Friday, November 26, 2010

Go On Ireland, Tell Us How You Really Feel About Your Government

I don't think American journalism would be in nearly so much trouble if prominent U.S. daily newspapers regularly let it all hang out like this. (There's a pleasant, post-Thanksgiving sentiment for you all, I guess.)

Friday Morning Videos: "Pop Musik"

For the last couple of years, I kept trying to get Gary Numan's "Cars" video to stick. I'll try something different, but similarly old-skool electronic, this time around.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Just Say No, You Rich Elite Individualist, You (Part 2)

The reliably progressive and liberal blog Lawyers, Guns, and Money, one of my favorite sites (despite only rarely finding anything there which comports with my own religious leftist localism), has bizarrely posted with approval a piece by the Occasionally-Insightful-But-More-Usually-Apologist-For-Anything-in-Chief Will Saletan, defending the TSA's new security policies. His claims are that 1) the body scanners aren't dangerous, 2) having an anonymous TSA agent look at a computer generated image of your nude body does not violate your privacy, and 3) opting-out of the scanners (as I recommend) is a selfish, time-consuming bit of theatrical over-reaction which will only allow the terrorists to win.

I don't have a lot of time this morning, but let me run through this quickly. First, of course the scanners are no more dangerous than the x-rays taken of your mouth when you go to the dentist, which is why they, er, give you a lead shielding apron when they are taken...just like the TSA isn't going to do. Second, if Saletan has such a low opinion of his own bodily integrity that he believes allowing an impersonal, unaccountable machine to produce an untraceable nude image of him for some third person to review, and for him to post like a criminal while doing so, doesn't violate his "privacy," well then, I'm happy for him (I notice that "respect" doesn't seem to come into the equation here). Third, I can only quote a commenter on the aforementioned LGM post: "I fail to see why, just because I think we needed way more outrage than we got about torture, rendition, indefinite detention, and assassination programs than we got, I am supposed to be unhappy that we are now finally getting some outrage at a bad but less damaging aspect of the paranoid security state." And that, my friends, is exactly right.

[Update, 11/23/10, 10:32am, CST: My friend Damon Linker points me to this Matt Ygelsias post, which observes that "public outrage about the indignities [new TSA policies impose]...seems to me to be 80 percent middle class white people not liking the idea of being placed in the subordinate position of a dominance hierarchy, 19 percent about yearning for America to adopt institutionalized racism as the lodestar of our transportation security policy, and maybe one percent about liberty." To which I can only respond, he's probably correct. As I said in my post yesterday, it's undeniable that this protest is emerging from a class-specific context. Folks like me, whose main beef is the pure, inegalitarian lack of respect which these policies normalize (you want to fly, your body is suspect!), probably constitute much less than one percent. But still, in this case, I think elite discontent can be, and should be, greeted as a welcome addition to the argument. Like Matt himself, I think Kevin Drum (and Ezra Klein) are taking their fears a step too far. Yes, making these argument aligns me with the Tea Party and the libertarians. Yes, it can rebound to help the GOP. Yes, so long as we fly on these big, costly, regulated airlines, then the blame for any possible mistake is going to be put at the president's feet, and we may end up with no civil liberties when we fly whatsoever. But the final point remains: this is a step too far. The only way to make that point clear is to not take the step. If Angry White Man dignity is part of what's driving people not to take the step, then at least it's not being taken.]

Monday, November 22, 2010

Just Say No, You Rich Elite Individualist, You

The day after tomorrow is the single busiest airline travel day in the U.S.; it is also National Opt-Out Day, a grass-roots effort to encouraged travelers to "just say no" to scanners, and to oblige themselves, TSA agents, and whatever embarrassed witness might be around to deal, face-to-face, with the limits of decency and respect in the name of safety. I'm not flying on this Wednesday, but I will be flying 10 days later. Assuming Opt-Out Day doesn't manage to bring the whole misconceived program to a standstill, I'll be asked, at one airport or another, to be scanned or groped...and I'll choose the latter. Because then at least I'll be able to see the person who is treating me like a bit player in our national act of "security theater." I won't be just a piece of meat.

There are a lot of good arguments about the scanners out there, and about how this latest measure by the TSA is something of tipping point as well. I know it has put me in a strange place. I'm a communitarian, a believer in the common good and collective projects, blah blah blah. For me, so long as I can see clear as to how any given state action is or attempts to be as local and as democratic as we can make it, I tend to give it the benefit of the doubt, and want to work with it to improve it. My experiences with government flunkies have been, across the board, far more positive than my experiences with corporate flunkies, which just provides more support for my own sensibilities. So to hear myself sounding like some libertarian, reading Tyler Cowen and taking seriously whether or not resisting the invasive procedures of the TSA is really the "freedom-enhancing path" or not, considering that we are locked into a government subsidized air travel system and so forth....well, it's just weird. (I tell myself that, for me, it's not so much about rights as about my dignity as a person and a citizen, but Cowen already has that covered, asking if a liberationist upside of the scans-vs.-pat-downs dilemma might not be "to have Americans shift to a more European attitude on nude bodies," which I suppose is a good question, but like the best libertarian arguments also takes your eyes off the ball.)

Daniel Drezner's survey of the whole affair makes a couple of things clear: first, that those who are complaining loudest are, of course, those who fly the most, and they consist of relatively small, even "elite," segment of the American population; and second, that the pattern of outrage only reveals something discomforting--that this complaint is about procedures that have, in essence, been part of the standard toolkit for years...only they have involved minorities, the poor, the marginalized. Arguably, all we've seeing is and act of government humiliation "that has hit the professional class." No wonder some people find the whole level of outrage orchestrated, overwrought, precious and pretentious; haven't we already long since accepted that this is what modern life is like, and are we really going to get all uptight now that it's frequent flyers paying the price along with everyone else?

I'll grant, all those arguments are relevant--but I deny that they are persuasive. Yes, perhaps behind all my (small r) republican talk about "respect," "decency," and "civility," there's just a uptight member of middle class not wanting anyone to take a look of nude pictures of me or my family. And perhaps behind my concern for the dehumanizing, impersonal, and anti-(small d) democratic lack of trust and direct interaction which such mass procedures entail, I'm just a defensive individualist, sick and tired of having to untie and then put back on my shoes. But I don't think so. I think there really are crucial principles at stake here, and not just self-interested ones. I say that as someone who, admittedly, hasn't been active in stirring up awareness about and resistance to the often disturbing, sometimes downright indefensible way in which we have conducted the apparently endless "war on terror"--but neither have I been unaware of it, and in any case, is it really a knock-down argument against a position to note that said position was only taken up when it presents itself literally right before you? Surely not. For better and/or for worse, we don't live in a direct democracy, and we don't exist in a truly localized, mutually supportive, community-based world: we live in a world a complexity and specialization, where decisions are made by those with the power (and, we hope, the know-how) to make them, and we have to express our thoughts when and where we can. In this place, in this time, we can. Maybe those of us paranoid about radiation waves and stolen nude scans and all the rest really are, on some level, just being forced out of our comfort zones. But so what? It won't be a bad thing, I believe, to have to step out of that zone, look another person in the face, and politely confront what it means to be disrespected by one's own government. If those of us who are fortunate enough to fly every once in a while--much less those of us whose jobs unfortunately make it necessary--can learn something about that disrespect (and oblige the person providing it to learn about it as well), maybe we'll be able to speak with greater authority the next time any one of the innumerable compromises we are always making comes up.

Friday, November 19, 2010

What I Saw in Deathly Hallows, Part 1

In one sentence: this movie gives us, quite successfully, the first half of an adaptation of the story which Deathly Hallows, the novel, wasn't quite willing to be.

(From here on out, Harry Potter-obsessive geekery rules. You've been warned.)

I had my Gryffindor scarf, I had my popcorn and soda, and I was settled into my chair all of four rows back from the screen. I was reading to enjoy myself--and I did, far more than I expected to way back when I first heard that they were going to be splitting the adaptation into two movies. My fear back then was that the push to expand the final book's film treatment into something like five hours, spread out over two movies, was driven by a desire to film every bit of the book, to not leave anything out...and of all the books, DH is one of the last you would want to take such an approach to. There was a similar dynamic at work with the adaption of the most cumbersome and unfocused of the Harry Potter books: Order of the Phoenix. With a good screenwriter in place, that book was honed down into a smart, solid, entirely self-contained and self-sustaining bit of genre filmmaking; it's really the best film of the lot, so far (this one included). But with this final set of adaptations, Steve Kloves, the screenwriter for every other one of the films, would be back on board, and on the basis of his track record, I just couldn't see how going big with the final novel would really add anything, at least not cinematically speaking. I just anticipated a fun time, but a fun time watching a whole bunch of pedestrian filming of handsome scenes, one after another. Two films would just be twice as much of the same.

I wasn't entirely wrong: truth is, there is a lot of by the numbers filmmaking in this adaptation. But there was something more to. You see, to my mind, thinking big when you're adapting a story to the screen requires approaching the story in a "big" way too--it means going comprehensive, going epic. And that means developing a cinematic language, a way of moving the characters around and putting words into their mouths, that will pull things together in a big way. And Deathly Hallows, the novel, ultimately doesn't provide that language; it is, as I said in my review of the book, "a children's story after all." That's not a criticism; that's just what Rowling chose to write. And yet...there are so many hints in that novel, hints of things grand and deep and mature and complicated, conveyed through violence, sexual tension, moral confusion, that point in the direction of telling a "big" story, not just the story of The Boy Who Lived. And, to my amazement, Kloves and director David Yates, and all the other people who worked on this adaptation, not the least the trio of actors at the center of it, actually grabbed a hold of some of it. This movie works far better than I expected, on the basis of the previous six adaptations, any possible "Deathly Hallows, Part 1" to possibly work. The reason for that is, to put it plainly, for better or worse, the movie isn't really telling the story in that novel. It's gone bigger. It's telling the story which that novel didn't turn out to be.

In my review of the book, I was pretty clear on how surprised I was at the story which DH told. As I reflected upon it, I realized that I'd talked myself into believing, over the years, that the tale Rowling was telling was far more epic, more psychological, more mythological than it actually turned out to be: namely, a giant, 5000+ page "penny dreadful," a work of "boys' literature," as Alan Jacobs put it in the single best review of DH and the whole HP phenomenon. (Now included in Alan's newest book; buy it!) But in conversations with him (see the comments following my review), even Alan admits that the books "do all sorts of things that children's books just don't do," and that as a result, perhaps Rowling's work is "sui generis." I'm strongly persuaded by Alan's thoughts...about the books, particularly DH, as we finally received them. But over the past few years, in re-reading and thinking about the books more and more, I've come up with an additional explanation: that the books, and DH in particular, really were sending us in that "epic," "psychological," "mythological" direction, a direction in which really would end with our young heroes entirely on their own, confronting violence and sex and betrayal and longing and self-discovery and heroism as adults. But Rowling, when it came to it, just didn't want to write that book, and so pulled back.

I think the "Deathly Hallows" themselves are the tip-off here. By the end of Half-Blood Prince (with Dumbledore, Harry's last remaining father figure, dead and gone), Rowling had truly written her characters and her plot to a point which simply demanded that Harry, Ron, and Hermione progress fully into adulthood; that they confront each other, their enemies, their allies, their feelings, and the search for the Horcruxes as ultimately independent actors, and fail or succeed as such. Just about everyone agreed with that feeling as we digested HBP. Who knows how or when Rowling herself reneged on (or, to be more charitable, revised) that point? I doubt we'll ever know; maybe she herself isn't conscious of it. But I think Rowling, looking at what she wanted to accomplish by the end of DH, simply didn't want to get to that predetermined end-point through the sort of drama, passion, horror, and sacrifice that her characters seemed ready for. So she had to come up with some new twist, something to slow things down, something that would bring out on the pages the sort of growing up and puzzling and dealing with temptation and doubts that she still really wanted. Enter stage left: the Deathly Hallows. Legendary magic which we'd never heard of before, whose mechanics were never really clear, whose operating principles made a hash of most of what we'd learned about wand lore thus far in the series. It's all a rather convoluted way for Rowling to continue along with Harry's bildungsroman--even though it, in many ways, had actually, whether Rowling meant for it to be so or not, come to an end with HBP. But it worked; it enabled her to write the story she was comfortable writing.

And now we have "Deathly Hallows, Part 1," the movie...and it isn't telling this sort of story. Perhaps that will change; perhaps in Part 2 Kloves and Yates will take us straight back to Rowling's text. I wouldn't mind that; I'd be happy with it. But this film, as inconsistent and plodding as it sometimes is, is actually occasionally telling the story under, or behind, the story which DH ended up giving us. In the corners of DH's text you can see the rudiments of that adult adventure story: hysterical witches and wizards, raging about their missing children; members of the Order of the Phoenix, falling apart through distrust and terror; Harry and Hermione alone in a tent for weeks, for heaven's sake. Surely this is a dark, creepy, disturbing story, a story of desperation, temptation, and doubt. Well, the movie tells that story. Not entirely, and not entirely well. But some of the invented scenes really drive it home. Harry, threatening to run off on his own, filled with fear and guilt over the damage and death he is bringing upon his friends? Doesn't happen in the novel--but it's far truer to the story on DH's pages than what Rowling actually has Harry say and do while he stays at the Burrow, waiting for Bill and Fleur's wedding. The same thing can be said for Ron wanting to kill the Dolohov in the cafe after Hermione stupefies him (which is a tremendous scene, by the way; Rupert Grint absolutely steps up)--not in the book, but very true to what is going on all around them in that same book. And the same thing can definitely be said for Harry and Hermione dancing in the tent one lonely night after Ron has abandoned them. They are desperate teen-agers, confused and scared; how could they not be vaguely tempted to fall into some kind of intimacy with each other, if only to ease their pain? Not in the book, but if Rowling hadn't decided to tell a story where Harry's pondering over the Hallows preternaturally takes up pretty much their entire waking hours, maybe it would have been.

Sure, maybe I think this way because I've filled my mind over the years with all sorts of ways in which to expand, elaborate upon, and explore Rowling's world; maybe I've just continued to distract myself from the core simplicity and morality of Rowling's tale as Alan, among others, has identified it. Maybe as I result I'm looking at an adventurous film adaptation, and doing something similar to what Alexandra DuPont, probably the best writer of all the reviewers on Ain't It Cool News, once admitted to be her feelings about the cult film "Buckaroo Banzai": for her, delighting so much in the ideas and possibilities of the story which the film told, in the end the movie itself became "a partially successful adaptation of its own novelization." I don't want it to be the case that my appreciation of what Rowling could have written, and what other fan authors have written in response to what she left unsaid, actually overshadows what she put on the page. But then, it's not as though these ideas came out of nowhere: blame Yates and Kloves. If DH is, at its core, a fantastic but straightforward morality tale--and it is certainly that--then there's very little chance such a tale would be well served by turning it into two movies. Better to stick with one (and hope that Kloves improves as an adapter!). But they, I think, saw the epic possibilities in DH as well, and they put together a movie which occasionally really delivers on that, with marvelous and haunting landscapes which our heroes trudge through, followed by the frightening monotone of a radio broadcast, listing the names of the dead in the struggle against Voldemort. They put romance, sexual tension, bitterness, and a couple of moments of horrific violence on the screen. They've put a lot of stuff which doesn't work on the screen as well (is there any reason why Wormtail is in the film at all? I mean, seriously, why?), but they definitely did more than just say "were going to film it all!" No, they obviously decided to film it "big": big emotions, big terrors, big temptations, big tragedies. Rowling herself is telling people that she loves the movie. Maybe she has to say that. Or then again, maybe she, while watching these actors play loving, failing, and striving young adults on the screen, is seeing in "Deathly Hallows, Part 1" the story which she didn't write, but could have, as well.

Friday Morning Videos: "Don't Dream It's Over"

Last year at this time, I shared a Madness video, but along the way took a swipe at Crowded House, and a couple of friends pounded me for it. Consider this my mea culpa.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Summing Up the Left-Liberal Case Against Obama (and Pointing to the Localist-Communitarian One Along the Way)

Peter Levine has long been one of my favorite writers on the internet. He's a guy who is on the left, certainly, when it comes to matters of social equality and economic justice and so forth--but his real focus has always been civic matters. The health of our democracy, our concern for one another as members of a shared community, the operations of our elections and the level of our participation: these have been his primary concerns. So it isn't surprising that he was deeply impressed (as I was as well) with the maturity with which Obama, as a presidential candidate, sounded populist, communitarian, and civic republican. And since that time, Peter--though by no means an unthinking Obama fan--has routinely defended the president's participatory and (small-d) democratic rhetoric, frequently against opponents on the liberal left. And there has been no fiercer opponent than Paul Krugman.

Levine sees Krugman's latest NYT column as really a summation of his whole complaint with the way Obama has, in his view, compromised and temporized away the progressive advantage which voters handed him in 2008. Krugman writes:

[T]he roots of current Democratic despond go all the way back to the way Mr. Obama ran for president. Again and again, he defined America’s problem as one of process, not substance — we were in trouble not because we had been governed by people with the wrong ideas, but because partisan divisions and politics as usual had prevented men and women of good will from coming together to solve our problems. And he promised to transcend those partisan divisions. This promise of transcendence may have been good general election politics....But the real question was whether Mr. Obama could change his tune when he ran into the partisan firestorm everyone who remembered the 1990s knew was coming. He could do uplift--but could he fight? So far the answer has been no.

This isn't an usual criticism; as Peter notes, you see it from Sean Wilentz and many other prominent liberals as well. Obama is too much an intellectual, too concerned with social movements and common goods and democracy, too focused on the process, to be able to do what's necessary: namely, the hard, implacable, sometimes vindictive work of calling down ones enemies and fighting back. Some of his critics go so far as to shake their heads: didn't Barack learn anything in Chicago?

For Peter, Obama did learn something: he learned that, fundamentally, "debate wouldn't solve anything," and that "we need to build new relationships--relationships of trust between citizens and the government and among diverse citizens." That, of course, is exactly the sort of pie-in-the-sky, idealistic, civic-republican/communitarian talk which many liberals love to dismiss, so as to better portray themselves as "realists" in the LBJ mode, leaders who will get stuff done. But Peter isn't just throwing this stuff out there as feel-good sop; he's quite intelligently articulating all of the good reasons why there is a distrust which opposing interests and anti-egalitarians of various stripes can feed upon. He lists seven reasons, in fact:

One reason is a natural and healthy distrust of a large and distant federal government. No other diverse, continental-sized country has a central government that has addressed national problems and won broad popular support. The European democracies are far smaller; Russia, India, and China have worse governance problems than we do. Governing from Washington is a tough task.

A second reason is poor results. We devote large amounts of our income to taxes, but because of military spending, wasteful health spending, and misconceived programs like the Farm Bill and the mortgage income deduction, we don't get very good value for our money.

A third reason is distaste for political leaders who appear to squabble and score points rather than cooperate to solve our problems. Krugman wants Democrats to pin the blame for bad policy and obstructionism on Republicans. But Americans hear the counter-charges as well as the charges and decide that they don't want to entrust large amounts of their money to any of these people.

A fourth reason is exclusion from public life. For a generation, we have been replacing democratic participation in public institutions (like schools) with technocratic governance: with efficiency measures, accountability systems, and other tools that ordinary people cannot control.

A fifth reason is "the Big Sort"--our mass migration to enclaves (whether neighborhoods, news sources, or organizations and associations) where we only encounter others who agree with us. The Big Sort lowers trust in government because individuals believe that most other people agree with them, yet the government acts contrary to their values. They underestimate the degree to which we actually disagree with one other. Our opponents, meanwhile, become shadowy enemies motivated by terrible values, instead of flesh-and-blood neighbors with different life experiences.

A sixth reason is the collapse of powerful intermediary organizations, associations with grassroots chapters and national lobbies that once connected people to the policy process. Those associations included fraternal and ethnic clubs, unions, and churches (of which only the evangelical conservative ones remain strong). They gave people a feeling of ownership by multiplying their power.

And a final reason is a terrible process. As long as elections are privately funded, districts are gerrymandered, and legislative procedures are rigged, it doesn't matter who makes what argument or what the people believe who govern us. Policy will be determined by power.

That's the condition of the American democratic polity today: generally speaking, it is 1) too big; 2) debilitated by wasteful, interest-group-driven-and-defended, poorly administrated economic policies; 3) run by politicians who, thanks to our sound-bite media environment and our winner-take-all election systems, communicate in crude and partisan terms; 4) administered mostly by experts and institutions closed to effective popular inputs; 5) balkanized into mutually distrustful (and, for purposes of marketing and scandal-mongering, media-enabled) class- and ideology-based cohorts; 6) suffering from a lack of strong intermediate associations, churches, unions, and other forums that both offered participatory opportunities and routes towards mutually respectful civic identifications; and 7) handicapped by a "democratic" process that is, by and large, lacking in both responsiveness and accountability to the American people.

Now I suppose if your view of democratic politics is of an elitist/pluralist variety--in which you assume that, by and large, the people are not to be trusted with political decisions and/or are not likely to care or know much about politics anyway, and hence giving them occasional choices between well-defined party groups is all "democracy" truly requires--then presumably you likely find much of the foregoing list irrelevant to the "real" questions of governance. But then, if that were the case, then you probably supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic party primaries back in 2007 and 2008, assuming you voted Democratic at all. For better or worse (and I, unsurprisingly, think it's mostly the former), Obama presented himself and seems fairly committed to a more republican, communitarian, and participatory form of democracy, at that means trying to transform or repair some of those problems listed least, ideally. In practice, even Peter admits that the Obama administration "has tried to negotiate its way to satisfactory policies and explain their merits to the American people, instead of changing the system itself....We need the kind of transformational presidency that Barack Obama promised and that Paul Krugman considered a mistake."

What would that transformation involve, if not a huge, much-needed-though-philosophically-flawed piece of social justice legislation--namely, the Affordable Care Act? Well, I have my own list of nominees: returning more real economic and cultural power to the states, adopting more clearly parliamentarian democratic structures, focusing on what would be necessary to create equal conditions of political participation in localities across the country, making corporations more subject to populist and democratic other words, a grab-bag of social democratic and localist reforms. Many of them may not be workable; many more of them may create all sorts of unforeseen complications, which would mandate continuing compromises, of the sort which Progressive movement, for all it's faults, exemplified. The Progressives have lately emerged as big-state bogeymen, but what they were really about is trying to find a way to deal with the massive, undemocratic power of turn-of-the-century corporations, and return power to the people. They were, in short, the civic reformers of our time. Civic reformers today necessarily will have to take some other shape. Obama and his supporters have, I think, through their legislative efforts, provided part of one possible answer--a communitarian, social welfare one. But the localist component needs to be part of the equation as well. And here we come around to a different vision of democracy, and a level of trust in the people which Krugman doesn't share. Because one thing he'd never be caught dead saying is that the Tea Party might actually have something to contribute to America's civic health. And the truth is, they might. I'm pretty doubtful myself, but stranger things have happened. The civic forest is a much larger, and much more complicated place, than Krugman's smart but limited ferocious left-liberalism allows.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Tea Party and the TSA

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Let's just get the basics out of the way: the new "advanced imaging technology" which the Transportation Security Administration is spreading out at hundreds of airports around the country is a ridiculously invasive, disrespectful, and only dubiously effective way of making certain nobody brings anything remotely suspicious onto an aircraft. For my part, I'm signing up for National Opt-Out Day, at least in principle. No one in my family will be flying anywhere on November 24th, but I will be flying the first week of December--to Hong Kong, no less--and then my whole family will be flying to Hawaii in January. I don't know what sort of embarrassment and delays and possible harassment my wife and I will choose to subject ourselves to, or tolerate our children being subject to, but when I'm on my own, I'm choosing the pat-down. I would far prefer to share the humiliation of being groped in public by a TSA flunky than pose like a criminal to allow someone in an isolated room (no matter what promises the TSA makes regarding privacy) to view my naked body.

Does this make me a civil libertarian, banging on about individual rights? I suppose, depending on how you define the term and what you understand it to encompass, then yes, in this case I am. But it might be better expressed as feeling offended at the disrespect, the lack of civility and decency, which these measures imply. It treats passengers on airlines as if they were pieces of meat, in essence. What sort of basis for a polity is that, in which those wishing to do something perfectly legal must bodily demonstrate to some other randomly empowered person that they fit some standard of appearance or behavior? This goes way beyond subjecting individuals to scans to make sure they are being truthful when they are asked if they are carrying anything dangerous, or verifying their identify, or randomly selecting people for questions and/or searches; this is treating the body itself as suspect, as a carrier that must be vouchsafed for. Can I come up with counter-factuals that would suggest such an approach is sometimes necessary? Sure: that's why prisons and police forces occasionally make use rubber-gloved cavity searches. But the indignity involved in such a transaction suggests that the person being so treated has been reduced to less than a citizen, less than fellow member of the community. Is that what the fear of terrorism leads us to--allowing ourselves and our fellow citizens to be so reduced?

I doubt it; what is more likely is that the rhetoric of safety has provided sufficient cover for an ordinary government bureaucracy to treat its business as a mere technical problem, to be solved by continually refining technology and training processes, and of course, by hiring more people and buying more machines. All other concerns fail to register in such an innocently managerial environment. I find myself comparing all this to the enormous--and paranoid--build-up around the White House and other federal buildings and landmarks during the 1990s and early 2000s. Yes, on some level, such berms and barriers and obstacles made these buildings safer...but they also made them uglier, more removed, less accessible. (Not to mention unnecessarily causing traffic headaches up the wazoo, as anyone who remembers how downtown DC physically changed over that decade could tell you.) Is that really a way to show respect to the citizens whose taxes, you know, pay for those buildings? Oh, but of course, that's a question of aesthetics and community and democracy, and when put up against the individual demanding his or her safety, and a government bureaucracy empowered to act on their behalf, such questions have little purchase.

For someone whose sympathies lie on the left side of the political spectrum, I'm not especially worried about the rise of the Tea Party and the Republican sweep in the last election; despite their numbers, I really don't think they're in a position to drive our national government in any particular direction whatsoever, and consequently I expect that the next two years will show Obama engaging in Clinton-style triangulation and the Republican majority in the House putting out brush fires, and little else. It would be nice to see in the TP a genuine drive for the decentralization and redistribution of political power, as opposed to just a simplistic, unprogrammatic demand that the federal government stop exercising so much of it, since in my view, the latter demand only sets the stage for a vacuum regarding health care, or the environment, or labor and business regulations, which private and corporate interests will happily step into. But in regards to the TSA, I'd be delighted to see some "simplistic" refusals--a demand to simply say no to this increasingly ridiculous operation that, however genuine its intentions, has obviously become locked into a way of thinking about airport security that sees the whole matter as a balance between "privacy" and "safety," with all other values--like dignity--being non-quantifiable and therefore irrelevant. Yes, I think it'd be wonderful to see the Tea Party movement turn on the TSA, perhaps if the organization's latest actions can be painted as "unconstitutional" somehow. Let's try to make sure that Glen Beck has to fly on a commercial airline sometime in the near future, and see what he thinks of it all. No doubt he'll find a way to connect it all to an Obama-inspired communist conspiracy, but at least that might mean TSA could find itself facing a serious Congressional inquiry, for once.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Holy Caine, Now There's Two Three of Them

(hat tip: LGM)

I haven't seen The Trip, but after this clip, I'm simply going to have to. As for the Caine impression, Rob Brydon (the first speaker) captures Caine's voice amazingly well, but I'm going to have to give the prize to Steve Coogan (the second speaker), for absolutely nailing Caine's intonation. Man, that was almost scary.

Friday Morning Videos: "Overkill"

Hmm, two whole years of videos to choose from. Juice Newton, or Men at Work? Definitely the latter.

Yes, I know what you're thinking of. Here it is:

I aim to please.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

A Letter to a Nervous Graduate

This afternoon a student I've never met, but who has heard me speak about politics here at Friends before, wrote me out of the blue, asking me for directions as to where to find helpful information about the country's oncoming financial collapse. She was, very generally, worried about the future--her future, in particular. She wrote:

I'm really interested in politics, but I'm not sure where to turn for good information or how to learn more. All my information comes from Fox News, radio programs, online research, or terribly long-winded lectures from my dad! I feel so helpless in these crazy times and keep hearing that we're headed for a massive dollar crash. I'm graduating in one semester and the future just does not look bright! What would you recommend that I do/read to stay informed and be prepared?

This is what I wrote back. I don't often get to go into Wise Old Counselor mode; I hope I didn't overdo it:

I don’t want to tell you not to trust your father and/or your news sources of choice, but you should be aware that stories about economic catastrophe and political meltdowns are a dime a dozen. I’m not saying it can’t happen, only that there is a desperate, conspiratorial way of viewing the world that some people really indulge in, and I don’t think it’s healthy. We need to be cautious, practical, and responsible with our economic choices, obviously; it’s never a good idea to run up a great deal of personal or consumer debt with no immediate plans in mind to pay for it. But I don’t think you should head into graduation terrified that the car you’re making payments on is nonetheless going to be repossessed tomorrow, or your credit card’s interest rates will jump to 30% a month by May, even though you’re well below your credit limit. I wouldn’t tell you not to pay attention or not to worry--I do, and my family and I are trying to pay down our debt and live frugally and sustain ourselves as much as possible. Times are bad, and it's quite possible that worse times are coming. But I would also tell you that the government and economic structures around you, despite their many flaws and weaknesses, are not nearly so ready to blow up as some people think.

As for news sources, I check many, and so should you. If you really are interested in politics, then don’t restrict yourself to any one source of information, and particularly be suspicious of sources that claim to be “unlocking” or “revealing” the “real story” behind the news. The real story about anything having to do with the government or the economy is almost always a slow, complicated one, in which many political and private actors (politicians, parties, interest groups, businesses, etc.) make deals and hope to move the law or the economy slightly in one direction or another. That sort of story usually isn’t exciting, but it is much more likely to be truthful. So read the New York Times and the Washington Post online, as well as the Wall Street Journal and The Economist--not all of them every day of course (no one has the time for that!), but often enough to get a sense of the range of news out there. And look for unexpected, unconventional new sources as well, like Sojourners, or Mother Jones. Identify different voices that you trust. Look around enough, and you’ll be able to find voices--liberal or conservative, Christian or secular, mainstream or radical, etc.--that you keep coming back to, because they make sense to you.

Trust your instincts. You’re a college graduate; that means you’ve learned how to read seriously and how to think critically. Use those skills to examine the huge range of opinions out there, and don’t trust anyone who says they’ve got it all figured out. Everything, always, takes a long time to figure out, because everything is always changing. Maybe not in regard to God or morality or the people you love and care about; those things are probably pretty stable (or so I hope!). But in regard to international trade and health care and taxes? There will always be something new or different to say about all of those.

Good luck—and take care.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Friday Morning Videos: "Nothing Compares 2 U"

According to my dashboard, this in my 100th Friday Morning Video--done over a period of exactly two years. I don't know how or why exactly it worked out like that, but it did. Cool. Well, anyway, onward and upward. A year ago--and, for that matter, two years ago as well--I shared Go West's "King of Wishful Thinking." But if they had another hit that made it onto the music video circuit, I can't find it. So how about another one from the same year? I can't believe it's taken me so long to get around to this gem.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

This Ain't No 1994

Despite my promise, I suppose I have something to say about tonight after all--and it's not just a bit of reluctant and conflicted but still undeniable moderate joy at the fact that Harry Reid is apparently still going to be around the U.S. Senate. No this has something to do with something else--a feeling of gratitude, but also concern, that Newt Gingrich isn't the mastermind behind the Republican and Tea Party victories tonight.

As I write this, it looks as though the GOP will end up taking over more than 60 seats in the House--which is more than they won in 1994, when Gingrich became Speaker of the House, having ridden his "Contract with America" throughout the country. But in that same year, the insurgent GOP--pushing back against a Democratic party that had taken control of Congress and the White House--also captured eight Senate seats, taking control of that chamber as well, which will not be the case this year. (That assumes some deal isn't struck to get both Lieberman and Nelson to jump ship to the Republicans, which could happen--but isn't, I think, likely. [Update, 6:13am, CST: With Washington and Colorado breaking for the Democrats in a couple of close, it looks like it wouldn't happen even then.) So that's one difference, but not the biggest one. The biggest one is the environment upon which this election has played out. It is an environment where economic times are much worse than they were in 1994, but which also an environment in which the incumbent Democrats have been far more successful in getting legislation passed. So in other words, this was a year with a lot of free-floating anger and frustration, and a big target in Washington DC to attack.

Which wasn't, if you recall, for those of you who were paying attention and can remember from back then, quite the case in 1994. Bill Clinton won the election in 1992 with much of the same aspirational rhetoric which surrounded Obama when he won two years ago--not to the same degree, of course, but still, there were plenty of similarities. (The fact that Clinton and Obama both road in on a message of "Hope" is only the most obvious example.) But Clinton faced even more bad luck and more Congressional opposition than Obama did. Clinton was going to reform our health care system--it didn't happen. Clinton was going to end the military's policy of court-martialing gay soldiers--instead, he ended up with "don't ask, don't tell." Sure, there was plenty of anger and frustration on the part of the same people who always oppose, for good reasons or bad, liberal and/or progressive government policies (the "Angry White Males," if you remember the parlance of the time), but Clinton just didn't provide them with such a clear target. He was easy to attack as a cultural figure, but not so much in terms of his actually governing of the country. Which is where Gingrich came in. Whatever else you wish to say about the man, he truly wanted to govern. He wanted to take all the angst and anger that he saw and marshal it on behalf of a very specific, intellectually coherent policy agenda. And that's what the Contract with America was: a serious, responsible (that is, internally consistent) agenda of action. And it brought him and the GOP to power, exactly as they intended.

Of course, there are numerous other factors at play distinguishing 2010 from 1994. But I can't help but suspect that the Tea Party wave of today is far more reactive, negative, and oppositional, then anything which the Republicans of sixteen years ago ran on, and that difference speaks to both what this rush of new House and Senate seats will make possible, and what it will not. Everyone knows, generally speaking, what this new crop of conservatives coming to Washington want: they want to tear down, to stop, to freeze that which they see Obama and the Democrats as having built. But how are they they going to do that? What is their plan of action? What, in short, have they contracted with the voters to accomplish? Besides saying "no!," the answer is unclear. And given the fact that ours is a system filled with "veto-points," with ways in which interests can rush in to fill a vaccuum (and don't forget that Democrats have their corporate interests, just as surely as the Republicans do), not having a concrete of who is being invited into the tent and who isn't, is perhaps emblematic of a movement which is perhaps fully respectable in its political passions and ideas, but not so much in its political theory. All of which is just another way of me saying that I think that this particular electoral sea change isn't going to be nearly as effective as the Republicans of the 1990s were in forcing changes and compromises (and, arguably, in some ways, real improvements) from and with the federal government they claimed to oppose. I think that, without a Gingrich, without a platform, but only with a guy in the White House to attack, the new Tea Party majority may find that actually doing something about those laws and polices and expenses they swear to hate will be far more difficult than it appears.

There is a downside to this. Part of the accidental genius of parties and platforms is that you can hold them accountable at elections, as the GOP winners of 1994, and Gingrich himself, were ultimately held accountable by voters. And if tonight's new Republican and Tea Party victors come together around a consistent, presumably thoroughly libertarian (since that is the best way to articulate their general concerns about the size of government, should one desire to express it as an actual platform, as opposed to an emotional state) plan of attack, then voters will be able to follow up, provide support, or take them to task, as time goes on. But if they remain mainly oppositional and leader-less (with all sorts of money in the background making the Tea Party possible, but providing them with little intellectual structure, perhaps because those writing the checks actually just want to see things burned down, rather than, you know, actually changed), then the anger, confusion, and resentment will only increase. I don't want that to happen, because I fear the consequences, and I hope it won't. But if it isn't going to happen, I think tonight's victors need to find their Gingrich. Without such a organizing and focusing agent, far from a Republican Revolution, 2010 may just go down as an electoral spasm, one either soon to be swallowed back into the "liberal America" which 2008 supposedly promised, or to continue on its current, Glenn Beckian path, to who knows what end.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Torn Between Irony and Earnestness

This will probably be my only election post this cycle. (Though if Harry Reid goes down in Nevada tonight, I may have to write up a farewell.) In election years past, I've usually written a fair amount, sometimes a great amount. Not this time. Partly it's because I have a big paper due for a conference in Hong Kong only a month from now, and I need to use my spare time working on it. Partly it's my usual busyness and whatnot. But partly it's also because I feel stuck between two poses at this moment, between raising angrily raising a fist on the one hand and sighing and shrugging my shoulders on the other.

In the latter case, John Stewart has already made the point very, very well.

"If we amplify everything, we hear nothing." That is, very simply, about as wise and as reasonable and as correct a bit of political and media criticism as you're every likely to hear. A tremendous amount of the hostility and frustration in American public life is due to a media culture (though not just the media culture; the legal culture has a great deal to do with it as well) which is driven--by economics, by popular expectations--to make almost everything into a huge deal. Well, everything is not everything is a huge deal. "Hard times, not end times," indeed.

A lot of folks I know and respect and follow online loved the event. They loved the fact that it gave them occasion to feel hopeful and affirmative in the midst of their ordinary (mostly white, mostly suburban, mostly educated, mostly middle or upper-middle class, mostly secular, mostly liberal) lives. That's no small thing, particularly in an election cycle dominated by rhetoric that has often seemed downright apocalyptic and illiberal. (Though see here for a smart bit of counter-evidence to that idea.) From a distant remove--both spatially, since I'm in Kansas, and ideologically, since I'm a religious believer who votes liberal mainly because there aren't any socialists on the ballot--I felt the pull of the "restore sanity" ideal myself. Because I know--and don't mind at all being validated in my knowledge!--that mostly people of goodwill do overcome their differences, and do get things done. That's the tolerant, hopeful side of my self, and Stewart spoke to it well.

And yet, I also, just what is it, exactly, that we "get done"? Which is why I also felt the power of this:

Civility is a fine and pleasant thing, but it has never inspired a serious political or social movement--or revived the fortunes of a president. Irony and satire can be potent modes of persuasion, but what do Stewart and Colbert’s liberal supporters want to persuade their fellow Americans to actually think or do? ....People need to engage in the political process to reform and push it forward, not agree that we’re all more reasonable than the media portray us and promise to behave civilly. Like it or not, America remains a nation of true believers. Secular liberals with a decent sense of humor will have to learn, or relearn, how to adapt to that reality and turn it to their advantage. Or they can just pick up their remotes and watch Comedy Central.

I wasn't alone in feeling this vibe, the sense that the rally captured not so much the fact that hundreds of thousands of people had something to say, but rather that hundreds of thousands of people were looking for someone to complete their sentences for them. Laura McKenna, who is many ways is part of Stewart's perfect target demographic, thought the whole thing sounded boring. Peter Beinart rightly observed that in presenting "sanity" in opposition to the determined (and, admittedly, sometimes hysterical) focus of the Tea Party was condescending in the extreme. Even those who were there, and liked being part of it, couldn't deny that the whole feeling was "post-institutional," appealing primarily to people who "never quite fit anywhere, or they never wanted to"--which is almost the very definition of turning aside from the political part of life. Because politics, like it or not, is a communitarian endeavor.

Of course, one could also try to minimize or downplay that communitarian effort, and conceive of the public realm as a relatively small (and/or significantly privatized) arena, letting the rest of our busy, complex, pluralistic society and economy work itself out on an individualistic, case-by-case basis. My friend Nate Oman, a moderately libertarian type who believes that the market is a far more reliable producer of virtue than politics, saw his beliefs validated by Stewart's speech: the flow of traffic through a tunnel is, for him, just another sign that simple, ordinary human commerce is a "miracle of human cooperation." Except in cases of genuine wickedness and fraud, why turn to politics, when people going about their everyday business is so much more fulfilling?

In making his case for Stewart in these terms, Nate is actually touching on one of the oldest of all the perennial arguments on the left: what to do about the liberals? Because, from the point of view of "true believers" on the left side of the aisle--believers in regards to egalitarianism and populism and all that social justice jazz--we've always been, and probably always will be, outnumbered. On the right things are different; for a variety of what I think to be predominantly social-structural reasons, "true believers" of a conservative or traditionalist bent do better in regards to movements and coalitions in the United States than do progressives. (See here for the essential argument why.) And so what the leaves is a strange left-liberal conglomeration, which takes the form of an often uncomfortable, and frequently co-dependent, but only rarely outright antagonistic clump of fellow-travelers. Contemporary liberalism is, of course, occasionally quite egalitarian and/or populist and/or progressive...but mostly, at least as it is constructed by both its self-described adherents and its left-leaning opponents in its full cultural garb, liberalism is a home for the secular, mildly redistributivist, but mostly leave-me-alone-to-do-my-thing mainstream. Somewhat higher taxes for welfare and parks and public schools, sure, but anything more radical than that...well, we'd rather just get back to the suburbs, so please don't mind as we (cooperatively!) drive home.

When the left gets angry at liberals (calling them, as was the case in one wonderfully bitter intra-left squabble that I remember from 2005, "liberal sacks of garbage"), liberals respond by getting annoyed, as many defenders of Stewart are likely to get annoyed at this post, and others like it. They respond with mockery of the seriousness of their critics, and ask with all the irony they can muster: "exactly what else do you expect me to do?" This same debate is unwinding at Crooked Timber right now. And unfortunately for all of us whose sentiments catch us up in this dispute, all of us who have families and jobs and other matters that need tending to, but who also feel their beliefs pulling them in directions of a generally unpopular egalitarianism and communitarianism, the only two answers are 1) shrugging our shoulders, voting for whomever seems to make the best sense at any moment of time, and then getting back to our commute, looking forward to watching Comedy Central clips on the laptop later tonight, or 2) doing what George Scialabba emphasizes repeatedly in the CT thread: that after we do just what liberals do--namely, vote for whomever seems to make the best sense at any moment of time--we "work quite hard and steadily to organize structures of ongoing citizen participation." Which means we might have to put off or delay that commute some of the time.

Which is no problem for me, I guess; I ride a bike. Which I need to get on here soon; got to get the polls, and then to work. Vote well, everyone. And then, organize! I'll see you later, maybe.