer. Everyone should buy his debut album (and let there be more!) The Agoraphobic Cowboy and get into the habit of checking his website for various updates (he's got a new song--"America, My Truck"--plus a bizarre-but-funny little essay about what Nora Ephron must think of Barack Obama's neck). But truly, the one song that everyone needs to have is this wonderfully weird number, "I Ain't Goin' Nowhere." You've got to get this recording for three reasons: 1) because it's the single smartest parody of Johnny Cash's oft-parodied "I've Been Everywhere" you'll ever hear; 2) because it's just damn hilarious; and 3) because, though I'm practically certain that Moranis didn't actually intended this song to engage in any kind of sophisticated critique of American society, the fact remains that Moranis's lyrics simply crucify a particular kind of technology-obsessed, paranoid, security-crazy, over-medicated, supposedly self-sufficient (but actually pathetically media-dependent), distrustful, talk-show-addicted, mini-mansion-dwelling quasi-libertarian loser citizen, of which America has way too many of already. If there's ever to be a revolution in the name of simplicity and responsibility and community in this nation, I'll put this song--along with, say, Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death--down as one of its primary documents.

I never go nowhere, man
I never go nowhere.
Traffic’s bad out there, man
I’m savin’ wear and tear.
I like conditioned air, man
I never go nowhere.

I go
Upstairs, downstairs, backyard, lawn chairs,
Living room, bathroom, bedroom, furnace room,
Hot-tub, cedar deck, build a fire, washer/dryer,
Pantry, patio, Bartiromo video,
Cold cellar, rec room, ping-pong, mah jongg,
Beer count wearin’ thin, speed dial,
Order in.

I ain’t goin’ nowhere, man
I ain’t goin’ nowhere.
It’s dangerous out there, man
Might ‘a been a big bomb scare.
Hard to get off of this easy chair
I ain’t goin’ nowhere.

I go
Online, dsl, amazon, buy and sell,
Ebay, layaway, last bid noon today,
Plasma, Judy Judge, broadband, Matt Drudge,
J.Crew, B&N, dotcom, CNN,
JPEG, e.mail, pop-up, she-male,
Shower cam, filter spam, slam bam,
I think it’s ma’am.

I ain’t goin’ nowhere, man
Never gonna go nowhere.
It’s a bungled jungle out there, man
Some kid got mauled by a bear [that's my single favorite line].
Surround sound in my own lair
I ain’t goin’ nowhere.

I got
Perimeter, motion, doggie door, mail call,
Peep hole, Avon, wireless, strobes on,
PIN Code, keypad, relay, pepper spray,
Homebase, interface, three-zone, plug ‘n play,
Infra-red, photocell, squad car, decibel,
Choppers up, sonic boom,
Activate the panic room.

I’m on,
Ritalin, Coumadin, Zantac, Lipitor,
Diazepam, Nexium, Prevacid, Percocet,
Levitra, Levaquin, Elavil, Fosomax,
Plavix, Keflex, Next day Fedex,
Zithromax Avalox, Flexeril, Topomax,
Prozac, Ativan, Aderol,
I take ‘em all.

I ain’t goin’ nowhere, man
Never gonna go nowhere.
I’m cuttin’ my own hair, man
Nothin’ I need out there.
Outside sunny but inside cher
I ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

How Married-with-Children Thirtysomethings [Should] Celebrate Valentines's Day

After all the politics in my recent blogging, I thought I'd go for something light and personal and sappy for this Valentine's Day. But it turns out that Rod Dreher has already said, better than I could, everything that needs to be said:

I no longer want thrills. I used to be one for grand gestures; once, before we had children, I secretly bought two plane tickets and, having conspired with Julie's boss to surprise her, told her abruptly one day after work to "get packed," and whisked her off to England for an impromptu vacation. Whee! We had lots of whee moments back then, and I wouldn't trade them for anything. But three kids later, who has the energy for whee! anymore? Who wants whee! Not us. Julie and I were talking last night about how much our concept of what's romantic has changed over our years together....I used to get stoked on the idea of taking Julie to the perfect little French cafe, and speaking torridly of romantic matters over candlelight and good wine. I wouldn't mind having the time to do that now (we'll talk about that when Nora quits nursing), but you know, it's hard to describe the fulfillment of opening the front door at day's end, and hearing three little voices scream "Daddy!" in unison, and come running into the front room to give me a hug. God, I love that. That's how romance has been sublimated for me. That's what it's ripened into. And it's great. We agreed that the contentment of doing something as simple as making a good fire in the fireplace on a cold winter's night, or lying in bed together late, with all the kids asleep in the house, and both of us reading our books, was really, really wonderful. The best, actually. Neither one of us would have said so 10 years ago, because we were different people then....

Julie and I talked last night about how unsettling it can be in our culture, which prizes passion and makes a fetish of youth, to realize that most of the conventional elements of romance have receded in one's life, but that one is blissfully happy all the same. Life has its seasons, and living in an eternal springtime would be both unnatural and, frankly, boring....Being middle-aged and in love has its own appropriate pleasures. The world considers them shopworn and modest, perhaps, but I think they're better described as discreet, and as banked against the tumult of life's lengthy days. We don't dance by the light of the moon much anymore, my true love and I, but we do sit on the porch swing by its light, and watch the kids chase fireflies, and contemplate our blessedness together. It's enough. In fact, it's everything. There's nothing quite so reassuring as the conviction that one is standing exactly where one is supposed to be.

A few nights ago, Melissa and were busy with our usual post-kids'-bedtime deprogramming/relaxation routines (her, reading a book; me, catching up on e-mail and the blogs--though sometimes we'll prefer a movie, if we have something good to watch), when we decided to call it a night early. Our daughters (they range now from 11 to almost-2 in age) and their crazy evening antics--and, too often, hysterics--can wear us out, and getting a good night's sleep is a real and not-nearly-common enough blessing. But then, as we went to bed, we kind of stumbled into a conversation about some book challenges Melissa has been working on lately (hey everyone: check out her blog!), and before we knew it we'd spent more than an hour arguing, reflecting, sharing ideas, and generally laughing and learning together. Was it passionate? But it was fun, it was peaceful, it drew us closer together, and it was delightfully right and ordinary. It made us, just as a thousand other not-particularly-passionate-but-still-intimate moments we share do, a little bit more like who we are, or who we can be, together. I love that feeling of simply being at home, of being fitted into a time and place and a companionship--of being, as Rod puts it, "exactly where one is supposed to be."

There's always little things that need fixing; sometimes even big things. And sometimes maybe everyone needs a little of that whee! in their lives. As I confessed in the comments to Rod's post, I have been feeling a need to shake things up a little lately. I don't think it's a midlife crisis (I'll be 40 this year, and we'll have been married 15 years this August) so much as...well, I don't know. Maybe I am reaching back into my youth, trying to recreate a little of the sort of surprises and changes and amor that's perhaps 10 years or more in the past, before a real job and a home of own and three-quarters of our family appeared on the scene. (In 1999 we spent a summer in Germany, just Melissa and 2-year-old Megan and I, and we were mostly broke, and we were worried about the future, and living in a dinky apartment, but still, those months were a whole lot of whee!) But I'd like to think that whatever we're doing, and wherever we're going, it's not driven by some sort of GQ (or Cosmopolitan)-inspired fantasy. Rather, it may be as organic and everyday as our mutual delight at a well-cooked meal or playing in the snow with the girls or having a nice, relaxing Sunday. A little whee! is a good thing, maybe often a necessary thing. But it's nothing to build a life, or a lasting love, around. As I said on the occasion of our tenth anniversary back in 1993, real life, and joy, and wisdom, begins by finding someone to love, and then getting "committed, stuck together, sealed, put on the path and pushed out the door." Looking back on it all during those late nights talking in bed, I find that's still true, for this Valentine's Day, and hopefully for every Valentine's Day we'll share together hereafter.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Goodbye to Busing

After a week or so of talking about the caucuses and candidates and other matters of national politics, here's something local.

Two weeks ago, the Wichita school board voted unanimously to end busing in the Wichita school district, USD 259. It was not a particularly extensive busing enterprise; at the present time, barely over 2000 students were affected by the local busing arrangement (out of a total elementary and secondary student population in the district of nearly 50,000). Nor was it comprehensive, focusing entirely upon those mostly African-American students who live within an "assigned attendance area" (and a few on the periphery of it) in north-central and northeast Wichita, and drawing in only those white students selected by lottery. It was very much a "voluntary" program, both in the sense that it was begun in response to various national and state pressures back in 1971, but without any specific direction or mandates from federal courts, and in the sense that those who participated in it did so because they were either randomly chosen or because they volunteered to participate (and those that were picked by lottery often--not always, but often--were able to find way out by getting their student into one of Wichita's numerous magnet schools, if they thought it was worth the effort, which many did). All this might make it seem like this isn't a big deal; but it is a big deal, at least for those of us who live here and are believers in the public schooling ideal, however many complaints we may have with it.

The negotiations over the end of busing in Wichita began months ago, in fact going all the way back to the Supreme Court's decision in regards to a couple of cases about school integration arrangements, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County, back in December of 2006. Those cases, both involving voluntary arrangements (in Seattle, WA, purely so; in the Louisville, KY, case, there had a been a court-ordered busing plan installed in years past, but it had expired, and the school board kept it going after tweaking it a bit) which were being implemented and supervised by local school boards, and which had been upheld by federal courts of appeal, were decided, by a 5-4 vote, to involve a level of race-based thinking that was unconstitutional. Since each of those programs were unique, there was no guarantee that the particular system that Wichita had come up with would have been found under that decision to be unconstitutional as well--but the local board didn't want to take any chances. Superintendent Winston Brooks began considering options for ending busing in Wichita almost immediately, and now, after more than a year of discussion and public meetings, the decision has been made: 37 years of race-based busing and integration plans comes to an end next August.

Like most things having to do with education and race in this country these days, this is most fundamentally an argument about power: who has it, where it resides, how you can use it. I say "these days" because I don't want to deny the battles of the 1950s and 60s really were about racial discrimination, plain and simple; certainly no one from Kansas, home of the state that brought America Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ought to deny that! But even by the late 1960s, it was becoming pretty clear that figuring out where one stood in the struggle for race-neutral education (not the struggle over racism in general, but this one particular slice of it) depended upon working out where one stood on the issue of national, state, and/or local control--in other words, on the issue of who ruled the schools in general, or if power over the schools was to be divided, how that division was going to be made. For most of the past forty years, the progressive answer has always been to eclipse local authority, and federalize at least some parts of the school system, thereby introducing standards and expectations which made the local reinforcement of biases in education difficult if not impossible to maintain. (Despite all the fine talk coming from the Supreme Court and civil rights leaders, school desegregation didn't really begin to happen until the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, wherein federal dollars were directed solely to desegregated schools, and financially strapped school districts in the south found the lure of federal money irresistible.) Of course, there's been a lot of abuse in the name of federal standards and guidelines (insert your own No Child Left Behind horror stories here). But basically, and practically speaking, I'm still a believer in the need for school districts to be governed in such a way as to match the egalitarian and, frankly, far from purely local aspirations and intentions that American citizens (including both students and their parents) have for them. This is one of the reasons I kind of liked Mike Huckabee in Arkansas; faced with a hard dilemma, he pushed forward a plan to reduce the number school districts and thus expand the size and reach of (and, yes, therefore the level of state involvement in) those that remained. I know--it's not necessarily populist or communitarian...but then again, any sovereign people, however grounded locally, will still unavoidably remain in tension with those larger ideals and communities they are also simultaneously a part of, and it can't simply be that "local control" is always the answer to every expression of a people's wants or needs or identity. (Even serious decentralists today seem at peace with defense being a national project.) Sometimes, when faced with some goals, the locality can be an unlovely place. Certainly that was the case when it came to the regional and national scandal of racial discrimination in the schools.

However (there's always a "however"), that tension works both ways. The desire to use higher authorities to attack racist or otherwise undemocratic and unequal habits and practices in local school districts was one thing; to use similar powers to physically disrupt schooling--that is, to remove students from one neighborhood and bus them to another--as a way of challenging the racial gerrymandering and socializing which characterizes many urban areas (including Wichita) is something else entirely. There are many overlapping ties we all have as we put together our families and neighborhoods, and distinguishing between them can sometimes lead to contradictions; nevertheless, compromising my local involvement in, say, the budget or curricula or educational philosophy of my daughters' elementary school is a very different thing from severing the local connection I and they have to that building entirely. I have no idea what I would have thought about busing if I'd lived in a large and racially divided metropolitan area in the late 60s and early 70s, when the lessons and victories of the civil rights movement were new and still sinking in, but looking back upon it today--not just the original efforts here and elsewhere, but the whole 30-plus-year experiment--I find the resistance which busing met with understandable and sympathetic. (I can't see how anyone can think otherwise after J. Anthony Lukas's brilliant Common Ground revealed the defeats, recriminations, false compromises and small, costly, barely-won victories of busing in Boston more than twenty years ago.) Granted, as Scott Lemieux pointed out in a fine post a couple of years back, busing was hampered from the get-go by two Supreme Court decisions--San Antonio v. Rodriguez and Milken v. Bradley--that together guaranteed that 1) the funding of American public schools would continue to operate on terms that necessarily forced localities into conflict with one another over property values (and thus over other socio-economic substitutes for race) and 2) that the suburbs, though dependent upon their surrounding locality, would be able to opt out of any state or federal solution. Still, busing is hard thing to ask of families and the neighborhoods that, ideally, they make their own through innumerable habits, many of which will revolve around school sports or activities or attendance. It forces parents and students to accommodate themselves to the road, and allows for--even encourages--adjustments that simply aren't good for family or community life. (Schools cutback on or outsource the parent-teacher conferences, because so few parents can make the trip across town; some caregivers get used to working longer hours, confident that the students they're responsible for will end up on the bus an additional two or more hours every day; television comes to play a greater role as the possibility of extracurricular involvement becomes harder to maintain because of distance; and as for walking to school, well, you can just forget about that.) No, I'm a fan of the public school ideal, but that ideal has to involve a presumption of parents and caregivers and communities being able to collaborate in creating a good childhood environment for those being educated...and sundering the ties between the local environment and the place of local schooling entirely may be just to great a burden for that ideal to endure.

I'm not the only one who felt that way: as I said, the vote of the Wichita school board to ending busing was unanimous, including African-American and Hispanic representatives from neighborhoods which the busing plan was originally built around. As part of the decision to end the overall busing system, there was a determination to continue busing as an option for those students in the assigned attendance area who still want it (and of course, many do; they've been through elementary and middle school with one set of students, so why not stay with their friends?), to finally--finally!--get serious with planning a new high school to serve north-central and northeast Wichita, to loosen restrictions on some of the magnet schools in the area, thus allowing those in the targeted area more options for attending schools closer to where they actually live (which, really, should be the primary point), and to set up some sort of committee with the power to review and assess the quality and diversity level of schools in the area in question...though how that'll play out, as you might expect, is still being argued over. It's no panacea; so long as our country's basic funding scheme for public schools remains so unjust, the resulting scraps that those who believe in truly equal educational opportunity for all have left to fight over are bound to be unsatisfying and incomplete. Still, all in all, I think the school board took a step in the right direction. Their hand may have been forced by a lousy decision from on high, but their decision fits the changing realities of Wichita far better than any simple busing plan ever could.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Should Mormons Hate Huckabee?

For the first time in American history, a Mormon had a serious shot of making it to the highest office in the land. But no more: Mitt Romney has pulled out of active competition for the Republican nomination and thus for the presidency. How should Mormons like myself feel about that?

I never was a Romney supporter; his "conservatism" (business-oriented, technocratic, globalist, classically liberal, only nominally cultural) wasn't the kind I particularly trust or like, and his style and preferences and stratagems left me cold. But that doesn't change the fact that I was fascinated with the man; that as a member of his tribe, I thought often (and even had some recommendations) about what he should say and who he should try to be. And consequently, I can understand one reaction many American Mormons may be feeling right now:

Pissed at Mike Huckabee.

Leave aside the fact that Huckabee was (unaccountably, but somehow truthfully nonetheless) a passing friend of Senator McCain's, and thus predisposed to take on someone else as the contest narrowed. Leave aside the fact that it was perhaps inevitable that they would clash: with Thompson a cypher, Ron Paul too much on the fringe for most even rather serious conservatives, and McCain and Giuliani occupying a moderate, pro-war, foreign-policy heavy middle, that left Huckabee and Romney alone seriously shooting for the Christian right vote. No, putting all that aside, there remains the question: did Huckabee undermine Romney's campaign through and because of bigotry?

I have a good friend, another Mormon, who has lived pretty much all his life in the South, and so despite my years in Mississippi, Arkansas, and now Kansas, I usually defer to him when it comes to interpreting Southern Baptist habits and words. And he is convinced that Huckabee's relentless attacks on Romney and his candidacy--attacks that at the very least played a not insignificant role in keeping some social conservative voters from straying over to the Romney camp, especially in the lead-up to South Carolina, Florida, and Super Tuesday--were not primarily the result of political calculation, but rather the result of religious prejudice. I quote from two recent e-mails of his:

I haven't seen any polls on the Mormon issue; but in listening to Huckabee supporters on TV and radio for the past month, it's clear that most of them have a profound distrust and often contempt for Romney, which makes it easy for me to assume that anti-Mormon sentiment plays at least some role--possibly a big role--in Huckabee's success. His continued Romney baiting--often in expressly religious terms--suggests that he's not unaware of that prejudice. ("Tonight, we are making sure America understands that sometimes one small smooth stone is even more effective than a whole lot of armor." So he's David to the evil Goliath. "And we have also seen that the widow's mite has more effectiveness than all the gold in the world." He's the hero of Jesus' parable and Romney is a Pharisee.)....Huckabee will stay in at least as long as Romney stays in. If he does, I'm sure at some point we'll hear him talking about how his campaign walks through the primaries "without purse, and scrip, and shoes"....Overtly religious rhetoric and posturing--especially on a consistent basis over the duration of a campaign--is an extremely unusual thing in American politics--even in the Republican party. Not even Pat Robertson in his '88 bid went as far as Huckabee has gone with the religious rhetoric, despite having a much more ambitious "moral" agenda. The thought that this decision is just a natural outgrowth of having once been a preacher, rather than a deliberate rhetorical strategy to consolidate a certain segment of voters and differentiate himself positively from his chief competitor, just seems like a stretch to me....They really do hate Mormons, man.

As I had to confess to my friend, I may be in the grips of an odd prejudice here (a doubly odd one for a Mormon to hold), but I just can't buy this. I have no doubt that more than a few of those evangelicals who turned out to vote for Huckabee on Super Tuesday did so because of anti-Mormon bigotry; I'm also quite certain that Huckabee and at least some of his people know this, and haven't gone out of their way to squelch it. But then...well, I don't know what to say beyond that. Obama is most certainly benefiting from votes coming from both Democrats and independents who loathe Hillary Clinton as some kind of communist lesbian vampire bitch; sure, he treats her with respect, but neither is he going the extra mile to make sure everyone knows that Senator Clinton is a perfectly fine and decent candidate. Politics makes use of prejudices, both honorable and dishonorable ones. Should the fact that there are (maybe a few, maybe a lot of) anti-Mormons voting against a Mormon candidate for a presidential nomination be something that derails the legitimacy of a whole campaign?

Well, maybe. Maybe if you can show that Governor Huckabee, in choosing his words and his target, is implicitly (or maybe even explicitly) making his opponent seem like an unChristian, untrustworthy, unauthentic human being, and doing so in ways that align very well with anti-Mormon rhetorical tropes. That is, maybe if you can show that Huckabee really has been stoking the fires of bigotry, then you might have a case against him.

I just don't think you can do that. Huckabee--like every candidate--has done some slimy and dishonorable things. Given the block of voters he was competing for, and given the sorts of rhetorical reservoirs he has to draw upon, his slimy and dishonorable things have often had a religious cast to them. Predictably, that religious cast has been an evangelical, Protestant one, and hence can easily be presented as anti-Mormon. But again...where do you go from there? You could, of course, insist upon a level of integrity, decency, and honesty from your presidential candidates. Yet besides the obvious things (like not playing fast and loose with the basic rules of the game, as Bush and his people did long ago in Florida, and as Clinton and her people appear to be trying to do with Florida and Michigan delegates now (see Timothy Burke and Ezra Klein for details)), such expectations often come to ground on subjective matters: did you attack someone's wife, did you lie about someone's record, did you say a mean and cruel thing? Too often, the result is school-yard taunts, of which we all get enough of every two or four years. In the end, I can't complain if it turns out that Huckabee's rhetoric, maybe even his occasional asides to his core audience, are basically tribal--as I recently said, I not only don't object to a little non-violent tribalism, I actually think it can often be a necessary and good thing. Mormons do it too, that's for certain (go ahead, get a random bunch of Mormon missionaries together, and ask them their honest opinion of Jehovah's Witnesses). And so, if a Mormon takes to the public square, especially the biggest public square of them all, he may find his tribe employed against his will or even against his notion of fair play in order to go along with the self-definition and get-out-the-vote drives of someone else.

As for me, well, I've never met Huckabee; I voted for him once for governor of Arkansas, but as I've said a couple of times before, I wouldn't vote for him for President. But I like the man because he reflects, at least potentially, a populist conservative sentiment that I can intellectually get behind, a sentiment that our country needs more of. Romney, in my view, didn't do any of that; hence, I'm not sad to see Huckabee remaining a player in the Republican contest and Romney throwing in the towel. I would be sad--I would be angry, I would be frustrated and depressed and pissed--if the only message here was "no one will listen to a Mormon, because they hate us." But at most, I think the message here is "if a Mormon without any deep roots in or even much of a relationship with the Christian rights decides, for some mix of personal conviction and political calculation, to make a play for Christian right voters against a former Southern Baptist preacher, one that will not be above making jokes and comments here and there to demonstrate his bona fides to his core supporters, prepare to not win." The anti-Mormonism out there--which surely is real, but is just as surely, I think at least, to be mostly implicit and/or subconscious and/or in the eye of the beholder--is just going to be the (admittedly somewhat bitter) icing on your farewell cake.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Super Tuesday Roundup

Ok, and now a few thoughts, somewhat more detailed than last night:

Regarding my intellectual-if-not-truly-actual support for Mike Huckabee: Like Rod Dreher, I'm very pleased and surprised. I really didn’t expect much from him last night, assuming that the power of dominant media narratives (“Looks like McCain’s the front-runner…yep, he’s the front-runner…you want to support the front-runner, don’t you?”), to say nothing of the siren-call of “electability,” made it an almost foregone conclusion that McCain would sweep the delegate count. So I’m marvelously impressed that Huckabee did as well as he did; also like Rod, I think this bodes well for my hope of keeping an at least pseudo-populist voice present in the midst of the I-still-think-unavoidable impending wreckage of the Republican party. I actually find myself rather upset about his very close loss in Oklahoma and especially Missouri; he really should have, and very nearly did, take both those states. It wouldn’t have changed the dominant media spin if he had, but it would have made Huckabee and his views appear that much more legitimate in the eyes of skeptics. Next up is Kansas (again, he ought to win here, but may not; that damn electability thing again), Louisiana (and chance there, perhaps? Has Jindal endorsed anyone?), Washington (probably no hope there) and Virginia (again, in such a strong defense industry state, little to no chance, I would guess). So not very many prospects looking him in the face at present. But I at least hope he has the gumption and the money to keep banging on his pots throughout the month of February.

Regarding Romney: I’m genuinely impressed that he took Minnesota, and by such a wide margin too; I never would have expected that. The rest of the states he won were either those where his control of state Republican voters was a forgone conclusion (Massachusetts and Utah), those with a very low population (North Dakota and Alaska), and those with a significant number of Mormons or business-sympathetic evangelical voters to put him over the top (Montana and Colorado). Listening to his speech late Tuesday night, though, I have to admit that he’s becoming a leaner, better campaigner. I knew he would be better once he got away from retail, handshaking politics (which he’s truly stiff and miserable at), but nonetheless, he’s really made a step up. There is some talk, particularly among Mormon Republicans, that he would have been able to more comfortably, more persuasively, mold himself into the sort of idea-driven, not-hung-up-on-religion-and-culture, Reagan-style western conservative that he's clearly best at being if he hadn't stuck with Massachusetts as his base (in that the culture war tension there supposedly forced him into Baptist-style speaking far more than was necessary), but I don't know what he options were. Utah? Michigan? I'm dubious either of them would have worked in the long haul. Still, he's out there campaigning, not giving up yet. I have no idea how long his family and bank account will allow him to try to spend his campaign into oblivion, but I suppose as long as Rush Limbaugh and the National Review gang love him, he’ll be able to talk himself into going on.

Regarding Clinton and Obama: All Melissa could say this morning was “What is it with Americans? Do so many of us actually WANT an aristocracy? Do so many of us actually LIKE the idea of royal families running the show?” I was afraid to answer her, because I fear that she’s not far off from the truth. Alexander Hamilton would be happy; Thomas Jefferson would be appalled.

All that being said, I can’t make any overall sense out of the particular tea leaves of their map of winnings. I’m quite surprised at Clinton taking Oklahoma and Tennessee, and both states so decisively; I figured they would at least be within reach for Obama. It’s not surprising that she took the big eastern and western state Democratic delegate prizes, as those votes come overwhelmingly come from metropolitan areas (or areas wherein recent ex-urbanites predominate), whereas Obama, though no slouch when it comes to cosmopolitan voters (Connecticut proves that), mostly won on the backs of African-American, rural, and independent western Democrats, taking states across the south, west and the Great Plains. (My bet is that he takes Nebraska and Louisiana this Saturday, with the former contest being easier than the latter; no bets on Washington, though he and his people have been campaigning heavily there.) As for Clinton....well, look, I’m not Hillary-hater; I actually like It Takes a Village, flaws and all. But her communitarian politics, substantive though they may be, can be seen as having been cut almost purely from a straight-out-of-the-early 20th-century big-city Progressive mold, whereas Obama can genuinely speak with at least a dash of genuine, get-out-the-vote, people-matter-to-the-common-good populism, which still resonates somewhat in some of less crowded parts of our country. I hope he hangs on for a while longer….though I fear that, in the end, Clintonian hardball, as Ross recently observed, is going to crush him when the superdelegates get counted. Ultimately, Obama is trying to win everywhere he can; his goal is the "momentum primary," the media-spin, the prize of convincing enough people that some sort of real "general will" thing is happening around him. Whereas Clinton can't be bothered with any of that Rousseau stuff; she's mostly allowed the small-to-medium-size-state caucus votes to go to Obama (check it out: he consistently wins big majorities in caucus states, while his primary wins have been very narrow), and aimed hard at the big prizes: California and the like. Close to half the American voting electorate hates her, and she knows it; but all she needs, both now and in November, is 50% plus one. It's really not my fight, ideologically or otherwise, but still, here's to hoping she doesn't get it.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Why Caucuses Suck in Big Cities in the Wintertime (Also, My Obama Vote)

6:33pm: I hit the road, after eating a quick dinner (mm...jambalaya; well, it is Mardi Gras, after all) and making some last minute phone calls, passing along the news that a church youth activity scheduled for tonight (one that I was supposed to be in charge of, but had passed off to other people so I could attend the Democratic caucus) was being canceled on account of sleet and slick roads. It doesn't look that bad, I think to myself, as I turn down Tyler street heading for Kellogg, Wichita's main east-west corridor.

6:37pm: I'm backed up to a near-complete standstill on Kellogg. I check my watch. The caucus rules said that if you weren't in line by 7:00pm, you couldn't participate. My district's caucus is taking place at Newman University, right across Kellogg from Friends University, where I work (the school's have a friendly rivalry); normally it's only a five minute drive. I should be ok, I think.

6:49pm: I'm still basically stuck. This is insane. I can't ever see the accident yet. At least, there had better have been an accident; if all this is because somebody is making a really slow entrance off the on-ramp, I'm going to be pissed.

6:52pm: I'm not going to make it. I call home, telling my wife that I'll be able to help her put the kids to bed after all (give me break: times are tight, we couldn't afford a babysitter this week, and she told me to go, saying I cared more about the process than she anyway).

6:54pm: A miracle. There's an opening in the backed up traffic, and suddenly I can see the accident (yep, it was a serious one) and freedom beyond. I disregard safety precautions and gun the motor, sliding a little as I go.

7:00pm: I pull into Newman University's main parking lot. There are no spaces available anywhere.

7:03pm: I pull around to the back parking lot, and park illegally, blocking several cars in. I rush towards the De Mattias Fine Arts building, and find it open. The place is a madhouse, with hundreds of people forming, breaking, and reforming lines in a cramped main hallway, all shouting loud enough that the too-few volunteers with megaphones cannot be heard. I squeeze myself into one line, than another. I'm registered to vote, but not registered as a Democrat. I need a form. Does anyone have a form? Anyone? People are heading into their caucus rooms! I'm going to be left behind, after having endured the ice on Kellogg! Please! My kingdom for a form!

7:10pm: Someone finds me the right form. I fill it out, hand it off to a volunteer, and I'm on my way.

7:13pm: After having lost my way twice (I've never been on Newman's campus before, despite the fact that this building is located only about a half-mile from my office--hey, I said we were rivals), I find a Clinton supporter who points me the right way. But first he wants to know: why support Obama? Clinton has the experience; Clinton has fought for children and education; Clinton's a moderate (turns out this guy's a pretty conservative Democrat); and Obama's a big mystery. So where's the appeal, beyond his persona?

I wonder if I should get all Ph.D.-ey on the guy, and lecture him about the role of persona, character, and image in moving democratic majorities, and the importance of such movement to accomplishing anything in our less-than-responsive representative system. But I decide not to, since I'm not sure I really believe that. I also decide not to argue about Clinton's vs. Obama's policy recommendations; neither of them have really done or said anything that makes me think there's any great ideas waiting to be discovered there. So, in the end, I just say what my heart tells me: that we need new blood. That we've had a Bush and a Clinton and a Bush and the ongoing arguments and prejudices and hates between those families need to end. Completely aside from her substantive political positions (both those that I like and those that I hate), she's a Clinton; it's not necessarily her fault that she's found herself drawn into a bit of good-old fashioned dynastic ambition (though she certainly hasn't gone out of her to reject it either), but still, there's a reason old-school small-r republicans are suspicious of power being concentrated in any one family's hands, and there's a reason why committed small-d democrats shouldn't want an aristocracy. In the end, frustrated social-conservative-economic-liberal that I am, I figured I could at least do my part to help the Democratic party not foist the 1990s on us again.

My interlocutor wasn't convinced, and he lectured me for a while on this policy and that. Eventually he gave up, and we parted amicably. That was the only conversation I have all night.

7:28pm: I'm in the Obama room, being counted. Everyone is talking loudly and no one knows what is going on.

7:42pm: We're being counted again.

7:49pm: We're still being counted; I can't tell is they're still on the second time around or have started on a third. (We are spread around the bleachers, supposedly gathered in groups of 100, but there are still plenty of people milling around on the floor of the gymnasium.) The natives are getting more and more restless. There are occasional attempts to get some "Obama!" cheers going, but they always peter out, as no one is staying in their place and the volunteers keep shouting instructions which no one can hear because only one of them has a deep and loud enough voice to actually make the megaphones work instead of just spit static. Whenever he speaks, everyone applauds, because we can at least make out what he says.

8:12pm: We think we have final count. Maybe.

8:22pm: People are leaving. Someone came in from the Clinton room, and a result was announced--500-something for Obama, with 300-something for Clinton. There were whoops, and then a lot of folks decided that was it for them, even though the volunteers were apparently attempting to get some voting going on who the delegates from our district are actually going to be. Let's give them credit: they've worked hard, they've put up with a lot of hassles and stress and chaos tonight, it's not their fault that the machinery they're working with is clumsy and confusing. But still, 90% of done what we came to do and want to head home.

8:27pm: I make it to the parking lot. The sleet has turning into about 2-3 inches of slow, and it's coming down hard. I clean off the car (no ticket, thankfully) and slowly make my way home.

Christopher Hitchens ripped the Iowa caucus apart as "undemocratic" last year, and he was right to lay into the caucus system in general. They are demanding and convoluted and difficult to present as even a snapshot of the will of (part of) the electorate; at best they a kind of hazy, best-count guess. But let me give caucuses this much credit: if we still lived in the kind of decentralized paradise some of my more-authentically-populist-than-me friends long for, with small communities and intact, familiar neighborhoods and town meetings familiarizing the voters with the issues and each other, than the caucus system really could work. And who knows? Maybe it really does happen that way in Iowa, or even maybe elsewhere in Kansas. But when confronted with modern life--when one accepts, whether happily or angrily, that some form of representative democracy, supported by elections, is what we're left with--then the argument for just a straightforward primary system, with the polls open all day and counted all at once, seems pretty damn compelling. While I'm happy I participated, even if it did mean I had to actually register with one of our dominant political gangs parties (something I'm willing to do when necessary, though I'll probably never be really at peace with it), I don't think what I went through to participate was all that meaningful or important; I would have been just as happy with a simple vote. More happy, actually: if there'd been a primary, rather fixed-time-and-place meeting during the kids bedtime, then Melissa would have been able to vote for Obama too.

Monday, February 04, 2008

"Middleclassness," Martin Luther King, and the Obama Campaign

A couple of weeks ago, Rod Dreher, Caleb Stegall, a couple of other nonconformist conservatives and myself were carrying on an e-mail conversation about Barack Obama and the Afrocentric Christian church he attends, Trinity United Church of Christ, led for the past thirty-five years by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, an unapologetic and evangelical black nationalist. The question was, given that so much of Obama's appeal lays in, as I mentioned before, this inchoate sense that he's speaking an admittedly progressive language which is nonetheless more communal, multiracial, and republican than what one gets from typical liberals (and which thus is therefore somewhat more appealing to certain cultural conservatives than anything they're likely to hear from a Clinton), does his membership in and endorsement of a church which is certainly somewhat exclusionary, or even racist (Louis Farrakhan has had a relationship with Wright that stretches back to the 1980s, and was recently honored as a "giant of the African American religious experience" by a magazine published by Wright's daughter), put a lie to everything Obama supposedly represents? How should those concerned about conserving our common culture think about a presidential candidate comfortable with a church which makes racialist appeals to economic and cultural sovereignty, and associates with racists who do the same?

Well, I had an idea for a post while we were talking about all this, perhaps not coincidentally right around Martin Luther King's Day. I never finished the post though, and kind of let the issue slide. But now Noah Millman's thoughts--brought to my attention by Rod--have brought me back around to thinking about this, and I want to finish up my post before it loses all relevance entirely.

First of all, the racism charge. I don't make any apologies for Farrakhan, and the many times times he's been caught making antisemitic statements over the years; he's been schooled in, and has never separated himself from, a paranoid, weird, even hateful worldview. But associating with Farrakhan, and praising the kind of self-reliance, pride, and community-building his preaching invokes, does not make you a member of the Nation of Islam, or even necessarily an advocate of it. I was in Washington DC during the Million Man March, way back in 1995, and sure, there was a lot of dubious and even borderline contemptuous rhetoric heard that day, from Farrahkan and all the rest. But frankly, I found the whole thing—-complete outsider and foreigner to their collective project that I was—-rather inspiring just the same. The anger of the speakers that day was mixed with positive messages about responsibility and dignity, about remembering all that which their ancestors and progenitors had accomplished, and about conserving and building up that which remained of those accomplishments. As Noah notes in his description of the arguably "exclusivist" (even racist) elements in some Jewish talk, and as Alan Ehrenhalt noted years ago in his defense of the localist, communitarian priorities which held together neighborhoods in 1950s Chicago, many such positive arguments practially depend upon a certain amount of exclusion, of collective self-identification and unity. This isn't an excuse for racism (and it should be noted that Obama has rejected his church's association with Farrakhan and some of his more outrageous statements), but for myself at least, if the point of the message is one of identity, community, and dignity, then I figure I can handle of little bit of non-violent racism along the way. (And hey, if it comes from a guy capable of getting sampled on a Wynton Marsalis recording....well, so much the better.)

Second, and perhaps more challengingly to conservatives, there is Rev. Wright's assessment of "middleclassness" as an aspiration that draws black men and women, really the whole black family and community, into a socio-economic trap, and thus as something to be avoided. Granted that there's more than a whiff of liberation theology and Marxism about this, and progressive as Obama may be on certain issues, he really doesn't come off, policy-wise anyway, as anything other that a smart, conventional liberal. But that just means that, rather than suspecting Obama of being some sort of secret Africal-American communist sleeper agent, one might choose instead to ponder the context in which a black pastor, speaking to a mostly poor and lower-middle-class black Christian audience (with a few hanger-ons like the Obamas), trying to build up black solidarity in a Christian way in the midst of a materialistic, not particularly egalitarian or Christian society, would be led to attack "middleclassness." Obama himself reads it as a straightforward liberal Christian message straight out of the Gospels: a reminder to stay close to the less fortunate amongst your community, and to remember that "to whom much is given, much is required." It most certainly is that; but it is something more to. Read the church's "Black Value System" that Rev. Wright and TUCC uses, and see how he connects the disavowal of middleclassness to a disavowal of the meritocratic (and thus always at least potentially elitist and nonparticipatory and undemocratic) values which hold sway in a capitalist state like our, a state determined above all to discover the most talented individuals out there, and enable (and encourage) them to professionally and socially make lifestyle choices so as to seal themselves off from the rest of their community. This is Christopher Lasch all the way, as Rod has already noted. Quoting Caleb here:

It is important to keep in mind that “middleclass” in this sense primarily denominates an upwardly mobile class (and the victim/ressentment classes it leaves behind) that has a deeply ingrained mental servitude to a hyper-materialism that is one part crude Marxism (oppressor/oppressed) and one part crude capitalism (irrational belief in the end of scarcity and dependence on increasingly destabilizing cycles of creative destruction)--Christopher Lasch described this class very well. “Middleclass” in this sense does not mean stable, localist, traditional communities.

That pretty much nails it; in responding positively to Wright's warning against middle-class mores, Obama was responding to upward-and-onward meritocracy that creates too-often self-justifying gaps between our differences as individuals, rather than a community in which all individuals, bound by something other than the race to keep up with the Joneses, can feel some solidarity. And this distinction is important: please note that there is nothing here which would prevent those concerned about racial justice from embracing middle-class ethics and practices, at least in the sense "middle-class" was once understood, back before deregulation and globalization and cheap oil gave us what Edward Luttwak has properly called "turbo-capitalism"; it is not as though being authentic to one's race or ethnicity or community permanently sets one apart from any system of economic responsibility and success. Granted, there have been rabble-rousers who have claimed this...but Martin Luther King--who, it goes without saying, was no slouch at community-building and seeking unity through religion and work and self-identification either--would have had little patience which such thinking, as (once again) Lasch explained well, in The True and Only Heaven:

The movement achieved its greatest success wherever it could build on a solid foundation of indigenous institutions and on the middle-class ethic of thrift and responsibility that made them work. Recognizing the importance of an institutional infrastructure in the struggle to achieve dignity and independence, King urged the black community to organize cooperative credit unions, finance companies, and grocery stores. Boycotts of segregated businesses, he pointed out, not only undermined segregation but encouraged Negro enterprise, bringing “economic self-help and autonomy" to the “local community.” He preached the dignity of labor and the need to achieve “painstaking excellence” in the performance even of the humblest tasks. He reminded his followers that too many black people lived beyond their means, spent their money on “frivolities,” failed to maintain high standards of personal cleanliness, drank to excess, and made themselves objectionable by “loud and boisterous” behavior. "We must not let the fact that we are the victims of injustice lull us into abrogating responsibility for our own lives." If he had been accused of upholding petty-bourgeois values, King would probably have taken the accusation as a compliment....[A] more important difference between [the relative levels of success in the civil rights movement in] the North and the South lay in the demoralized, impoverished condition of the black community in cities like Chicago, which could not support a movement that relied so heavily on a self-sustaining network of black institutions, a solidly rooted petty-bourgeois culture, and the pervasive influence of the church. The movement sought to give black people a new dignity by making them active participants in the struggle against injustice, but it could succeed unless the materials of self-respect had already been to some extent achieved. As he toured the Northern ghettos after the first wave of riots, in 1965, King was staggered by the desperate poverty he found, but he was even more discouraged by the absence of institutions that would sustain the black community's morale (pgs. 394-395, 398-399).

There's so much more than could be unpacked in this story, of course. In some ways Martin Luther King, with his embrace of middle-class self-sufficiency, and Jeremiah Wright's rejection of so-called "middle-class" meritocracy, are both insufficient solutions (and don't get me started on Malcom X). King in time turned to greater federal intervention and social democracy, while Wright has come to embrace a level of racial defensiveness and contention that King would have never accepted. Obama, to be certain, won't be either one of them--though one could hope that he is inspired by the best, most traditional and civic and egalitarian elements of both. As more and more of us are discovering, Obama is an interesting case, someone both caught up by and carrying ideas and possibilities that may well be, at least in some small way, something new and needed in America today, something that can incorporate occasional imperfections and harshness in the expression of that which can actually build something worth participating in. Who knows whether he'd be able to carry it all the way through the general election, even assuming he gets that far, much less whether it would actually mean anything on the level of policy. But at the very least, there's more going on in the words of Obama, Rev. Wright, and the whole history of the black struggle behind them both, than simple racist exclusion. To think that is to fail to think through the long history they are a part of entirely; it is to fail to take King and all those who fought and thought and marched with him with the seriousness they deserve.