Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Brilliant, Scary, Visionary, and Strange

Anyone who has read this blog at all knows that if there's one thing I'm not it's a so-called techno-libertarian, or whatever you want to call them. Leaving completely aside my communitarianism and everything else, there's the simple fact that at heart I'm an old-fashioned, read-the-dead-tree-newspaper-with-breakfast-every-morning, make-my-students-hand-in-actual-papers-to-my-actual-hands fuddy-duddy. The most advanced technology I use in the classroom is chalk. I don’t know what the deal is with “Web 2.0,” and I tend to be suspicious of those who claim to know. I don't like Blackberries, and I worry about the people who do.

I don't imagine that'll change. But still, just now, via Making Light (the wonderful blog of the Nielsen Haydens), I stumbled upon and watched with fascination a video of a 15-minute talk given by Clay Shirky (some sort of high-tech guru, I presume) that put the whole vision of an endlessly interconnected world of media and information into a context where, for a few moments at least, I really got it. I'm dubious about much of the history he invokes, and his math to calculate just "where do people find the time?" sounds a little crackpot to me...and yet the whole thing, his imagined evolution of us from passive tv-watchers to interactive Wikipedia-page-writers, was brilliantly persuasive. In 15 minutes, he travels from the wrenching changes of the industrial revolution (and its essential technology, gin), to the unexpected wealth of the post-WWII world (and its essential technology, the television sitcom), to the "cognitive surplus," to Pluto, and beyond. Watch the whole thing to the end, to make sure you get the somewhat scary (but oh so truthful) story of the 4-year-old and the dvd player.

I’m not yet convinced that the world he’s describing is real, or that I’ll be happy raising my children in it...and blogger though I may be, I still refuse to buy a Blackberry, and our rather simple dvd collection is more than adequate for keeping a lid on our entertainment needs, thank you very much. But still, I think I can understand the strange promise of that Blackberry, webby, downloadable, borderless, interactive world a little better now. Give it a look, and decide for yourself.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday PSTSS: "American Skin (41 Shots)"

There are a lot of performers and bands that I have never seen live, and wish I had the time and money to do so. And there are a lot of famous concerts I would love to have seen, and a lot of live albums whose recording I wish I could have been a part of, even if that just means having been one of a few hundred or a few thousand voices cheering in the background. I'm thinking in particular of Joe Jackson's Big World, the Rolling Stone's Stripped, Robyn Hitchcock's Robyn Sings, or either of the two shows recorded on the Police's Live! But as far as I'm concerned, one show--or rather, one series of shows--and one recording that came out of it stands above them all: any of the ten concerts Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played at Madison Square Gardens, June 12 through July 1, 2000, at the conclusion of their massive "Reunion" tour, the concerts which gave us the magisterial Live in New York City. And of course, as anyone can tell you, the highlight of that album, packed as it is with brilliant live music, was Springsteen's long, initially haunting, then angry, then ferocious, then finally mournful tribute to the 1999 police shooting victim Amadou Diallo....and, in a larger sense, to all Americans who have to navigate worlds of crime, brutality, suspicion, anger, false judgment, danger, and racism every day: "American Skin (41 Shots)." And really, there's nothing more to say than that.

I'm including the lyrics as they are sung on the album, excluding part of the intro and the fadeout; if you don't catch the spirit of the live performance of the song, there's almost no point in the lyrics at all.

41 shots...
41 shots...
41 shots...
41 shots.

41 shots;
and we'll take that ride,
'cross this bloody river
to the other side.

41 shots;
cut through the night.
You're kneeling over his body in the vestibule,
praying for his life.

Well, is it a gun?
Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet?
This is your life.

It ain't no secret (it ain't no secret)--
it ain't no secret (it ain't no secret)--
no secret my friend:
you can get killed just for living in
your American skin.

41 shots...
41 shots...
41 shots...
41 shots...

41 shots.
Lena gets her son ready for school.
She says "On these streets, Charles
you've got to understand the rules.

If an officer stops you, promise me
you'll always be polite,
and that you'll never ever run away.
Promise Mama you'll keep your hands in sight."

Well, is it a gun?
Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet?
This is your life.

It ain't no secret (it ain't no secret)--
it ain't no secret (it ain't no secret)--
no secret my friend:
you can get killed just for living in
your American skin.

41 shots...
41 shots...
41 shots...
41 shots.

41 shots...
41 shots...
41 shots...
41 shots.

Is it a gun?
Is it a knife?
Is it in your heart,
is it in your eyes?

It ain't no secret (it ain't no secret)--
it ain't no secret (it ain't no secret)--
it ain't no secret (it ain't no secret).

41 shots;
and we'll take that ride,
'cross this bloody river
to the other side.

41 shots;
got my boots caked in this mud.
We're baptized in these waters (baptized in these waters)
and in each other's blood (and in each other's blood).

Is it a gun?
Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet?
This is your life.

It ain't no secret (it ain't no secret)--
it ain't no secret (it ain't no secret)--
it ain't no secret (it ain't no secret):
no secret my friend.
You can get killed just for living in--
you can get killed just for living in--
you can get killed just for living in--
you can get killed just for living in--
you can get killed just for living in
your American skin.

Still More Updates

And on basically the same topics as before, no less.

First, the discussion about Texas's raid on the FLDS compound in El Dorado, TX--and about the women and children caught up in the FLDS cult and the subsequent raid, and about issues of custody and definitions of abuse and the history of religious discrimination--is continuing at great length on a few blogs, both Mormon and otherwise. For the Mormon perspective on this tragedy (meaning both the suffering in the families and lives that have been twisted through their acceptance of this way of life, as well as the trauma and precedents which may unavoidably follow in the wake of Texas's effort to investigate and end it), check out further blog posts at Millennial Star, Messenger and Advocate, and Times and Seasons. For a terrific, contentious couple of threads that are arguing about the "outrage" of polygamy, check out Laura's blog here and here. (And also Rod Dreher's here.)

Second, the rambling discussion of Obama's "bitter" comments, which I thought I'd said my last about here in response to Patrick Deneen's brilliant summing up of the whole mess, may have finally come to an end. (And just in time for next Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary!) But before the week ends, there comes from The New Republic one of the truest, best, non-theoretical, just-the-facts bits of "true and defensible" populist criticism I've ever read. Let me just hit some highlights:

William Kristol wrote in his New York Times column that Senator Obama was "disdainful of small-town America--one might say, of bourgeois America." The problem is that small-town America can no longer be characterized as "bourgeois." Bourgeois people are supposed to own things. But over the past few decades, rural Americans have seen their ownership of their communities hollowed out by relentless consolidation in the retail and financial sectors--to say nothing of agriculture. While Obama is right to emphasize the fact that rural areas are hurting financially, the problem is not just cyclical changes in the economy but a deeper crisis of ownership.

I saw this destruction of local ownership happen to my own town, Grayling, which was settled in the 1870s as a lumbering outpost in the northern part of Michigan's lower peninsula. When I was born in the mid-1970s, the people in Grayling were still the owners of the town. Even though only a few thousand people lived there, they bought what they needed in a functioning, locally owned economy, in which there was only one business--an A & P supermarket--that was not owned by residents. Businesses were financed by local banks that were controlled largely by local directors, who made decisions based on what they thought was best for the community in which they lived. People were independent.

Today, the situation has changed dramatically. Although a few shops are still run by local owner-operators, the economic landscape is now dominated by chain stores, absentee investor-owners, and shopping malls in nearby towns. There are no longer any locally controlled banks. The range of available goods is largely similar, and prices might be a bit lower. But far more important than any statistic is the change in ownership and control. The simple truth is that the people no longer determine the economic destiny of their own community....

[W]hereas Kristol tried to compare Senator Obama to Marx (for implying that religion is the opiate of the people), the relevant political thinker to cite is not Marx but Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson believed that freedom had to be rooted in the kind of economic independence that can come only from ownership. A republic could be secure only if its citizens owned and controlled their means of making a living. Otherwise, they would be dependent on whoever paid them and thus not truly free. Government's role was to increase the number of citizens who owned and directly controlled productive resources. As Jefferson put it, "Legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property." It is precisely this Jeffersonian concept of economic self-direction as the basis of political freedom that small-town Americans have seen slipping away from them over the past several decades....In the end, the problems of rural America--some 20 percent of the country--will not be solved until we rediscover the political and social value of ownership for its own sake rather than for the sake of economic efficiency.

As we bloggers tend to say, read the whole thing.

Damon Linker and the True Believers

(That almost sounds like band's name, doesn't it? Some groovy pop-jazz quintet from the 50s, perhaps, or maybe an ironic punk-rock group from 70s-era London. Think Elvis Costello and the Attractions, only more Straussian.)

My old friend Damon has had an interesting religious journey in his life, as those who know him well are aware. It has helped make him into, I think, one of our most interesting, challenging, and frustrating public thinkers on matters of politics and faith. Interesting because he's well schooled in philosophy and thus is capable of making pretty deep observations and comments; challenging because he almost always couches those observations and comments in sharp, polemical, thought-provoking ways; and frustrating because...well, mostly because I think he is, repeatedly, only about 50% right in his critiques and opinions. He masters all the details very well, but the bigger picture, the other half of the story, seems to elude him. (Of course, he would say that I can't ever even make a good argument for that bigger picture: that I always fall back on hermeneutical talk which is mostly gussied up intuitions and assumptions and faith. Which is, I suppose, part of the point.)

I've tangled with Damon arguments about religion at some length before, specifically regarding his book on theoconservatism, and his long TNR article on Mitt Romney and Mormonism. Since those publications, he's continued to work on related issues, turning his fundamentally liberal outlook and critical sensibilities against all those who would make religious belief more than the doubtful, hesitant, hopeful, and essentially private matter he believes it ought to be in a democratic society--and this applies to those who would launch atheistic crusades as well as devotional ones. The essay of his which interest me now is actually one of his shorter ones--a thoughtful, appreciative, but ultimately critical look at Charles Marsh's Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity. Marsh's thesis can be summed up in a single sentence: he believes that evangelical Christians and churches in America have, in their widespread devotion to the Republican party agenda in general and George W. Bush's presidency in particular, made a "colossal wreck of the evangelical witness"; they have betrayed their faith, become idolatrous, and are mocking the Jesus who died to save us all. Damon's thesis cannot be so easily summed up; while he is in substantial agreement with Marsh, he also has significant concerns with where Marsh takes his argument:

[M]uch of [Wayward Christian Soldiers] is written in a prophetic register, alternating between rebuke and exhortation, as Marsh tries to persuade his [evangelical] readers of the enormity of their transgressions. He employs a rhetoric of outraged denunciation most effectively in his introduction, where he recounts visiting a Christian bookstore near his home in the spring of 2003, shortly before the start of the Iraq war. The store was stocked with "a full assortment of patriotic accessories--red-white-and-blue ties, bandanas, buttons, handkerchiefs, 'I support our troops' ribbons, 'God Bless America' gear, and an extraordinary cross and flag bangle with the two images welded together and interlocked"....Marsh is well aware that such displays reflect the genuine views--the deeply held political opinions and spiritual convictions--of the American evangelical community. Unlike secular liberal critics such as Thomas Frank, who argues that the social conservatism of evangelicals is the product of elite manipulation on the part of Republican Party politicians and media consultants, Marsh understands that all the political consultants in the world could not produce the astoundingly strong support for the GOP found among conservative Protestants....There is nothing ironic, mitigated, or partial about the evangelical commitment to the Bush administration--and this is what infuriates Marsh more than anything else....

Marsh stands firmly within the mainstream of the Christian theological tradition in making this and similar criticisms, which go back at least to Augustine's City of God, if not to even earlier documents. These sources...teach Christians that however much they may love their terrestrial homes, their families as well as their political communities, their true home lies elsewhere, in the next life, in eternal unity with Jesus Christ. They must always remember, in other words, that love for God comes first, conditioning, ordering, and limiting the scope and intensity of their other loves. For a devout Christian, then, patriotism can never be uncomplicated, never wholehearted. It will always be to some extent ironic, mitigated, partial--an unstable alloy of divine love and human selfishness....From the perspective of this genuine follower of Christ, the profane faith of American evangelicals, which worships American power in the name of God, fails to confess "Christ as Lord" and ends up "incarcerating Christ in our own ideological gulags"....

Marsh's strenuous, uncompromising version of Christian belief, which insists on placing theological commitments ahead of political commitments, presents a nobler vision of the faith than the heavily politicized one that currently prevails among America's evangelicals. But is this purer form of Christianity good for liberal politics? Does the contemporary United States suffer from an absence of prophets and martyrs? Would American democracy (as opposed to American Christianity) be better off if its tens of millions of religious conservatives were replaced with an equal number of would-be Dietrich Bonhoeffers?...Marsh's injunction that a public servant should never allow his service to the nation to compromise his loyalty to Jesus Christ [is] a demand that could pose a significant problem for Christians in American public life, many of whom swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution above all else. Precisely how big a problem it would be will depend on how often and how severely the two spheres--religion and politics--conflict with each other, requiring Christians to make a choice between their duties to God and to country. And this, too, will depend on context. A conservative evangelical will experience such conflict rarely (at least under a Republican president). A Christian who upholds orthodoxy as Marsh defines it, on the other hand, will experience such conflict regularly (especially, it seems, under this Republican president). No wonder Marsh concludes his wistfully reminding his readers of the time, "not so long ago, when evangelical Christians regarded their marginal place in society as a mark of their faithfulness to Christ." Despite his desire to bring the authentically prophetic voice of a purified Christianity to bear on American public life, Marsh's theological commitments ultimately point beyond the moral compromises and imperfections that mark politics in all civilized times and places, including our own.

There is more in Damon's essay--much more--but this captures the gist of it. He admires Marsh's powerful, Neibuhrian critique of the temptation Christians face to idolatrously identify their political political preferences with religious truth. (A temptation which he agrees with Marsh that a great many Protestant evangelicals and other Christians in America have given into; indeed, he starts out his review baldly stating "Who would now deny that the political ascendancy of the religious right has been bad for the United States? Its destructive consequences are plain for all to see.") But Damon's belief that "theological certainties" and attributions of "metaphysical significance" are always damaging and polarizing leads him to dislike Marsh's religious critique of the political activities and rhetoric of his fellow evangelicals, thinking that it leads Marsh into a self-righteousness and a "distinctly un-Madisonian" attitude towards how citizens ought to behave towards and what they ought to expect of one another in democratic societies. And while Damon is clearly no friend of the kind of populist, "emotivist piety" which so often sneaks affective and partisan messages into the Christian message, he is also bothered by Marsh's dismissal, from a Barthian neo-orthodox perspective, of the kind of theological liberalism which played a role in admitting such subjective experiences into Christian theology in the first place, asserting that, in contrast to a strict commitment to the "objective truth of revelation," some form of theological liberalism has long been defended as "the only intellectually honest position for a modern believer to take."

A couple of points to make here. First, I suspect that Damon agrees with Marsh more than he knows; as I argued in my long review of his book The Theocons, I think that Damon helps to reveal something that Marsh asserts in his book--that the seriously religious conservatives who have emotionally and piously identified themselves with a history and an ideology that leads up to George W. Bush's presidency really are liberal, as much as they furiously deny it. As I wrote before:

[The thecons believe that] secular society has stripped down and made "naked" the liberal order; a religious revival is needed to clothe it again. But if this is so, then that suggests that theoconservatism actually agrees with the liberal distinction between the public and private realm, which this account of secularism depends upon. In other words, [they would argue that] the baseline problem with the modern world is that people have become too lenient in moving certain elements of human life from the public over into the private realm; the solution is not to change how people think about religion and public life, but simply rhetorically and politically get large numbers of individuals to move their religion out of their private world and into the public one. [Rev. Richard] Neuhaus's pre-occupation with finding a language which is both public and authoritative thus makes sense; he wants to persuasively recast religion as something public and ordinary, something that popular majorities can and will agree and submit to, not because it is, say, the underlying structure of all human consciousness, but because we'll all, as individuals, consent to it (if we know what's good for us).

But (unfortunately, to my mind) Damon didn't pursue this line of thought in his own critique, preferring to elaborate an argument which draws upon classical liberal and constitutional sources--John Locke, James Madison, and others--to insist upon the utility, the prudence, of keeping religion rigorously privatized. Don't move any of that doubtful, hopeful, dubious, personal stuff from one side of the wall of separation to the other! It can only lead, he suggests, to violence, to inflammatory rhetoric, to false judgments and pre-occupations that do not serve the modern liberal states that we all aspire to live in at all well. Consequently, while he allows that Marsh's Barthian critique of evangelical abuses is "both clever and compelling," he cannot agree with it. I suspect that Damon would have to allow that, of course, an authoritative understanding, conveyed through a church or tradition, of what really are (and are not) "theological certainties" would properly resist the sort of use that more than a few Catholic theocons have, in reaching out to (and perhaps absorbing some of the mentality of?) evangelical Protestants, put them to. A Christian message that really did properly, as Marsh maintains, begin and end with a connection of service to all those whom the love of God has brought one together with through "worship and prayer--rich and poor, black and white, American, Asian, African, the immigrant crossing the border, the victims of violence, the reviled, the outcast and the pariahs, heterosexuals and homosexuals"--really shouldn't be easily be made serviceable to mere "partisan allies and compatriots." But I also suspect that, even if he did allow for this possibility, he would add that it couldn't resist the temptation for long; once it encountered the "moral compromises and imperfections" of the public square, it would respond badly, transforming itself by merging with one or another platform, thus becoming a threat to the practical, individual, liberal promises of modern democracy, if not the twisted "idol" Marsh condemns such a transformed faith to be.

Second, this brings us back around to the hard question of religious "witnessing" within the liberal order. By the lights of Damon's argument, can it ever be done? Well, of course is can be; freedom of religion and freedom of speech are central tenets of this order. But what should such witnesses aspire to do? The implicit argument of Damon's essay is that religious believers should embrace the sort of theological liberalism which will allow them to express, if they feel so inclined, their private and personal religious views in light of American pluralism--that is, they should express themselves in ways that are humble, tentative, open-minded, and "liberal" in the most fundamental sense. Rather the "grandstanding" which comes from a Barthian conviction in limited, clear, absolute revelatory truths, much less the emotional, pious, purified Christian "vision of a more perfect world" (on the evidence of his past writings, Damon might suggest that at least some of the theocons manifest the worst of both of these tendencies: a complete devotion to a definitive revelation of truth, alongside a hankering to see in everyday political struggles a Manichean war over the instantiation of said truth), religious believers should instead allow themselves to be "at once chastened and emboldened by the knowledge that on this side of eternity our saints will not be statesmen and our statesmen will not be saints." That seems reasonable enough. But does it rob those Christians who do wish to take their witness into the public realm of the force of their convictions? Are the qualifications Damon makes in response to Marsh's criticisms of conservative evangelicals today--criticisms that Damon for the most part clearly applauds--such that the power of prophetic witnessing is shown rather to be a distraction, a mistake, misguided, bound to be misunderstood. Damon concludes his essay by speaking of "the nobility of the true believers," but adds that "those of us who do not share their faith cannot help but wonder about the moral status of their impulse to secede from the often mundane duties and responsibilities of political citizenship." Of course, those of us who are (or at least aspire to be) true believers don't think secession is the proper term here; we would consider it a matter of standing apart and calling others out. But again, perhaps this disagreement is part of the point.

The political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain presented a paper some time ago titled, "How Should We Talk?" (I believe there are several versions of this paper; I'm going off the one I originally encountered at a long ago American Political Science Association meeting, which was later republished in A Nation Under God? Essays on the Future of Religion in American Public Life.) In this essay, Elshtain presents several different options for speaking about and speaking of and for religion in America. She begins by simply dismissing the possibility of a legitimate theocratic discourse in this country...a dismissal that Damon might consider a little too easy. But then she presents us with three alternatives for thinking about Christian speaking and justifying. First there is liberal monism: "the view that all institutions internal to a democratic society must conform to a single authority principle, a single standard of what counts as reason and deliberation, and a single vocabulary of political discussion" (pg. 164). This is the view of strict separationists, of John Rawls and his disciples. Next comes full bore Christian politics. This is, clearly, the province of those who would witness to America about her sins and shortcomings, but Elshtain makes an important caveat: citing the examples of Martin Luther King or the Berrigan brothers, she points out that "while those who push for an undiluted 'Christian politics' seek Christian saturation of ordinary, everyday political discourse and action, the figures I have in mind responded to extraordinary situations from the fullness of religious commitment...they tacitly retreat[ed] from the conviction that Christian politics at its fullest variety politics: that the full force of Christian witness must be brought to bare on every public policy question" (pg. 165). So clearly, there is a range of witnessing positions that can be taken under the full bore label, and Elshtain's preferred exemplars (to which I think she could have added some of my heroes, like William Jennings Bryan or Dorothy Day) are definitely on one side of that continuum. Finally, there is what Elshtain calls radical dualism, which she associates with the work of Stanley Hauerwas. Radical dualism's greatest concern "is that when...Christianity...engages politics it is bound to do so on the world's terms, especially in a liberal age. Having accepted a lousy deal by signing on with the liberal social contract and accepting civic peace on the world's terms, the Church ceases to be Church" (pg. 166).

I find Elshtain's positions helpful as a guide for plotting out Damon's position, though of course there is no clean fit at any specific point. But generally, Damon argues that we have certain true believers whose unwitting (or is it?) embrace of the liberal order brings them to a full bore Christian politics that is practically theocratic; in this he goes further than Elshtain, though even she admits that some forms of full bore Christian politics are a "kissing cousin" to theocracy. This, of course, is something that he rightly thinks we should fear. Then there is Marsh, whose ferocious condemnation of the compromises his fellow evangelicals have made with the Rpeublican party makes good sense, but ultimately also tends toward a dualistic praise of believers who need to reject the practical realities of politics. This is also, to Damon's way of thinking, to be rejected. What is left? Well, I suspect Damon would be uncomfortable with the liberal monism label, as it too sounds much too closed-off, too determined, too exclusionary for the kind of questioning liberalism he prefers. Still, considering his stated position that religion is best kept fairly firmly separated from political and policymaking arguments, the monist position, or at least an advocacy of the practical consequences of such, is probably his place in this particular scheme.

The question which Damon puts out there must then be turned on us believers. Assuming we do not wish to operate within the parameters of liberal monism, and assuming that, as much as we may learn from Hauerwas, Marsh, and their ilk (most importantly, in Elshtain's view, the lesson that Christian teachings "effect...a strong severance...from rights-based liberalism"), we nonetheless do not want to feel obliged to "abandon appeals that have the capacity to stir not only the reason of [our] fellow citizens, but their consciences and souls as well" (that's how Ross Douthat put it, in a long-ago and I think almost completely lost-to-the-internets TNR debate with Damon; can anyone out there find the whole thing?), can we find a way to theorize and practice the kind of full bore Christian politics that King, by Elshtain's light, practiced: being able to issue a jeremiad that "sacralizes" a particular, extraordinary situation, and calls out those who are in the midst of it to almost consecrated action, but not to do so in such a way as to make that sacralizing obligatory, or co-extensive with political life as a whole? In other words, to formally keep open the possibility of--and preserve the structures and systems which enable on occasion--a real prophetic witness being brought forward, one that at the same time does not necessarily carry the force of that witness to every corner of this divided and often doubtful polity?

There are a few rules of thumb here which have been elaborated through our system of laws, arising from the First Amendment, usually involving a presumption in favor of claims of belief that can also be expressed in secular terms--meaning that the religious witness is appropriate in the public square and American politics exactly to the degree which it could be substituted with something else. But this, of course, plays into liberal monist hands, and so we keep looking. This is a hard problem: American pluralism plainly makes true belief a complicated participant in the political world, but what can be discerned in the expression of full-bore belief that might respond to this complication, aside from simply wishing a kind of prudence upon all those individual believers themselves? Answering that question definitively is clearly beyond my ability; the majority of Elshtain's essay explores essentially this very question, and Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor last year released a massive tome which spends hundreds of pages attempting to describe our current "secular" world as one in which possibilities for sacralization--and thus political action on the basis of such appeals--constantly abide. (I've thought a couple of times about blogging my way through it; if you really need to know more, check out the many fine posts that have appeared about in on The Immanent Frame blog...or, if you're a mind to see the above project criticized, see the long, severe, important review of Taylor's book by Charles Lamore in TNR, excerpted at length here by Jacob Levy.) For the moment, I have my own arguments about how to balance a liberal prudence for pluralism and difference with the desire to draw upon the communal deposits of belief that I think invariably structure and support the liberal order...but those arguments themselves, I admit, often come back to the same intuitions and assumptions and faith that I mentioned at the beginning, and all my appeal to continental philosophy can't change that. Does that mean Damon and I, and all the Damons and all the true believers out there, are going to have to agree to disagree, arguing--one hopes civilly--again and again over what to demand of our politics, over what to allow in it and what to make of it? Probably. And really, I'm glad of that: certainly it's better than living in a society where a full-bore-bordering-on-theocratic politics was the unquestioned rule, or a culture where religious belief was so marginal and so weak that the slightest overlap between religious conviction and political action would be a startling--if not laughable--curiosity. Two cheers for democratic politics! There are far worse things than to have to regularly discuss ideas and disagree with Damon Linker. (I hope he feels the same.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"A True and Defensible Populism"

That's how Patrick Deneen puts it. If Obama's gaffe has had any kind of meaningful consequence in the political life of America at this moment, it is that it has forced some truly brilliant political observers and thinkers--Patrick foremost among them--to reflect on class divides, class perceptions, and how both of those phenomena haunt even populist efforts to bridge them (or, perhaps more accurately, to empower those on one side of the class divide). I cannot do better than to quote him a length:

I suggested that at the very least some of the anger expressed in the rural towns of our heartland has its sources in resentment toward the "successful" (and hence, a degree of jealousy), inasmuch as the narrative of progress appears to have been embraced widely and deeply in our culture....[M]y libertarian critics are nevertheless correct to note that many small towns have emptied as other opportunities have arisen. I have a good number of students at Georgetown who come from these sorts of towns, and whose parents hope that they can be given opportunities at a place like Georgetown that will allow them to live and succeed in places like San Francisco. Moreover, and perhaps most problematically, many who remain in those towns have been complicit in the destruction of the economic bases of those very towns by readily embracing the opening of Wal-Marts and Home Depots, and ironically killing off the manufacturing base that once undergirded their communities....

[W]hat do we mean by populism now? Are our small town denizens now any less inclined to shop at Wal-Mart or to watch American Idol than many other Americans? I doubt it; indeed, I suspect they are likely to be more inclined. The populists of the turn of the last century were notable because they realized that they needed to actively defend their way of life against encroachments from the centralizing and homogenizing powers of business and government. I am not so certain that many small town Americans are as willing, or perhaps able, to defend their way of life and the fundamental philosophical bases on which it rests....I think we need to acknowledge that the dominant narrative of progress (and growth and globalization) has become well-nigh monolithic in our age, and intellectual sources of opposition have withered. As discomfiting as it may be, I am inclined to conclude that people who are blessed with some degree of time and the opportunity for reflection, but more importantly, intellectual connections with a countervailing philosophical and religious resources, need to articulate and propound this alternative from every available soapbox. This is discomfiting because it smacks of "elitism," but it also reflects the paradoxical truth that even populism requires an intellectual class to make its best case....I say: Down with false consciousness, up with a true and defensible populism.

"A true and defensible populism." What would that mean, in today's world, coming as it almost certainly must from elites like myself...or Patrick, for that matter, or even Senator Obama? Not that Obama is necessarily a populist, a civic republican, a communitarian, a localist--call it what you will...but as I've argued before, he can sometimes almost sound like one--and more importantly anyway, he seems to be aware of the argument any kind of populist critique must be based upon, though of course what he proposes to do in response to that argument is probably very different from what Patrick would like to see get done. But perhaps all that is besides the point. Shouldn't populism by definition be an expression of that which is "popular," not that which is articulated by elites? Isn't any argument about the "bitterness" and the "interests" of "the people" going to always involve imputations of "false consciousness"?

I say no. The discourse between each and every person who takes the time to familiarize themselves with ideas and argue about how to best theorize them and apply them to one's own and others' lives is, of course, invariably going to be a discourse between members of an intellectual elite...and therefore in today's information economy probably a socio-economic elite as well. But--and this I would insist upon--not all elite ruminations upon our social condition involve allegations of false consciousness, of claims about how "the people" (or maybe just "those people") don't understand what's happening underneath their feet because of patently false or infantilizing or just silly beliefs. Imputations of false consciousness are, to be sure, rampant in academia and the blogosphere, and not just there; we've had generations of stereotypes built up over the years which surround us, stereotypes about "God, guns, and gays" that exist solely to enable others to mock a certain hypothetical class of people and avoid taking their concerns as having any kind of essential cultural significance. Obama came unfortunately close to invoking just such stereotypes in his original comment, and it was unworthy of him. But I believe you can speak in an "elite" way without relying upon them; you can, I think, articulate a populism which does not condescend. You can and should be able to talk about what some of one's fellow citizens do not realize about what's happening to their material lives, and about how they respond to those happenings within a democracy, with sufficient care and concern so as to not fall into these stereotypes which do ride upon implicit allegations of false consciousness. I think you can and should be able to talk about small moves here and there to recover economic and cultural sovereignty--the real heart of populism, which is very different from majoritarianism--while taking the beliefs and practices of Wal-Mart and Home Depot shoppers seriously.

In today's political world, such serious care and concern in speech and thought won't be enough, of course; the charge of "elitism" will be brought against you, and in this age of the mass man, you won't be able to much defend yourself. But you just have to keep on, as Wendell Berry keeps on, aware that most dismiss his critiques of modern life as a kind of reverse-privileged crankery, always hoping that somewhere, someone will understand his point, and recognize the messenger as someone who has done his best to be live alongside those he is speaking to.

It's not easy, that's for sure. There is probably nothing I've worked harder at doing on this blog, and nothing that I've gotten more mixed up with in my sometimes overwrought attempts. I've talked about it in connection with the contemporary farming world, with the economy of big box stores like Wal-Mart, with the presidential contest, and much, much more. A lot of it--my stabs at "simplicity," my elaborations of "left conservatism"--are probably more than a bit of a mess. It's would be much simpler, much more clean, if I could bifurcate things like one my oldest and more consistent critics, Nate Oman, does:

[A]t the end of the day [Obama's] protectionism is not going to bring back highly paid, unskilled, union jobs to anyone. That ship has sailed and unless one is willing to repeat the world holocaust--World War II--that created it. Why do you think there were all of those comfortable, high paid, unskilled, union jobs in the 1950s and 1960s? It is an intellectual's conceit to think that they were created by a different ideology and it is a bit of historical and economic ignorance to think that they were created by tariffs. They existed because with the exception of the United States literally every major industrial region of the globe had been subject to massive aerial bombardment. Scuttling another bilateral trade agreement may serve to hurt a small Latin American economy, but it ain't going to bring back Detroit in its hey-day....Rather than adopting perverse policies in an attempt to rescue or recreate what can't be rescued or recreated, let's provide opportunities to obtain training and expertise that will allow people to prosper in a modern commercial economy....I love the poetry of Wendell Barry and I read it regularly, but I don't delude myself into thinking that it represents intelligent and informed thinking about economics.

Populist hopefuls like Patrick and myself and others are, of course, talking about more than protectionism...but the broad conceptualization of local economic life which presumes the importance of at least certain kinds of protectionism definitely fits within our general scheme, as does our suspicions of the "modern commercial economy." In this, as Patrick observes, we may be making a critique that appeals to sensibilities that are so inchoate, so minimal in the lives of many who have embraced and been lifted up by the global liberal capitalist ethos, that they might possibly be a well that has plain run dry. Not just intellectually, but in terms of practical politics as well. Consider this report on the "white working class" by Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz (cited in this post by Ross Douthat, in which he claims that the problem with Obama's comment wasn't so much any possible reliance upon claims of false consciousness, but simple economic inaccuracy):

Americans, including white working class Americans, generally adopt a bifurcated view of their economic situation that is not easily reflected in populist rhetoric. On the one hand, they tend to believe that things have changed for the worse--that the economy is doing poorly, that the security that families once enjoyed is disappearing, that leaders just don't get it. On the other hand, these very same members of the white working class believe that they are holding up their end of the economic bargain, that they are working hard and doing right by their families, that their story is one of optimism and hope, not pessimism and despair....Populism appeals to the negative, pessimistic side of these voters' outlook, but it frequently falls short in appealing to the positive, optimistic side. These are voters who, after all, are more and more likely to have at least some college education and, over time, have become decidedly more affluent than the New Deal working class....The white working class today is an aspirational class, not a downtrodden one.

Populism, of course, predated the New Deal--indeed, depending on how one looks at it, the New Deal was the death-knell of populism, the final and near-total appropriation of all truly localist, republican, populist, egalitarian and/or agrarian ideas into an industrial, national, individualistic, Progressive context that sapped them of their ability to truly challenge trends in America's socio-economic and cultural life. I don't entirely believe that; I tend to think that a proper populism--a proper concern for economic and cultural sovereignty and collective empowerment--survived into the Progressive and New Deal eras. But I can understand why other populists may doubt this; I mean, look at me: here I am, trying to discern a legitimate populism amid the admittedly elitist husks of Democratic and Republican party rhetoric! Who am I to speak?

Well, I'm a reader of smart, self-critical elites like Patrick Deneen, for one. The conversation which Obama's gaffe brought to the fore is an old one, and it won't be resolved soon. The American polity has changed, and is changing further still, and all the old arguments--including, perhaps most especially, populist ones, have to change with it. Let's hope, as some of us continue in our unfortunately-but-perhaps-unavoidably elitist way to point out the all the democratic, participatory, local, and communal possibilities that are being compromised as our country continues to rush forward, that we won't lose entirely the ability to speak persuasively to that small audience that still needs to and wants to hear someone pontificate upon what they themselves very well may have somewhat lost ability to say.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


First of all, regarding my post on how Texas is dealing with the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints in Texas...Mormon blogger Guy Murray continues to do a fantastic job rounding up all of the pertinent details about the raid on the FLDS compound, and those details aren't making Texas law enforcement (or perhaps just their child protection services, or perhaps both) look very good. I agree with all those who commented on my post that there probably needs to be a willingness to act quickly when minors or children are those who arguably are being threatened by certain behaviors within a closed community...but still--honestly people: taking over 400 children and teen-agers into state custody? Forcibly separating those mothers who had voluntarily left their home to stay with their children from them? Giving them a "choice" of returning to the ranch or going to a battered women's shelter...all without their children? This is still miles better than the Branch Davidians were treated, to be certain, but honestly, at what point does our nervousness about arguably abusive marriage and sexual practices cross over into the sort of bigotry that assumes any kind of family relationship within such a community must be a false one, or at least one subject to casual state interference? Texas is getting mighty close to that point, if they haven't crossed over it already.

I can't do better than to quote from a comment on my previous post, from my old friend David Watkins, in regards to the suggestion that we shouldn't weep too much for the FLDS:

[A]ny community is more than a pedophilia cult; given that it's the (disturbingly closed) universe that plays a central role in giving meaning to people's lives, it will inevitably be more than that...[and] even if and when we're all in agreement that this raid is a necessary and appropriate exercise of state power, we should still be troubled by the degree of state power we're authorizing (not just legally but morally here) and must consider in some detail the way we're authorizing this power such that we're minimizing chances of future abuses of state power following this precedent.

Well said.

Second, in other updates news, check out Patrick Deneen's further and very thoughtful elaboration upon the wonderfully snarky response of his to Senator Obama's gaffe which I discussed over the weekend. (I wish I could summarize the huge, contentious, fabulous, often unfair, often funny, comments thread which Obama's words inspired over at Rod Dreher's place, but not even I have that much time.)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

What Obama Said, What He Should Have Said, and What We Should Think of It

Having written a few long posts on the Obama phenomenon over the past couple of months (including a 2700+ word novella which threw Obama's speech on race together with Ronald Reagan and RFK), I feel kind of obliged to say something about his big gaffe out in California. But it's late, so let me try to keep it relatively short.

1. This is what he said at a fundraiser in San Francisco, according to the reports I've seen:

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then [that] they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

It was a stupid and clumsy thing for him to say. Stupid because he's trying to compete for these white, working-class, blue-collar, often Catholic or evangelical voters in Pennsylvania, and Clinton will use it against will McCain, if Obama gets that far. And it was clumsy because, whether he intended it or not (and he probably did, at least a little bit) throwing guns and God and racism and trade and immigration all together into one sentence--in front of a wealthy San Francisco Democratic audience no less!--can't help but play on crude, Tom Frank-style, redneck stereotypes. Stereotypes that he (a rich, black, cosmopolitan, Harvard-educated, Chicago lawyer) probably believes to some extent...but which he shouldn't ever use, because relying on such stereotypes, even unconscious ones--and this may not have been unconscious at all--undermines exactly the sort of inclusiveness he supposedly is calling his party and his nation to.

2. Patrick Deneen, one of my favorite and one of the smartest of all academic bloggers, a man from whom I and others have learned a lot about the ideas behind localism and populism and those principles central to the lives of those same small town Pennsylvania residents, had this retort:

Someone should advise him to go to Latrobe [that's in Pennsylvania, incidentally] and say the following instead:

"You go to these big liberal cities in California, and like a lot of cosmopolitan centers of libertarian lifestyle individualism, they have benefited from the wrenching displacements you've experienced. They benefited immensely from free-trade and globalizing policies of previous administrations--Democratic and Republican alike--and they've been told that they have earned their status and they owe nothing to anyone. And it's not surprising that they get optimistic, they believe that they can dispense with religion or borders or community as a way to remake the world in exactly their image."

The localist/populist/social democratic/counter-cultural conservative message doesn't get any better than that. Well, said, Patrick.

3. Except...wait. Patrick can't resist goosing his excellent retort with a few of the usual ideological characterizations; he sets up the quote from Obama by saying that we wouldn't expect to be seeing from him "some of the typical Left-Coast elitism when it comes to explaining the backwardness of those superstitious townies who inexplicably do things like hunt, drink Budweiser from long neck bottles, and believe in God." All true enough. Or is it? It seems to me that Patrick's suggested statement is actually the same as Obama's, only with the rhetorical advantage of being able to make a well-known point in reverse. What is that point? It's a comment about borders, and identity, and the value of such to those who are living lives closely tied to family and the land, and the rhythms of nature and scarcity invariably embedded therein. Obama's comment, condescending and crowd-pleasing as it may have been when it came out of his mouth in San Francisco, implicitly acknowledges all that, while Patrick chooses to snarkily underline those transformations and assumptions which allow certain people to go merrily along all while denying those very same essential things. So really, they're in agreement: just that one is making the point in a much more clever, yet also much more respectful way.

Look, I can't, and I don't really want to, defend Obama against the charge of elitism here; it's obvious what was going on during that fundraiser, and for an occasional defender of rural and religious communities like me who has nonetheless found something appealing about Obama, it ain't pretty. But all that being said...did he use that stereotype in order to condemn those folks, to sneer at them, to mock them, to describe them as beyond the pale? I don't quite hear it. I hear a man clumsily (and a little rudely) talking about the fact that, when the socio-economic infrastructure of your life disappears, you naturally become all the more emphatic--with your words, and with your votes--in defense of those things which you can control. You get frustrated and you get protective, particularly when it comes to things like, well, yes, your guns (which are central to your rural hunting lifestyle and culture, anyway) and your church (which you are committed to and believe in and don't want to see marginalized), and your community (which you know was built on good wages, stable property values, and civic, wages and values and trusts that global trade and illegal immigration are compromising). In other words, I see a man telling a friendly audience, in a somewhat condescending way, the truth, or at least a part of that same truth which every culturally conservative critic of modern American life from Patrick Buchanan on down knows by heart.

The senator treated racism and its resentments and legacies with immense care a month ago; it'd be nice to think he'd pick his words just as carefully when talking about the white, rural, blue-collar world. This time around, he definitely didn't. But there are worse crimes than that.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Friday PSTSS: "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"

Hey, I don't care. You're sitting there saying, "What?! This old piece of singer-songwriter sludge from the 70s?" Damn straight. Out of all the storytelling songs released by innumerable oh-so-smooth-yet-somehow-still-moderately-authentic pop-folk artists during the 60s and 70s, this is my absolute favorite. My apologies to Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, Jim Croce, Don McLean, Glen Campbell, Joni Mitchell, and all the rest, but Lightfoot has you beat. Do I have to mention where to find the recording? It was originally released on Lightfoot's 1976 Summertime Dream, but it's probably included on about a thousand compilations and anthologies by now. And the story? Besides the fact that the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was actually heading to Detroit to deliver it's load of iron ore, and only after that was heading to Cleveland to dock for the winter, Lightfoot got pretty much everything right. I know--just read here.

I've visited the Upper Peninsula, and been to the Sault (Soo) Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, but never to the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Bay. Someday, perhaps. Maybe I'll sing the song for my kids if we ever make it. (Yes, if you're asking--I had pretty much the whole thing memorized by the time I was thirteen. FM radio will do these things for you.)

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee.
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
when the skies of November turn gloomy.

With a load of iron ore--26,000 tons more
than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
when the gales of November came early.

The ship was the pride of the American side
coming back from some mill in Wisconsin.
As the big freighters go it was bigger than most,
with a crew and a captain well seasoned.

Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
when they left fully loaded for Cleveland--
and later that night when the ships bell rang,
could it be the north wind they'd been feeling?

The wind in the wires made a tattletale sound
and a wave broke over the railing;
and every man knew, as the captain did, too,
t'was the witch of November come stealing.

The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
when the gales of November came slashing.
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
in the face of a hurricane west wind.

When suppertime came the old cook came on deck,
saying "Fellows, it's too rough to feed ya."
At 7PM a main hatchway caved in;
he said "Fellas, it's been good to know ya."

The captain wired in he had water coming in
and the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when his lights went out of sight
came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
if they'd fifteen more miles behind her.

They might have split up or they might have capsized;
they may have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings,
in the rooms of her ice water mansion;
old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams:
the islands and bays are for sportsmen.

And farther below Lake Ontario
takes in what Lake Erie can send her.
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
with the gales of November remembered.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
in the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral:
the church bell chimed, 'til it rang 29 times
for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee.
Superior, they say, never gives up her dead
when the gales of November come early.

Treating the Cultists Right

I read in my daily paper this morning that Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, who organized last Saturday's raid on a compound used by a Fundamentalist Latter Day Saint group in El Dorado, TX, is coming under some fire for not having acted quickly enough against the cult. He argues that he and others were familiar with the group, had visited the compound (called the YFZ ranch) more than a few times over the years, even had an informant that had kept him aware of the group's various activities. They were aware of the plural marriages and other unseemly practices, and had suspicions of worse. But until a specific allegation--a self-identified 16-year-old girl calling into a family-violence shelter, speaking of forced marriages, sexual abuse, and rape--had been received, they were unwilling to act. "[T]his is the United States," Doran said. "We are going to respect them. We're not going to violate their civil rights until we get an outcry."

Exactly correct. I'm glad that they did it that way, and I'm glad that he said it. Not that this settles all the questions about the raid: as one of my fellow Mormon bloggers has documented over the past several days, there are very serious ethical and constitutional question about how this raid was conducted, and especially about the results (specifically, 419 children removed from the ranch and placed in state custody, some accompanied voluntarily by their mothers, but most having been taken from their parents; meanwhile, their 16-year-old who made the original complaint hasn't yet been identified and no arrests have been made); still, things could have gone the same way as the raid on the Branch Davidian compound did in Waco, TX, years ago, and that they didn't is something we should all be grateful for, Mormon and otherwise.

Why? Well, obviously because no one wants to see gunfire and flames and needless deaths, if they can at all be avoided. And also because, generally speaking, we all ought to hope that constitutional protections and procedures will be followed--and that when force is necessary, it will be used judicially and carefully. (The officers which Sheriff Doran led thankfully took four days to work their way through the ranch, rather than rushing violently through the job.) But most all because, frankly, I can see myself in those people--I have ancestors who found themselves facing the same impossible situation: an unpopular and suspected faith on the one hand, the barrel of a gun on the other.

I don't want to overstate things: of course there are numerous differences between the situations and accusations that characterized the lives of Mormons in the 19th-century, and those which characterized the Branch Davidians fifteen years ago, or the FLDS today. And to lay my communitarian, occasionally-interventionary cards on the table, I'm by no means convinced that the hostile treatment which Mormons like me received back then was always and in every way an unjustifiable or without ultimate benefits, to the Mormon community or the American community or both. But all that being said, stick with the facts. A charismatic and authoritarian leader? Check. Antinomian rhetoric and actions, sometimes bordering on violence? Check and check. Unconventional (to say the least) marriage arrangements? Check again. The truth is that, as abused and misleading a word as it may be, my faith began as a cult--an avowedly and (I think, at least, in every way that matters to personal virtue and behavior) thoroughly Christian cult, one which actually absorbed and reflected much of what was typical in Protestant evangelicalism and revivalism at the time...but still, a small group, a "cult," nonetheless. And not just any cult, but a cult that faced hostility and repression. Seeing as how I'm glad that the great majority of our popularly so-called cult-like practices are no longer part of the Mormon package (though admittedly some of them I still miss...), thus no longer something I need to decide upon when affirming my particular kind of Christian faith, you might think that I could disassociate myself from splinter groups and other borderline Christian cults without difficulty. But that's not the case--as another Mormon blogger, one of my compatriots at Times and Seasons points out, the parallels in how we and they were treated and talked about are just too clear to deny.

And to tell the truth, the Branch Davidians haunt me. Back in the spring of 1993 I watched that catastrophe play out on television, watched Jay Leno make jokes about "whacko" Texas, watched the U.S. government authorize a completely over-the-top invasion of the compound, complete with tanks and helicopters, all searching for stockpiled automatic rifles (oh, how rare in east Texas) and signs of sexual abuse (never proven, but then most everyone was a corpse by the time they were done), watched Attorney General Janet Reno talk about "talking responsibility" for the massacre but never apologize...and I burned. Forget the tangential historical or doctrinal ties, forget the Constitution: what about this astonishing ignorance of, this completely dismissive attitude towards, anything which is both religious and strange? Was there to be no acknowledgment of, no recognition of, a difference that just didn't fit into anyone's nicely pluralistic and secular categories? I guess not. Fortunately, someone far more eloquent and thoughtful than I was then (and am today, despite my best efforts to improve) burned with a similar indignation: Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic. His terrific essay from May of 1993, "The True Fire: In Defense of Spiritual Strangeness," isn't anywhere online so far as I know, so let me share a bit here:

The people who followed the deranged man who called himself David Koresh [the prophet-leader of the Branch Davidians] into the gray scrub of eastern Texas were, it is easy to say, losers: and of course they were losers. But they were not the kind of losers that liberals love. They, the Branch Davidians, described their position in the world too weirdly, in a way that put them beyond the reach of politics; and the Balm of Gilead is not a government program. They could not be engaged in their own terms, which were not, and must never be, the terms of a liberal order. Thus the saga of Waco was characterized, first and last, by an irreconcilability of meanings. One side experienced the siege secularly, the other side religiously. Both sides treated the other as if they lived in the same universe: the Feds treated the believers as criminals, for they could be nothing else, and the believers treated the Feds as the forces of Satan, for they could be nothing else. For fifty-one days, the misunderstanding was darkly comic. Then the comedy ended. And its ending only confirmed each side in its analysis, except that one side also died....

It is not Koresh that deserves to be defended, but the possibility of Koresh. The failure to understand the Branch Davidians was not just a tactical failure, which issued in an attack on people who were metaphysically gratified to be attacked, and not just a human failure, which issued in the astonishing inability of the president to utter a syllable of sorrow....The response of the American government to the catastrophe in Waco represents a misunderstanding of spiritual live, and American spirituality, and alienation in America....Can there be any doubt that the men and women of Ranch Apocalypse [the home base of the Branch Davidians, which was eventually burned to the ground during the siege of ATF agents and national guard troops which left seventy-two people dead] were wounded by, and afraid of, the world? Is it really so difficult to see how easy it is to get lost and lonely in America, to feel sapped of significance by its scale and speed, and housed, and diminished by its indifference? Must it really be said again that many of its citizens do not experience this country as a land of opportunity? In a state this huge and frantic, in a society this byzantine and technological, the self is no longer secure, and longer the certain master of its situations; and it is inevitable that there will be individuals who will wish to withdraw.

They have a right to withdraw, and they have the reason. Withdrawal from the world, moreover, is an old and respectable reaction to it. Alienation is one of the soul's great instruments. (It is hear Christian friends puzzle over this Texan simulacrum of the desert.) Those who rule, of course, must be worldly people; when they hate the world, others suffer. But it is not asking too much, I think, to ask of those who are happily engaged with the world, and think that they can better it, that they acknowledge the existence in their midst of those who are unhappily disengaged from the world, and think that the world can be bettered by its end. Despair in not a common emotion in eliteland, which is where most of our politicians and journalists live; but elsewhere it is as common as weeds.

Let me reiterate: I am not saying that I disapprove to the police moving into the FLDS ranch; on the contrary, I'm glad that they did--cultists accused of the exploitation of underage girls need to be investigated and stopped. But I am even more glad that they did it the way they did, even with all the questions which still exist about the raid. It showed some humility, it showed some reasonableness, it showed some caution. Maybe all that doesn't quite add up to a "respect" for strangeness...but for those of us who are strange, or at least who have roots in and a connection to that which is strange, a little more caution is a good thing. (Now if the media could only learn the same.)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Sesame Street Memories

Henry Farrell and Keiran Healy are talking about Sesame Street over at Crooked Timber--and well they should: it was, in its time, probably the strongest, most mature, most intelligent and good-hearted effort ever made to fulfill the idealistic dreams of some of those early advocates of better television programming back in the 40s and 50s. Educating and enlightening and uplifting and uniting the people, through images and story-telling and song! I've always had, and always will have, a soft spot for that program, though the Sesame Street I watched and loved has been missing for decades now, as its disappeared for those Irish boys and girls who fell in love with the Muppets and America while watching the show when it was imported across the Pacific, as Henry and Keiran attest.

There are lots of fine comments on both threads (bloix and mikesdak have especially good insights), attesting to the seriousness with which Sesame Street has struggled with its ideals and strategies--for educating its youthful viewers, and enabling them to relate to others as well) as it has traveled the globe and taken root in surprising surroundings. But that doesn't surprise me, as Crooked Timber has always attracted, as part of its fairly open-minded intellectual/cosmopolitan style, authors and commenters that have understood the importance of childhood--and not in some cloying, stereotypically "liberal" way, but in a way that recognizes the hard work and real joys of figuring out how make home that parents and children can enjoy together. And originally, Sesame Street was supposed to provide that: even if children and adults didn't watch it always together (which we didn't: my parents couldn't keep up with me--back in the early 70s, before and during my kindergarten years, I would, according to my mother, catch the show two or three times a day, absorbing every cartoon and skit--and my dad, at least, wouldn't have wanted to, considering as he did the program to be "socialist," once commenting to me, rather Grouch-like, that "their garbage is collected for free"), it gave children a fairly unstructured, yet still carefully filled, glimpse of the variety and reciprocity which characterized the adult world. The children would parrot back what they learned to their parents, the volia--you've got growth and change and joy. Sometimes, anyway.

When Belle Waring weighed in on Sesame Street on Crooked Timber a few years back, it got me and Tim Burke and Laura McKenna arguing about children's television and parenting and culture, as we we tended to do a lot back then. (See here and here for examples.) On that thread, Tim pointed out that what he calls "the old prosocial expert mafia" used to hate because of it took kids away from books and prepared their eyes and minds for commercial television. I have a lot of disagreements with Tim on this and some related points (I'm much more comfortable with the idea of television being used to support "prosocial" or public interest ends, I'm much less comfortable with commercial television and pop culture in general, and I think he seriously underestimates Sesame Street's pedagogical effectiveness, at least during those mid-years of television's 50-plus-year history), but I know that practically speaking--just in terms of what we watch and like and what we like seeing our kids watch, and how much--we're mostly on the same page, and we're certainly on the same page regarding Sesame Street's decline. With the emergence of Elmo, and the discovery of his appeal to the just-past-toddler set (read: two- and three-year-olds), the possibilities of hooking into the educational and emotional paranoia of so many of the parents of children that age, and selling them a safe, linear, reliable methodology of learning and discovery, just became overwhelming. Elmo took over the show, pushing other Muppets and humans and their storylines to the side, squelching their oddities and uniqueness and histories, dumbing the whole thing down. I don't say this to run down the character of Elmo or the makers and performers behind him (as my wife discussed in reviewing Kevin "Elmo" Clash's book, Henson was heavily involved in the creation of Elmo, and a lot of his irreverence and style were there in Elmo from the beginning), but I have to say, I wish my original thought when I first became aware of Elmo had been born out: oh man, far out, they're giving us a mentally handicapped Muppet! Because that's what I thought he was: like a Muppet with Down Syndrome or something. And if I'd been right...well, who knows, Sesame Street still probably would have gone downhill, for dozens of reasons, but at least the show probably wouldn't have so quickly been sucked into an annoyingly all-purpose, self-congratulatory, toddler-Muppet world.

Oh, well. I still have my memories, and I still have my copy of the 1978 Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, back before there was Elmo, and Maria and David were still an item, and Mr. Snuffleupagus was still imaginary, and Mr. Hooper was still alive (his key role in the Christmas special's retelling of O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," with Ernie and Bert buying each other presents, is tear-jerking television at its best), and Oscar was still something more than just grumpy, but an occasionally mean and wicked prankster. And thanks to YouTube, we still have this:

Thanks for the memories, Sesame Street. Our last two kids haven't watched you at all, but I hope, if only out of nostalgia, that you'll keep on going.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Speech, Part 2 (On Race, Religion, Reagan Democrats, and RFK)

Three weeks later, and everyone has long since gone on to the next issue, and the one after that...but I'm still thinking about Obama's speech. Let me attempt a few (hopefully interrelated) thoughts that may advance the discussion a little here.

1. Jacob Levy said the speech "seems to have been a major public philosophy moment," and I can't disagree; Laura McKenna said the speech convinced her "that we're living in important times," and I think she's right. I regularly teach a class called Foundations of the American Character, but I teach it basically as an American political thought class. In it, we read a fair number of speeches, sermons, essays, letters, and lectures by nationally prominent politicians and figures. Some of these texts are actually good reading, or at least I think so; most, however, we read because they connect with the ideas that were current during the time period we're studying--and at their best, they also contribute to the movement and transformation of those ideas, rather than just commenting on them. You can all think of some of the famous ones: Washington's Farewell Address, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, FDR's Commonwealth Club Address, Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, etc. I won't have to make up my next syllabus for this class for another eight months, but as I said at Laura's blog, I'm seriously considering throwing this speech into the mix. It takes a reliably modern liberal line on the blights which complicate our attempts to address the problem of racial difference in our society and economy, but it explodes those same liberal verities by insisting that racial resentments--both black and white--are not some unfortunate byproduct of America's racial enlightenment; on the contrary, he presents them as legitimate grievances that perhaps loom larger than any actual instances of racism. And that is a powerful thing for a national politician to say.

2. Much of the discussion about the speech, predictably, has focused on the fact that Senator Obama listened to the occasionally inflammatory and paranoid sermons of Jeremiah Wright for twenty years, and apparently didn't feel a need to challenge the man over some of his more ridiculous and noxious statements. There are more details to this story than made the dominant storyline, just as one ought to expect that there'd always be more to any story that involves the perspectives of two very different people spread out over two decades of time. (And moreover, Obama is not alone in this complicated story: Martin Marty, one of the most respected church historians in America, is in the same boat.) But let's stick with the simplified storyline just for a second: Obama heard, and Obama stayed. Think about this from the point of view that is held--or at least the one that you'd be forgiven for thinking perhaps ought to be held--by serious religious believers. For them, America's commodification of religion--the tendency of so many believers to privatize and personalize and switch and stop in their churchgoing, treating it as something they can easily changeable (and therefore disposable)--is properly viewed as a problem, if not actually a bit of scandal. Whatever Obama's other flaws as a parishioner (his selective memory about what Wright exactly said and when, for one), it's clear that his behavior, to say nothing of his dedication to Wright and TUCC at a time when political convenience screamed otherwise, indicates that as a man of faith he resists this trend. Traditionalists, therefore, ought to give him at least a little bit of credit. Some, of course, would be quick to claim that there's nothing spiritual here--that the senator chose TUCC simply to ingratiate himself into a black Christian community that was suspicious of him as an outsider and a latecomer, and he stuck around accordingly. Maybe. But then, if sticking around through two decades, and standing by a not-wholly-lovable-or-admirable father figure at a time of political crisis, is simply the fruits of calculated ingratiation, then frankly, I'd think religious conservatives of all sorts would like to see a little bit more of it.

(FWIW, in conversations with some of my fellow Mormons, I'm struck by the fact that a fair number of us seem to have an intuitive grasp of this dynamic, and this includes more than a few of my co-religionists who have no sympathy whatsoever for Obama or the liberal agenda he supports. I'm going off anecdotes here, of course, but it does seem that there is an understanding amongst most of us of what it means to be committed to a congregation, to sticking with it. It's a matter of acknowledging a relationship that is covenantal, or sacramental--you go there not because you like or agree with or feel to be wise each and every thing that is said, but because that's where the Word is, where the rituals and ordinances and authority (prophetic and otherwise) is to be found. Catholics should, I would think, have at least somewhat similar sympathies, though apparently that hasn't translated into much support for the senator, with a couple of notable exceptions.)

3. Bringing up Catholics brings up the Reagan Democrats, those stereotypical white, Midwestern, Catholic, pro-life, working-class voters that gave Ronald Reagan the wedge he needed back in the 1980s to eventually disrupt the Democratic coalition which had dominated American presidential politics for close to two generations. I've been thinking about the fate of these voters for years, and worrying about what the disappearance of these voters (with their vaguely populist and egalitarian yet traditionalist rhetoric) from the Democratic coalition might mean for the future of progressive politics in America for just as long. For many commenters, this is where the real cultural issue with Obama's speech, and Obama's candidacy, comes to the fore. It's not about race, at least not in any straightforward way (after all, polls show that most likely white voters seem satisfied with the way Obama has handled Wright's racist claims, including even those voters who don't plan on supporting him); rather, it's about how race and class intermix and result in policies and preferences--policies and preferences that, more often than not, have been crafted by and mostly benefit college-educated (and therefore often secular) elites and other urbanized professionals--which have disrupted the sort of compact, settled, localized ways of life which sustained these voters and their own potent mixture of conservatism and social justice. Of course, this isn't anything new; race and class have been shaping and feeding off each other and giving rise to divisive political issues for decades. And it may well be that some of the issues that long gave the Republicans an edge in attracting these voters, issues like crime and welfare, are simply--as Ross Douthat astutely notes--"yesterday's issues," issues that are no longer particularly relevant to the neighborhoods and lives that these voters know and orient their voting choices around. And even if they aren't entirely forgotten issues, Obama, in this speech and elsewhere, has seemed to display the sort of awareness of context which suggests he could actually get past at least a couple of these contentious issues (to the extent that they still haunt white, working-class, male Catholic voting habits) and therefore perhaps appeal to some of them here and there. Still, when you put it all together, it seems likely that Jonathan Chait is probably right when he suggests, after looking at the above polling data, that while a black member of America's educated upper-crust like Obama certain could win a presidential election, "he's going to need a substantially different Democratic coalition to do it."

What might this coalition be? It could be what Ruy Teixiera and John Judis used to call the "Emerging Democratic Majority," the expanding base of creative, information-economy professionals, (mostly suburban, mostly working) women, and minorities which they believed (and still believe, though clearly the 2004 and 2006 elections gave them a somewhat different, most culturally and religiously sensitive outlook on things) is bound to sweep the country, or at least achieve a large enough presence that they could convert the rest. Could still happen. Then again, the coalition which Obama perhaps needs to, and arguably seems to be trying to, invokve could be something we haven't seen before, or at least something we haven't seen in a very long time (at least by the standards of today's politics): a coalition based on a kind of participatory, gut-level, hope and religious faith. Not the sort of Christian faith that has been used by the Bush administration and others on the religious right to identify a particular kind of Christianity with the success of America's history and power, but neither would it be an empty liberal faith without any element of evangelism and devotion and patriotism to it. It would be a coalition based on America's civic religion.

4. Philip Gorski put up a thoughtful post on this possibility a few weeks back; I can't endorse everything or even most things in it (he slips too easily into the lazy liberal assertion that ostensibly "conservative" nationalism and religiosity depends upon racial division, for one), but he nails the potential spiritual/civic/national core of Obama's particular kind of appeal very well:

As defined by [Robert] Bellah in his seminal essay on the subject, civil religion is civic in a dual sense. First, it is civic rather than universal. It is a religion of a bounded, earthly community, not an encompassing, divine community. Second, it involves civility, that is, strong norms of tolerance and restraint and thoroughgoing acceptance of pluralism....[To invoke this possibility, Obama must] reconfigure the party establish an alliance between the economically underprivileged and the culturally privileged, between those bereft of economic capital (black and white), and those rich in cultural capital (the "latte liberals"). Of course, the language of class is verboten in American public discourse. And Obama does not use it. Instead, in an Edwards moment, Obama argues that "the real culprits of the middle class squeeze" are "a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many." Here, he invokes the approved language of populism, pitting ordinary people against greedy corporations and Washington lobbyists, against economic exploiters and pseudo-intellectuals. This language has an [important] advantage...[n]ot only does it allow him to elide the forbidden language of "class warfare"; it also allows him to invoke the language of democratic sovereignty and national identity. For "the people" is a term that plays on two registers: class and nation. In this way, demands for social justice are implicitly linked with claims to popular sovereignty and patriotism. And rejection of those demands appears as un-democratic and un-American.

Of course, some will argue argue (as Will Wilkinson does here) that any kind of populist talk, any attempt to invest any particular people or nation with some particular civic (much less spiritual) argument for sovereignty and protection partakes of "zero-sum" thinking that undermines the expansiveness and hope that his message supposedly depends upon. Obviously, I disagree; I think a failure to be conscientious of, to be faithful to, one's own particular people is going to make recognition of and respect for other people's that much more difficult. (A possible connection here to Obama's faithfulness to his own congregation...) Of course, there's plenty of reason to doubt his profession of populist themes: they don't really fit his background and experience, and it's too easy to suspect them of being red meat thrown to desperate voter. Still, populism isn't just or only crude protectionism, though clearly that's often part of it--it's an effort to develop and strengthen local economic, social, and cultural sovereignty, taking it away from corporations and intellectuals and partisans and giving it back to the locals. The economic (and political) argument for such an emphasis is strong. And Obama's most fundamental political education has been in attending to locals: specifically, to community organizing and furthering the work and ideas of Saul Alinsky, whose efforts at democratic empowerment entwined the civic and the spiritual at a very deep communitarian level, and which, as Noah Millman astutely observed, might add an important conservative note to Obama's otherwise straightforwardly modern liberal program, and thereby move the whole country forward:

In the biggest sense, [Obama's transformational politics] would mean absorbing and recasting for the left a frame that the right has used successfully for a generation, namely one of individual and community empowerment and opposition to entrenched bureaucratic interests. What would recast it for the left is two things: first, adding "corporate" to the kinds of entrenched interests attacked in this way; second, by articulating why simply leaving the fight to people unsupported ultimately results in outcomes that are bad for democracy, and that therefore the government should puts its thumb on the scale--not in terms of dictating outcomes bureaucratically but in terms of making it easier for poorer people, less skilled people, less well-connected people, etc. to get organized to advance their own interests. In practice, of course, the kind of approach I’m talking about will mean a lot of results conservatives don’t like. Any move to empower organizing will mean stronger unions and particularly stronger pro-union laws in localities where political organizing can get such laws passed....But I’m not arguing that such an approach would yield conservative results; I’m saying that it would advance the argument, and get better results than the stale approaches that dominate too much of the debate today.

Again, it's a question of context. Most of those white Christians who were drawn into the civil rights movement were not there because of some comprehensive appreciation and technical understanding of what was going to be involved in righting the wrongs done to African-Americans in this country; they were there because they grasped the correctness, the participatory spirit, the bottom-line populist and civic morality, of the movement--ordinary Americans demanding their rights, demanding what the post-Civil War constitution guaranteed them but which they had been denied. E.J. Dionne (an observant Catholic, for whatever that's worth) looks at Obama's campaign and the way he talks about race and religion, the way he insists that there are legitimate grievances and a need for assistance on all sides of our nation--our locality, our civic body--and he see echoes of that movement: "this very shrewd politician simply understands how important it is to Democratic and liberal prospects that we return to the promised land of King and Niebuhr." To not insignificant extent, is was the partial abandonment of that spirituality, that conviction that morality and sin and hope and forgiveness are complicatedly caught up in all of our lives, that allowed the Democratic party to treat Catholic complaints about abortion so blithely, and working-class anxiety about crime and responsibility so condescendingly, for so long, and lose much of its credibility in matters of social justice along the way. Obama's promise is that he, in some ways, to some degree, may repair that.

Is the promise of repairs enough to swing over independent voters, moderate white Southerners, and perhaps most of all the white Catholic working class? Maybe not. But in treating his audience this maturely, in claiming to reach past the divisiveness of arguments and issues now close to 30 years old, Obama is sounds a little like another youthful politician, one that was also trying to build a new coalition and get himself elected in the midst of a trying and transitional time. Of course, any facile comparison between Obama and RFK is bound to sound like the worst kind of crude mythmaking: they are not particularly similar (though religious faith and democratic activism was important to each), and the crises they confronted aren't at all similar either. But whether in 1968 or 2008, Americans like a good speech; they like the effort to communicate something--especially when it is done with confidence and thought and hope and a sense being in the right place at the right time--about who this people really are and where we ought to be going. Reagan knew it, and he used it. Maybe Obama will too, if he gets the chance.