Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "Twilight Zone"

I'm pretty certain that there was a time as a punk kid that I vainly tried to convince someone, for no good reason whatsoever, that this video was based on an actual Twilight Zone episode. Given that the video makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, I presume I was unsuccessful.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Maybe for Some Reason I Found the Reference to "The Kaiser" Hilarious

This pointless little cartoon bubbled up into my consciousness a couple of weeks ago, and it's been haunting me ever since. All I could remember was something about a mouse springing traps as he went down to his vault, so it took me hours to track it down.

I have no idea why my brain didn't simply flush it away like so much else useless detritus. Maybe I thought the Jack Benny-mouse was some sort of cool James Bond-type character. More likely, I probably just thought it would be awesome to have a hidden vault like that.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Today, I Composted, Raked, and Rototilled

This is the result.

And then, upon finishing, I covered the whole thing over with black plastic, to lay fallow (we'll be gone for too much of the summer to make the main garden work this year--we've already put in the spring lettuce and spinach elsewhere). Hope the earthworms appreciate all my work.

Friday Morning Videos: "Sister Christian"


Listening and watching this song and video now, more than a quarter-century after having first done so, as the father of four daughters, I find the song decidedly creepy, and the video even more so. Oh well.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Five Films for St. Patrick's Day

My five favorite Irish movies movies that have something to do with Ireland, in honor of St. Patrick's Day.

5. The Van

A hilariously vulgar flick--part buddy movie, part social commentary, and all around fabulous.

4. The Dead

Haunting, quiet, subtle, and devastating.

3. The Commitments

Raucous, outrageously funny, and simply wonderful. I would say it's my favorite Irish musical, but see below.

2. Into the West

Complete Gaelic malarkey, but I adore it anyway, and so do you. (You're crying right now; don't even pretend to deny it.)

1. Once

Every bit a fairy tale as Into the West...but a wise, adult, completely ordinary and therefore all that much more beautiful one. Worth watching every year on March 17th.

Your favorites, anyone?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Harry Brighouse Nails It

One of the smartest bloggers I know, a committed leftist but--as anyone familiar with his views on social issues like abortion or education knows--hardly a committed ideologue, puts it all in perspective:

I have given a lot of thought over a life to the various arguments about the value of unions, of public sector unions in particular (which, as I’ve said [before], do indeed engage in rent-seeking). This is just not the time for further exploration of that....[W]e are involved in the political fight of our lives, and those of us who have considered and well informed (and, yes, even nuanced) opinions are, at the moment, devoting ourselves to building a political movement that can shift things so that more of the gains of future growth go to the people who actually produce it, and less to those who enjoy the rents that they have sought through contributing to the coffers of politicians who cut taxes, hate the state, and seek to undermine public institutions for the sake of increasing the profits of, well, their rent seekers.

A Returned Missionary from Japan Reflects

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Years ago I had a friend, Andrew Christensen, that served a church mission about the same time I did, in Sendai, Japan. Actually, I have a few friends that served in that country--and as I served in South Korea, there were, in later years, occasional expressions of joking rivalry between us. I'd forgotten about most of that, as I've forgotten, or at least seriously reconsidered, much of my own mission experience. Andrew, thankfully, has not--or at least, the tragedy in Japan, which hit hard the mission area in which he served, and particularly devastated a community he knew and loved (the city of Natori, shown being wiped out by the tsunami to the left), has brought back all sorts of memories. He has posted some of them, and has kindly given me permission to share them. Perhaps his thoughtful, heartfelt words will help others to gave months and years of their lives serving the people of this (to us) distant land to share their own reflections as well. Anyway, here is what he wrote.


I lived in or near Sendai three times during the roughly two years I spent in Japan in the early 1990's. Although the second and third times I lived there I was literally in Sendai itself, my mind keeps going back to where I lived during the first of those three occasions, as I watch and try to process what's happened--and is still happening--over there since the earthquake. I keep going back to Natori.

Natori is a small town just a little south of Sendai itself, maybe eight miles. There's a small, central commercial district (a main street, really), a fair amount of mild, mini "suburbia"-type neighborhoods, and then "tambo"....rice fields. It's adjacent to the ocean. It's where the now flooded-out Sendai airport is. As best I can tell, large areas in or around Natori have been hammered--literally scrubbed, submerged, blanketed with huge debris and chewed up--by the tsunami. I lived there for about two months during the spring of 1991. I had spent the first two months of my time in Japan in a much larger town, further north, and I remember those first months as (very) cold, gray, shocking, and overwhelming. Miserable and oppressive. Natori, by contrast, was peaceful, spring-like, sunny and comfortable. Beautiful and calm.

As the memories have poured back to me over the past two or three days, I've been surprised at how many faces, places and experiences I recall from that place, that I haven't thought about for a long, long time. Other parts of my overall time in Japan have assumed the forefront of my most common recollections. But Natori has rested quietly in the background, rarely asserting itself. Natori served its purpose at the time--it allowed me and Japan to re-approach each other a little more slowly than my initial immersion had permitted. Allowed me to thaw a bit. Allowed me to get used to the idea of being there and muscle up to the idea of continuing to be there. Allowed me to pedal around, as if I were there, before I really was. Before I could really speak the language. Before I had any momentum for making much of the experience. It took me a day or so to realize, this past week, that part of what disturbed me so much about the tsunami footage was that this terrible tragedy was devastating a place that had played that quiet but crucial transitional role in a key chapter of my life. The place and its people had basically nurtured me, buoyed me up -- so it has been a punch to the gut to think of--to watch--all that has happened there, now, not just to "random" people on the other side of the globe, but actually to those particular people, in that particular place, who just by being genuine, solid, decent, kind and grounded, gave me a steadying hand when I needed one.

Natori didn't seem wealthy, or poor, and for that matter I didn't see the world in those terms then - though we certainly saw everything from humble, spartan apartments to fine homes. It was just....Japan. Steady and rhythmic. Functional. It's the part of my Japan experience that is most like the backdrop of a Hayao Miyazaki film--think Totoro. Authentic and natural. Rice fields below, bullet train above. Some hills, some woods. Homes, apartments, shops, cars, bikes, restaurants, grocery stores. We pedaled around, over and through all of that, the day-to-day scenery of it. But that's not what I remember, when I think back. All that is just the backdrop. What I remember with real feeling, is the people. Not a single name. But dozens of moments, smiles, gestures....timelessly reverent demeanors.

I've been searching my memory, hoping to remember some specific incident that sums the place up. But there doesn't seem to be one. Most of the snippets of memory are too bare of plot or detail to convey anything meaningful to someone who didn't live them. There was the soft-spoken man with the nice house in the countryside with the vegetable garden in front. The young, quiet guy who worked at the video arcade. There was the time a friend I was with rode his bike into a six foot gully when he missed the turn of our path in the dark, and the stunned help we received from the occupants of the house nearby when I ran to their door stammering all I could come up with: "Tomodachi--okii mondai!" ("Friend--Big problem!"). There was the elderly man, all of about four feet tall and all smiles, with the bamboo grove behind his house. The kind Eikaiwa (English Conversation Class) hostess who would provide us dinner when we arrived to teach in Iwanuma, a little south. The senior citizens we sang and laughed with in Watari, a little further south. The generous guy who treated us to some elaborate sushi. The people who warmly dismissed the issue when I put my hand through their paper wall when I leaned to put my shoes back on when leaving their house after dinner (rookie mistake). The energetic teenagers we taught in Natori itself. The odd but good-natured guy who claimed he'd hung out with Eric Clapton (I think) on his vacation to Jamaica. The serious kid in the pilot training program based out of the Sendai airport. The grateful kid who borrowed a suitcase from me to use on a trip to Saipan. The time we went to MOS Burger (a McDonald's-like chain), and had a friendly discussion with the store manager, seemingly excited to have foreigners in his restaurant, to the effect that "MOS" might stand for "Mountain, Ocean, Sunrise" as far as the company's official view was concerned, but to us it would forever sound like fungus. A trip to the beach - passing a large ship that was sitting, dry, in an empty field for some reason, and then finding pencil-drawn, manga-style graffiti sketched on the gigantic cement asterisks piled high along the sand. The old people playing bocce ball--or, that's what I think it was; if I knew differently at the time, it has escaped me--in the parks, with elaborate wrist computers for scorekeeping. My first and only experience with karaoke. Bags of rice for sale in vending machines. Riding our bikes in the middle of practically nowhere and coming across a small group of maybe ten or fifteen people solemnly marching, with an anti-nuclear message--this was the only public demonstration of any kind I ever saw in Japan. The elderly man we brought lunch to--kaarage chicken bento--who laughed and hemmed and hawed and then, perfectly and just so, apologized that he couldn't eat the chicken because he had no teeth, then grinned ear-to-ear to prove it....this all being a little nuance we had missed before. Another night, eating a bento in a park, sitting on the bench or in the grass of a ballfield, and the Japanese guy I was working with saying, "Your mom would be so sad to see you sitting here eating takeout dinner in a park at night like this." And I thought, no, I get the sentiment of it, but, no, not really....this is exactly where she wants me. With all of you.

But chief among all the memories are two kids and a beetle. If you set me down in front of my old apartment and gave me a bike, I'd like to believe I could still find the way to their house, even though it was a fair ways west and south of the Natori train station. It was in the countryside, amidst farmland. I don't remember what they grew there, or if they even actually did grow anything themselves, or just lived adjacent to the fields... rice fields most likely, of course--I seem to recall the father owned or ran a delivery service for produce for restaurants. The family had a little boy and a little girl. Under ten years old I think. We visited them a couple times, and I remember sitting on the tatami in their living room, probably drinking cold mugicha (a thin roasted barley tea, which I definitely hadn't developed a taste for yet and never really did, though it was omnipresent and manners dictated that we courteously partake, since the content wasn't forbidden and the social gesture was important). I vaguely remember the mother being a really gracious hostess. I mostly remember the pet rhinoceros beetle. Kabutomushi. It was huge, it acted smart--it seemed as smart as or smarter than a mouse, as the young boy teased it with a string or small stick. And it could fly. And it did. Up to the ceiling. The kids loved it. They loved my startled and fascinated reaction to it. I felt at home.

There's no arc to the story of our visits with that family, or really any more to the "story" than that. Just a little family with a nice house in the Japanese countryside near the ocean. Two kids. Cold roasted barley tea. A smart beetle. And a 19-year old from a few thousand miles away, trying to catch his breath and figure out who on earth he was, whether he was in control of his life or not and, if so, to what end. Natori seemed eternal and constant. A good place to get your footing. Steady. Solid. Sound. Decent, well-grounded people going about their mindful lives earnestly, in the moment, with a quiet confidence and, of course, that spectacular Japanese reverence for self and others that defines the form and grammar of their words and actions. That meant everything to me then, so much so that, ironically I've rarely even thought about it, since, and I didn't even consciously realize some of this until now.

And so I don't know whether to cringe and hate knowing that those good people in that special place have been dealt such a bitter challenge, or to relax and rest, with gravity but at ease, in the knowledge that those good people are perhaps uncommonly suited to weather this challenge with a firm stride, nurtured through generations. Either way, my thoughts are with them.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Summer Just Got Better

First Deathly Hallows Part 2, and now Super 8.

It's E.T. meets Cloverfield! I am so there.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mother Nature Takes Crap from Nobody

Beyond words.

Bradley Manning, and my Biggest Disappointment in Obama (Yet)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Let me make two things clear: first, all things considered, I still think Barack Obama has been, and remains, a pretty decent president--certainly better than his predecessor. Despite the wide philosophical gulf between us, the priorities and aspirations which our respective political philosophies lead us to form overlap enough that I end up sharing a fair number of his partisan goals (the philosopher Charles Taylor called this the distinction between ontology and advocacy). Second, I am not an apologist for all things relating to WikiLeaks--on the contrary, I accept the authority of nations, and therefore (sometimes reluctantly) states; I accept the necessity of military discipline and allegiance; I reject the idea all our problems would be solved if we could all follow Julian Assange into some kind of everything-is-transparent techno-utopia. I'll admit that I have been both gratified and horrified by some of the damaging footage which Wikileaks has revealed, and as someone who would like states to be smaller than they are, and fight fewer wars while they're at it, I suppose there is a part of me that sees Assange's operation--an operation that led Bradley Manning to break his oath and the law and reveal thousands of confidential military documents--on the side of the angels. But only a part. Front Porch Republic's Katherine Dalton expressed the dangerous appeal of Assange's righteous anarchism very well:

Mr. Assange reminds me a bit of John Brown, who a hundred and fifty years after his death also remains a hero to many. Brown, too, had a cause that was much larger than any individual. And so it was inevitable, perhaps, that the first victim of the raid on Harper’s Ferry was a free black man. His name was Hayward Shepherd, but we don’t remember that today. We just call him Collateral Damage.

Depending on how you choose to use your words, Bradley Manning is collateral damage as well. I don't want to pretend the man is some perfect hero, any more than a perfect villain: he seems, by all accounts, to be a confused, passionate, contradictory young man, who wanted to be part of something larger than himself, couldn't find it in the military, so instead found it through the hacker community. Enter Assange, exit Manning--to a maximum security cell, where he, by all accounts, has been treated harshly, inhumanely, even horribly.

Where does President Obama come in? Let Ezra Klein explain it:

Over the weekend, the Obama administration forced the State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley to resign. The reason? He’d told the truth.

You may only hazily remember the name “Bradley Manning.” He’s the young soldier accused of passing thousands and thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks. I say “accused” not because his guilt is so doubtful, but because he has not yet stood for trial. At the moment, he is simply incarcerated. And in an apparent act of revenge, his captors are subjecting him to sleep deprivation, prolonged time in isolation and continuous nude spot-checks--conditions that Daniel Ellsberg calls “right out of the manual of the CIA for ‘enhanced interrogation’.”

Asked about Manning’s treatment at a speech in Cambridge recently, Crowley made the obvious points: it’s “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.” This made life difficult for the administration, and so Crowley--rather than the officials responsible for putting Crowley and every other administration member into the position of defending Mannin’s treatment--was forced to resign. The message of this is horrendous. “Crowley’s firing will make it even less likely in the future that decent public servants will speak out against such needless sadism,” writes Andrew Sullivan.

The Obama campaign was only three years ago, but it had strong opinions on this sort of thing. “To lead the world, we must lead by example,” Candidate Obama said in October of 2007. “We must be willing to acknowledge our failings, not just trumpet our victories. And when I’m President, we’ll reject torture--without exception or equivocation.” But now we find there is both exception and equivocation--and the administration is purging those within its ranks who publicly say it should be otherwise. This is a moment in which both those who serve in the administration and those who support it need to ask whether the Obama administration is keeping sight of its values now that it holds power. The trade-off between security and moral purity is always more difficult for a president than a candidate, but as we saw in the Bush administration, the pendulum can swing too far towards security, in a way that does little to make us safer and erodes who we are. Crowley’s firing is a sign that that may be happening to the Obama administration.

Ezra's title for his post is, "What would the Obama campaign think of the Obama administration?" It's a good question to ask--and one whose answer is, tragically, becoming more obvious with every day that he allows his administration to take a likely criminal, a man who properly ought to pay the price for taking actions against his word and against the law...and torturing him. Wasn't that supposed to be a big deal, three or four years ago? I, for one, would like it to remain one today. This is not to say that the cause that Manning was fighting for--assuming he even was fighting for a cause, as opposed to lashing out, making trouble, and searching for a place and way where he could make a stand and assert himself--is a good one. WikiLeaks, and all the quasi-anarchist and individualist and radically democratic cosmopolitanism baggage which such a project carries with it, is at the very best, a mixed bag. It is the job of a decent community--and in this case, the relevant community is nation-state of the United States--to sort through the mixed bag, trying to salvage that which is good from that which is not. Torturing (or coming close to it) Bradley Manning, and then firing people who speak their mind about it, is a lousy way to do that sorting. Our president should know that; allowing administrative logic to force his hand, if that is what happened, only proves that he doesn't have the right things on his mind.

Joe Morello, RIP

I just heard that Joe Morello, drummer in the classic line-up of The Dave Brubeck Quartet, died on Saturday at the age of 82. Morello, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, and Eugene Wright crystallized the greatest expression of cool , controlled, West Coast jazz. Brubeck was a tremendous, tight pianist, perhaps equal to Bill Evans; Desmond was a revelation on the alto sax; Wright was the fluid backbone to their every composition. But Morello was their rock. Watch as Brubeck gives him a nod at 2:45 in the following clip, and opens "Take Five" up to Morello kicking it, which he does...but without ever one departing even a single step out of the beat of the whole composition:

Hope he got to swing again wherever he ended up this weekend. RIP.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "Only You" (Original and A Cappella)

Remember this wonderful video?

No you don't--it was never released as a video, only made available to stores and record companies as a promotion for the single. But the song is beautiful (better than any other single tune Vince Clark ever wrote while in Depeche Mode or Erasure, I think), and after my friend Dan Weingarten reminded me of it, I had to include it in FMV.

Actually though, Dan didn't remind me of it; what he did was recommend this a capella number...

...which was a much bigger hit than the Yaz original, and which I did remember, and which then sent me back to the Vince Clark/Alison Moyet version. Funny how pop tunes come around, isn't it?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Theses on Unions, Wisconsin, and Other Things

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

So last night, the Republicans in the Wisconsin state senate passed the bill which Governor Scott Walker has made the cornerstone of his new administration: stripping collective bargaining rights from most of the public employee unions of the state (the police and firefighters were exempt). They did this, despite the absence of the Democrats needed to form a quorum, by stripping from the bill all spending or fiscal matters--in other words, reducing the bill to the plain contest over political power which I and many others said it was weeks ago.

What will come next is anyone's guess. Thousands are gathering in Madison for perhaps the largest demonstration yet. The polls show that Governor Walker and the local Republicans have taken a beating for attacking the rights of school teachers and other public employees. This fight over unions has mobilized certain voters to high levels of activism; recall election drives against state politicians are underway, and one against Governor Walker himself probably isn't too far distant. It's tense, it's infuriating, it's exciting, it's might say, it's politics. That's Ezra Klein's view, anyway:

It seems to me that the system worked. Democrats were able to slow the process down and convince both voters in Wisconsin and the national media that there was something beyond business as usual happening in Madison. National and state polls show they were successful in that effort. Walker and the Senate Republicans ignored the Democrats’ attempts at compromise and ignored the public turning against them and decided to pass the legislation anyway.

That was their prerogative, and now it’s up to the voters to decide whether to recall the eight Senate Republicans who are eligible for judgment this year, and to defeat Walker and the other Republicans in a year or two, when they become vulnerable to a recall election. That’s how representative democracy, for better or worse, works. The representatives can make unpopular decisions, but the voters can punish them for it. I thought that during the health-care debate, and I think that now--though I would be interested to see whether any of the conservative voices who were shocked and appalled by President Obama’s decision to ignore public opinion and finish health-care reform using the reconciliation process are calling for Walker’s head today. If not, I think they need to ask themselves what makes this case different.

I suppose I'm mostly with Ezra here--I can talk at length about how I'd like to see our political system take a more populist, participatory, parliamentary form, but in the end I concur: elections matter, majorities matter, the stability of the system matters (though I'll admit that I've become a lot friendlier to the idea of recall elections than I was back in 2003, despite still wishing we could reform our system more fundamentally, rather than adding various often-easily-hijacked-by-outside-interests reforming corrections on to it). Still, all that being said, there is still the matter of these anecdotes aplenty, all observing that Walker and the Wisconsin GOP presented a false face during the 2010 elections, never hinting that they believed addressing the states budget crisis would require to turn on what many call "The Wisconsin Idea". And that, I think, is a point where we can talk about differences, where we can talk about whether or not an action--this action by the Wisconsin GOP in particularly--truly is "democratic," truly does respect the wishes of a community, a state, a people, to govern themselves as they understand themselves. For the Wisconsin understanding is, historically at least, deeply tied up with assumptions about egalitarianism and the public good. Whatever the power (or lack thereof) of the case which President Obama and the Democrats made to the American people for national health care reform, it greatly pales beside the associative power which unions have in the Badger State. Christopher Phelps put it this way:

Madison is a capital city filled with public employees who take pride in the knowledge that Wisconsin was, in 1959, the first state to recognize public workers' collective-bargaining rights. The Wisconsin Idea--a classroom staple of the very schoolteachers whose labor rights are now threatened--has been given new life by the multitudes chanting, "This is what democracy looks like." Those who have been peopling ("occupying" is not quite the right word) the Wisconsin Capitol represent a remarkable diversity of professions and callings: corrections officers, graduate teaching assistants, letter carriers, carpenters, steelworkers, and students....In an equally arresting development, many school-board and county officials, although they might have been expected to welcome the prospect of weakened unions, have warned that the governor's proposed dismantling of labor rights might mean a return to the disruption of basic services from strikes, as happened often in the era before collective bargaining....When Madison teachers called a "sick out," a judge declined to issue an injunction against them on the basis that they were not violating their contractual obligation not to strike because they made no demands upon the school district and were instead protesting before the state government. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, promised when visiting Madison that on whatever day the measure is signed into law, "We will be in the streets."

When I wrote about this conflict before, I wrote about it, at least in part, from my position as a conflicted, compromised localist--and that's still my position. But my position is a populist and socialist one too. Achieving the kind of economic democracy, the kind of community integrity, the kind of equality and solidarity, that I'd like to see may be impossible (may, in fact, be utopian)...but to whatever degree it may be possible, it necessitates challenging those socio-economic presumptions which insist that serving the interests of corporations engaged in trade and investment, and the needs of banks and bondholders who establish the terms of those investments--in short, the imperatives of a mostly unregulated ever-expanding (and, therefore, ever-disrupting) marketplace--must take priority. Are unions a good tool for making such a challenge?

Front Porch Republic ended up hosting a strong exchange on this topic, as did Salon's War Room blog, as did The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. Kevin Carson's contribution to the latter is must reading, for anyone--whether their inclinations lean communitarian (like mine) or libertarian (like his)--concerned about the requirements of economic independence and democracy. Basically he's strongly pro-union, but he makes that case while pointing out that unions have, for decades (he takes it back to the Wagner Act; I would take it back even further, to the end of the Progressive era and the eclipse of the IWW--and its model of direct action in support of workplace democracy--by other union organizations, one's less caught up in early 20th-century struggles with communism), been partners in making certain industrial capitalism maintained its stability and predictability. Collective bargaining agreements, the heart of the (for now) failed campaign in Wisconsin, are important, but not as important as unions could be were laws (and, perhaps, social and economic expectations) changed so as to allow them the operate a mutually supporting, networked guilds, capable of more direct (and less predictable) actions against firms and other economic actors that disrupt community life. But all that kind of talk--"community life" and the rest--can sound quaint when one is faced with losing the ability to bargain with one's employer over wages and working conditions. It was those things, and the political processes that enable workers to be equal partners in the determination of them, which lay at the heart of the "Wisconsin Idea," an undeniably Progressive vision which sought to streamline and reform and make fairer capitalism, not radically challenge it.

James Matthew Wilson's thoughtful post at FPR is, I think, basically uncomfortable with unions, but primarily because he seems them as representing a kind of delusion, a characteristically American unwillingness to recognize that budgets, like everything else, must operate within limits. He allowed, though, when pressed by comments from me and others, that the same can be said of Governor Walker and Wisconsin GOP leaders: to present the removal of right for public employees to unionize and negotiate, a right which Wisconsin pioneered a half-century ago, as a fiscal correction necessary to resolving the state's budget woes...while also passing a budget which grants large tax breaks and business incentives which cut into the state's revenue, is, at the least, a little questionable. Could Walker make the case that, in following the economic imperatives of late capitalism--namely, luring national and international money to the state, in the form of businesses that will create jobs and turn profits--he is concerned with the "common good" of Wisconsin? That he is being the responsible one? Perhaps...but responsible to whom? This is a struggle that runs through much of the localist project, and it is not an easy one to resolve: what if it is the culture of a place, the will of a people (and the massive demonstrations in Madison have to be at least one demonstration of just what that culture or idea may be), is such that they are truly attached, in the fullest, most civic sense of the word, to compromises which the more radical among us disdain? Look at the blog Milwaukee Rising, pointed out to me by a fine FPR commenter; the author is no automatic friend of unions, and in fact recognizes them as anything but an oppressed minority voice in Wisconsin--yet also recognizes that what they are fighting for is part of the fabric of the state, connected to democratic traditions like the Open Meetings (something every believer in local government ought to support!), and basically central to the character of the state. That certainly doesn't mean they shouldn't or couldn't be reformed (as labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein observes, it's really not so much the collective bargaining itself which matters, as the simple fact of having structures that bring workers together, to recognize their common interests, express solidarity amongst themselves, and form "countervailing forces" to challenge those in positions of economic authority and power). It only means that, if one wishes to get all classically republican, and point out that unions partake of a system which presumes that portions of the whole will invariably be set against itself (a criticism which I reluctantly have to agree with), then one ought to accept 1) that wholly non-capitalist options should always be on the table, and 2) that if there are communities of people who have embraced one progressive-liberal response to the problems of capitalism, and made it so much their own it's barely noticed until a politician tries to take it all away--which seems to be as good a description of the situation in Wisconsin today as any--then one ought, if one is a localist, to accept and embrace and work with and through it. The least democratic, least communitarian, least localist thing, it's seems to me, would be to assume that the union-defenders of Wisconsin don't know what they want, assume they aren't doing this themselves (an assumption which, if posed, could be just as easily extended to Governor Walker himself), or assume that what they want is wrong, because the rules laid down the bankers and bondholders and corporations cannot possibly be lived within any other way.

Is the Wisconsin way a legitimate one? Michael Lind argued that unions represent just one of several strands of capitalism-reforming egalitarianism, and probably not the best either. Lind would prefer what he calls "social democracy"--a ground-floor of "universal, contributory social insurance programs," rather than a patchwork of contracts providing wages and benefits sufficient for maintaining a family and a neighborhood (assuming the union lets you in the door). A response to him from Matthew Dimick points out the social insurance programs--like Social Security, for one--are invariably limited in their redistributive power, and become skewed in absolute terms towards the middle and upper-classes in society; the only way to keep the project of real economic equality politically feasible is to minimize the felt costs of universal social insurance programs, and that means lessening "pre-tax, pre-transfer inequality," so that redistribution does not present such an obvious target. What can do that? The bargaining power of unions, he says. But Lind is doubtful--the increasing inequalities in American life, the ones which make all acts of economic redistribution suspicious, because so costly and obvious, to those in the middle and upper classes, is not, he thinks, something unions can do much about; the real scourge is a libertarian ethic, which has left the financial center unregulated, and the borders open:

The growth of American CEO salaries, extreme as it is in international comparison, has been dwarfed by the explosion of compensation to elites in the financial sector. The bonanzas reaped by the tycoons of finance result from the deregulation of the financial industry by the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, combined with the socialization of the costs incurred by "too big to fail" financial firms. Vast fortunes have been made in finance by individuals who are allowed to keep the profits from highly-leveraged gambling, while their losses are absorbed by the taxpayers. If the financial industry in the U.S. had continued to be a tightly regulated utility, then elite bankers would never have become vastly richer than ordinary business executives. Pre-tax inequality in the U.S. would have been much reduced, unions or no unions....

While the top of the labor market in the U.S. has blown off, the bottom has fallen out at the same time. The decline of labor unions is one factor--but again, only one. Another factor has been mass immigration. With a few exceptions, like the late Barbara Jordan, most liberals refuse to admit that mass immigration by disproportionately poor and uneducated workers in the last generation has had anything to do with reducing wages for janitors, construction workers and nursing home aides....Mass immigration can harm unionization in two ways: directly, by providing an ever-growing pool of non-union "scabs" to replace workers who seek to unionize, and indirectly, by increasing divisions among workers along non-economic lines that increase the difficulty of collaboration. For two decades now, some utopian progressives have claimed that it is possible to reconcile mass immigration with increased unionization by unionizing both natives and immigrants. In theory anything is possible but in practice private sector union membership has continued to crumble in the face of mass immigration.

Lind's doubts are shared by some of those libertarians as well; Jason Kuznicki, a smart and realistic libertarian thinker (I wonder why he hasn't joined up with Bleeding Heart Libertarians yet?), makes some similar observations:

[I]t’s far from clear that labor unions can correct the specific type of inequality that we face today. CEO compensation is huge, yes, but the super-rich are not merely or even primarily CEOs these days. Instead, they’re generally in finance. How do you go on strike against an investment banker? Who exactly is he oppressing? Against the management of a steel mill, a union would be the right tool for the job. Here? I’m not convinced....I’m not denying that finance is capturing a larger and larger share of wealth. It certainly appears to be. The problem is that financiers don’t face a discrete class of disfavored people who can easily self-identify and organize to demand, through some workable mechanism, their fair share of the pie.

In reading these reasonable points--with which I'm pretty strongly tempted to agree whole-heartedly--I am struck my two points. First, that they presume, without any real question, that the structures of global capitalism--specifically, the financial institutions which generate the excess liquid capital that investors and businesspeople make use of--have enabled certain individuals to enrich themselves enormously, to the detriment of general equality and thus the health of the body politic. Second, that they throw up their hands when confronted by such structures; Lind would prefer these institutions be treated as a "tightly regulated utility," and Jason imagines that "higher marginal tax rates" ought to be in out future, but neither contemplate trying to find an alternative to, or a means of operating without, such inequality-generating, and hence equality and solidarity-destroying, global structures in the first place....especially since developing such alternative, non-global, more localized, ways of conducting transactions and fulfilling social and economic needs would likely go hand in hand with addressing the second significant cause of pre-tax, pre-transfer inequality in the United States which Lind mentioned: namely, a porous border that benefits (sometimes) many thousands of undocumented workers every year, and lines the pockets (always) of many cut-rate, highly profitable corporations every year, but doesn't do much at all for the general community, the nation, in between. I suppose it actually doesn't surprise to not see this connection made by Jason, as I assume our cultural perspectives are too far apart for him to make the leap from his libertarian position to my communitarian, democratic socialist one, however much we may agree on the problem of inequality. But I am surprised that Lind doesn't make it. Perhaps he's too much of a nationalist to recognize that some ideas worth fighting for aren't country-wide; they may be particular to a state. They may be found, for instance, in Wisconsin.

A confession: I've been to Wisconsin only twice. Went to a national high school debate tournament held in Eau Claire back in 1985, and I went to an international conference to J.G. Herder in Madison a few years ago. So truly, I don't know the state at all. But I know the legacy of Bob La Follette, and I know that, if I'm going to be caught between radical visions of decentralism and economic reform, and a corporate liberalism which is satisfied with mitigating capitalism where and when it may, then I like La Follette's determination to weave the best compromise he could into the social fabric; to make his vision--much of which apparently became second-nature to the socio-economic expectations and preferences of most Wisconsinites until this very day. That's not going to create the perfect localist, or populist, or socialist community. But it'd create a pretty fine state. So as long as there are unions who seem to be capable, whatever their overall conceptual limitations, for fighting for that idea, for fighting for that state, then I'll support them--I'll support Wisconsin. Sure hope Governor Walker doesn't trash the place any further.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

For Ash Wednesday

Inspired by Kristine Haglund's wise and beautiful link and post.

Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness
According to the multitude of Thy mercies do away mine offences.
Wash me throughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me.
Against Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that Thou mightest be justified in Thy saying, and clear when Thou art judged.
Behold, I was shapen in wickedness: and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
But lo, Thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.
Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness: that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.
Turn Thy face from my sins: and put out all my misdeeds.
Make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Thy presence: and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
O give me the comfort of Thy help again: and stablish me with Thy free Spirit.
Then shall I teach Thy ways unto the wicked: and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.
Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, Thou that art the God of my health: and my tongue shall sing of Thy righteousness.
Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord: and my mouth shall shew Thy praise.
For Thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it Thee: but Thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt Thou not despise.
O be favourable and gracious unto Sion: build Thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt Thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness, with the burnt-offerings and oblations: then shall they offer young calves upon Thine altar.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Jon Stewart Commits Class Warfare

Thank goodness someone is.

Bonus points for spotting the not-so-subtle Rawlsian point raised in the third minute.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Three Blogworthy Notes

Does anyone besides me really read blogs anymore? Or has Facebook and Twitter defeated them entirely, and the fact they still seem like going concerns to my eyes is only evidence of how completely I remain cocooned in this shell I constructed, circa 2005? (I mean, I still use and update my blogroll for heaven's sake.) Well, anyway, whatever the truth of the matter, here are three developments in the blogosphere that in different ways have excited and intrigued me, so check them out.

The inestimable Jacob T. Levy has branched out, for the first time, I think, since he departed The Volokh Conspiracy years and years ago. The libertarian Volokh gang used to drive me batty, but I still read them, populist and communitarian and socialist though I am, because Jacob was blogging there, and his occasional and usually brilliant observations on politics, philosophy, and academia made it worth it. He apparently will now be contributing occasionally to a new blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians. From the first few posts, it looks to be an effort to mostly talk political theory, but perhaps also talk about the events of the day, from what they're calling a "neoclassical liberal" perspective--in other words, a libertarianism which, for different reasons, supports welfare state-type policies. I'll be interested to see where they, and Jacob in particular, take it.

My old and dear and occasionally crazy socialist friend Matt Stannard has, over the past year or two, joined with other progressives of many different sorts to create a worthy contribution to the left side of the blogosphere, Shared Sacrifice, which hosted guest editorials, podcasts, and its own Blogtalk radio program. That site has now been superseded by the much more impressive, and much more user friendly, Political Context. I love the look of it, and I figure it'll be an important resource for me and others on the left, whatever the frequency of my agreeing (or disagreeing) with what I read there. (Full disclosure requires I acknowledge that I've already posted there once, and probably will be again in the future, perhaps regularly.)

Finally, another old friend of mine, a Dallas resident who prefers to maintain his online anonymity, has embarked on a massive project on his food blog, The author, a fellow I've known for twenty years, is one of the most particular, exacting, thoughtful, and thorough people I've ever known; when looks into something, he looks into it exhaustively. If you're a foodie, and especially a chocophile, you may be aware of the saga of NōKA Chocolate, an extremely expensive (and pretentious) chocolate manufacturer which DallasFood basically took apart (read about the saga here). My friend isn't planning any kind of food vendetta right now, but he has embarked upon a huge, sprawling series, filled with close historical research and some excellent art and videos, aiming to tell the whole story of the Italian (actually Turinese) chocolate, gianduia. I knew basically nothing about this delicacy before, and I'm learning more, and getting hungrier, every week. (He's even helped me pronounce it.) Absolutely worth checking out.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "Every Day I Write the Book"

Got it stuck in my head; can't get it out. So here it is.

Not Elvis Costello's greatest song, nor his greatest video (that would be this rarity, I'd say), but it's pretty cool all the same. But what's with the jokes at the expense of Charles and Diana? Were they so obviously deserving of mockery as early as 1983? I guess Mr. MacManus was just ahead of his time here.

Your Daily Wisdom from Alan Jacobs

For what it's worth, I don't think what a young person reads is nearly as important as how he or she reads. Young people who learn to read with patience and care and long-term concentration, with pencil in hand to make notes (including questions and disagreements), will be better prepared for college than students who read all the "right" books but read them carelessly or passively.

(Man, I'm getting a ton of stuff off my Google Reader for the blog this morning. Either that or I'm bored.)


A reminder, I suppose, as if we needed another one (just go searching for old, original, uncut Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons, and you'll find evidence aplenty), of popular children's entertainment back in the day when some form of the Christian moral consensus casually held sway. (Hat tip: Eve Tushnet.)

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Agreeing with Alito, For Once

As I predicted back in October, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that First Amendment speech protections trump the ability of those offended by the speech in question to sue for damages resulting from emotional distress--even when the speech took place in the context of a military funeral, even when the speech involved outrageous, hateful, insulting, and ugly allegations, even when there was no real question that the emotional distress the speech caused to the bereaved was real. The vote in Snyder v. Phelps was 8-1--interestingly, the very same vote which came down in U.S. v. Stevens, a decision which supported First Amendment claims defending the right to distribute graphic and offensive visual depiction of animal cruelty. The dissenting vote in both cases was Samuel Alito. Though my leftist friends will hate me for saying so, I'm going to have to take this man more seriously...because he's getting these rulings right, even if his views aren't carrying the day.

What do I mean by "right"? Strictly speaking, in our common law system there are not "right" or "wrong" decisions in some transcendent sense; there are only good or bad arguments. Good arguments are the ones which attract the concurrence of other judges, which establish precedents, which make sense and are persuasive to litigants and defendants and through practice become part of the ongoing fabric of constitutional law. Bad arguments are the ones which don't do any of that. Of course, we don't have to restrict ourselves to such a strict, pragmatic vision of the law; no one does, after all (unless you're Oliver Wendell Holmes or Richard Posner, and maybe not even then). We can and do carry our preferences, our ideological interpretations and political priorities, into the debates over the law, and attempt to find arguments that can move forward what we want to move forward, and oppose what we want to oppose. Folks which share my position alongside the political aisle are on legitimate ground when we call Bush v. Gore or Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (or, for that matter, Roe v. Wade, though saying so situates me on the other side of the political aisle as well) not just bad decisions but "wrong" ones--because they resulted in conditions that, measured against what we believe to be the right distribution or arrangement of power or rights or procedures in our country, are lacking. Some of Alito's actions as a justice on the Supreme Court have been distasteful to me--but not too much, as I'd rather the Supreme Court not have that much importance anyway (ideally, I'd rather we not have much of a rigorous regime of judicial review at all). And regardless of that, I have to say that on matters of the First Amendment, I'm liking, and thinking correct, more than a little of what he has to say.

Consider his dissent in Snyder v. Phelps. He's making a rather simple series of points: first, that citizens may sue others for "recovery in tort for the intentional infliction of emotional distress" through certain kinds of speech acts; second, that the emotional distress suffered by Albert Snyder when he became aware of the fact that Westboro Baptist Church was using his song's funeral as yet one more opportunity to spread their message of perverse, ridiculous hate was both severe and never disputed by those who defended WBC's supposed First Amendment rights; and third, that the majority's straightforward assumption of the awesome privilege the First Amendment contains becomes debatable when one considers a) whether the dominant theme of WBC's protest--proclaiming that God hates homosexuals and is killing American soldiers because we don't execute gays--of the funeral truly "spoke to broad public [and thus protected] issues," b) whether "statements made as part of a cold and calculated strategy to slash a stranger as a means of attracting attention public attention" really should be protected from tort action simply because there is no evidence that the speech in question was motivated by a "private grudge"--as if speech spoken out of anger from one person to another was somehow more disturbing to the public order than an organized and public effort to indiscriminately do the same--and finally c) whether it is really so significant that the protest of the funeral took place on a public street. These are good questions Alito is asking, and he asks them because eight other Supreme Court justices didn't really find them worth asking at all. For them, current First Amendment jurisprudence makes it obvious that, so long as certain exceedingly high criteria are not met, then freedom of speech covers all.

It's a logic which has become second nature to nearly all Americans as the implications of our liberal and individualistic constitutional order has slowly but surely worked themselves out throughout the 20th century; the midst of all sorts of distinctions about protecting certain types of institutions and spaces from certain sorts of harms and offenses, the overriding conclusion remains straightforward--whatever pertains to the beliefs or preferences or choices of an individual, however unoffensive or unpopular or hateful they may be (and, given our proper concerns with protecting minority populations, especially if some person or group with the power of the majority and/or the law behind them considers them such), so long as it does not immediately and seriously threaten the rights of another or the public order, must be protected. Hugo Schwyzer, one of my favorite bloggers, takes this approach ("the right to offend must trump the right not to be offended"); as does Scott Lemieux, one of the smartest legal and political bloggers out there ("It’s hard to celebrate any victory for Phelps and his band of bigots, but that’s the point--you don’t need the First Amendment to defend popular speakers"). It is worth noting that, in the comments to both threads, the philosophical presumptions of both these writers--and those of the very few who take Alito's side--are made clear fairly quickly; in both cases, it's not long before you see the authors and their commenters engaging rather critically over Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, and others who have worked to establish certain types of speech (such as pornography or "hate speech") as by its very nature harmful to the liberty of particular classes or communities of people. They may throw a bone to "communitarian leftists," but by and large they rest confident that, when it comes to the First Amendment at least, the classical liberal or civil libertarian order remains secure. (Full discloser requires that I here acknowledge that MacKinnon's Towards a Feminist Theory of the State, for all the ways I disagreed with it, one of the most influential books I read in college, and I'll even defend Only Words on occasion.)

I take some comfort in knowing that here in Kansas, where the disgusting Phelps "church" originates, there are still people frustrated enough by the hate which Phelps & Co. remain mostly unrestricted in offensively parading about, to grasp the communitarian reality which the individualism of the Court's 8-person majority didn't see as worth engaging at all, even if they wouldn't use that language to name it. I like the comments of Terry Houck, co-founder of the Patriot Guard, a local group that has gone national in its wonderful efforts to provide support to the families of veterans targeted for protest purposes by Phelps's outfit in their moments of grief:

"It just doesn't make sense to allow it," Houck said. "I do understand their decision on our First Amendment rights; however, it is morally wrong and it is spiritually wrong, and all of us who stand together at these funerals disagree that a small group of fanatics can hide behind a false religion and continue to inflict emotional abuse as those families bury their loved ones."

The civil libertarian would politely note the complications with Houck's statement in the context of America's pluralist society--outside a few well-established, mostly church-based exceptions, citizens are not allowed to go about defining certain places or ideas or actions as conditioned by a spiritual or moral order, and hence no sense in calling Phelps's protests "wrong," much less labeling their religious cause "false" and thus capable of being forbidden. That's not what America's about, they would say; we don't involve those kind of establishments or assumptions or orders into our public thinking. By and large, we strive to leave everything as open and as neutral as possible, to allow ideas to flow from any source, whatever their content.

Well, I think the civil libertarians are wrong. I think there is no possible away human beings, social beings that they are, can ever escape the construction, through their public actions, of some sort of moral or civil "establishment" or another. There are values and perspectives that will be debated, and through those debates some will values and perspectives will become settled (despite that some will always contest them), and some of those settled views will become so thoroughly settled that even a Supreme Court committed to reading the First Amendment broadly won't be able to deny that they're worth fighting over. (To my knowledge, despite the narrowing of the Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire decision by R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, the "fighting words" exception remains constitutional, as Alito noted in his dissent.) Should some communities articulate that doctrine, and the exceptions from free speech protections it allows, in light of widely and locally held religious or moral or entirely personal imperatives fight...well, that sounds to me like democracy in action. Of course, it is essential to protect minorities and minority beliefs from the action of democratic majorities (as a member of a church that has suffered from that in the past, I certainly aware of it), but to assume that providing such protection requires individual members of those communities--whether they be the state of Kansas or the whole United States of America--be forbidden to legitimately pursue claims of distress against the asshole making a mockery of their grief from a distance, strikes me as simply ridiculous.

Well, apparently it struck Alito as ridiculous too. To so thoroughly disarm an individual citizen against a lunatic hate-monger takes the First Amendment, as important as it may be, in an absolutist direction which does not serve our wholly worthwhile communitarian instincts--instincts which, as is apparent through the very way language and cultures function, to recognize and define and defend that which we hold, even if only unconsciously, to be constitutive to our way of being and showing love and respect--at all. Alito isn't such absolutist. Some might call him a statist for that reason, and given his other decisions, many of which I think very much in the wrong, I wouldn't disagree with that sentiment. But I'll give him this: at least he's envisioning the state, when it comes to the First Amendment anyway, as capable of incorporating moralistic and communitarian concerns. Other countries don't seem to have nearly so much reluctance to wade into the difficult, dangerous, but (I would insist) unavoidable waters of boundary-making, between that which is conducive to the public sphere that which isn't. Would that we can learn from them. Maybe, if Alito keeps this up (and if his other decisions don't contribute to our country being reduced to a corporate tyranny along the way), someday someone may discover his dissents, and start taking them seriously. That was the case with John Marshall Harlan's civil rights dissents, after all. Stranger things have happened.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Wrong Chain Went Bankrupt

I read this post by Ezra Klein yesterday, and I realized that my history with Borders is mostly the same as his--I used to hang out there all the time, just studying, especially while in graduate school (an old, and I suppose mostly inexplicable habit of mine, going all the way back my undergraduate years: I always found bookstores more amenable to serious reading and work than libraries, even university ones), but as I moved into the workforce and I got my own office spaces and we moved away from big cities, my time spent there, and my patronage of it, rapidly declined. So yeah, I'm part of the reason they're going bankrupt too. Bummer.

Still, I said only "mostly the same" as Ezra, because there is one big difference--once I finished with my coursework and moved into dissertation writing mode, and my schedule loosened up, I started taking jobs around Washington DC (I received my PhD from Catholic University of America), and the jobs I found were in bookstores. Specifically, Borders and Barnes & Noble; yes, I worked for months at them both. So, as one of them likely passes into the sunset, or at least the everything-must-go bankruptcy proceedings twilight, let me explain why I really kind of wish it was B&N biting it, rather than Borders. (Keep in mind that these judgments are entirely based on my experiences at Borders and Barnes & Noble stores in Arlington and Alexandria, VA, circa 1999-2001.)

There were, I'll happily admit, a couple of things that I really liked about B&N:

1) Book orders came through more quickly at B&N than at Borders.
2) Despite being overpriced, the snacks at their cafe which much better (though that's entirely due to their outsourcing to the highly polished Starbucks empire).
3) Their children section was better laid out and more spacious, allowing much more freedom for children (including Megan, when Melissa would bring her by when she stopped to see me during work) to run around, explore different books and toys, listen to books being read, etc.
4) The whole ambiance of the store, from the shelving to the murals on the wall, was much more homey and personal, however calculated it may have been.

Still, those reasons aren't enough to stop me from wishing that it wasn't B&N emerging as the likely sole big-box-bookstore survivor of what no doubt will someday be referred to us The Great Amazon/Kindle Scourge. For example:

1) B&N made me wear a tie; Borders didn't. I'm committed to wearing a tie and jacket now, but back then it necessitated that I go to the bathroom to change every time.
2) Borders always appeared to me to have a much better and broader selection of scholarly books in politics, philosophy, history, and religion (which was the stuff I cared about).
3) For that matter, Borders also had a much better and more variable music selection.
4) Borders had a clientele that was much more fun to work with. At B&N, I was far more likely to encounter someone looking for a very particular book; at Borders, the typical customer seemed more interested in searching, getting advice, etc. (Yes, quite possibly those subjective impressions were entirely a function of the demographics of where those stores were located, but still...)
5) Along those lines, I never faced the same level of organizational and shelving specifics at B&N as I did at Borders; at B&N, managers would follow up to make sure that every book was always in place, whereas Borders seemed less intense about it all. The result was that I saw a lot more people just wandering and browsing at Borders than at B&N, and I liked that.
6) Like clientele, like staff: Borders, in my experience, had a looser and more interpersonal staffing structure. I was working at the register one day, and a manager heard me answer a customer's question about Dvorak, and immediately moved me over to being a floor manager in the music section. At the B&N I worked at, things were much more hierarchical.
7) As benefits what I observed as greater flexibility in the staffing structure, Borders also had greater variety in its staff. While working there, I got to know an ex-con from Alabama, a guy who lived in a commune, an independent business owner, a JD and two ABDs. Yes, I know that last one was probably because we were in Washington DC, and yes, I know it's a cliche...

...but it made for fun conversations while stacking books.

Oh well. I suppose I ought to keep an eye out on the one Borders in Wichita--fortunately on our side of town--and be ready to raid it when the fire sale begins.

Seeking the Utopian: a Lecture on Erik Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

I gave this lecture, more or less, on the Friends University campus last Thursday, February 23rd. It was a small crowd, mostly my fellow Democratic Socialists of America activists, but a few curious others showed up as well. I was happy to be able to talk about Wright's book; Crooked Timber has been planning a symposium on it for a while, and doing so is much deserved. Whatever the faults of the book, I think it's the most philosophically interesting and politically insightful work on socialism that I've read in years, and the more attention it gets, the better.


It may be strange to be talking this evening about something like “realistic utopias,” if that even makes sense, in the context of searching for alternatives to capitalism, when at this very moment an intensely real, intensely immediate battle over the capitalist marketplace is taking place in Wisconsin. Like many of you, I’ve been following the protests closely; one thing that I’ve been doing that you probably haven’t, however, is looking for names of University of Wisconsin faculty that I’m familiar with. The University of Wisconsin in Madison, WI, has long been an intellectual incubator of some of the most progressive, free-thinking, and radical of all approaches to political and social thought--and not coincidentally therefore, the sort of place where you can find professors that a socialist (or at least social democratic) academic like myself likes to hear about and learn from. Erik Olin Wright, the author of Envisioning Real Utopias, is a Wisconsin professor of sociology, and while I haven’t seen his face on any of the videos of protests making the rounds, he has strongly expressed his support for the public union employees, and their friends and families, who have been camped out in the capitol building. (See this letter here, for example.) I also know, though not terribly well, another UW-Madison academic--Harry Brighouse, a philosophy professor and fellow blogger. He’s been posting videos which his students have made of the protests. Before we get all intellectual and continue with the rest of this discussion of “utopian” thinking, let’s check this out:

The final shot of that video might make a good launching point: “Can You Hear Us Now?” The supposed “realist” response to that is, “yes, we can...and so what?” So what if thousands gather to express themselves, so what if they insist that certain principles cannot be sacrificed in the name of enabling certain economic actors and activities to go forward? That doesn’t change who has authority over such economic decisions, or the circumstances that they’re responding too. As things stand today I am unwilling to make any predictions about the developments in Wisconsin--those protests are persuasive, but ultimately Governor Walker may be able to quite honestly insist that budget needs and fiscal realities justify his every action, and that kind of talk is persuasive to a lot of people too. Anything else just seems...utopian.

Here is where Wright’s book comes in: it confronts head-on the mindset which, when it hears protesters cry out, either sadly or condescendingly turns away unmoved--because, as Wright puts it, “Most people in the world today, especially in its economically developed regions, no longer believe...that a fundamental alternative to capitalism is possible” (p. 1). The capitalist marketplace, with it’s fiscal demands and priorities, simply appears to be “the natural order of things,” and the passion for alternatives, either as an immediately graspable possibility (as people on the left like me and many of you have thought or hoped), or as an immediately threatening monstrosity to be fought (as people on the right felt, and often, confusingly, still feel), has dissipated. Of course, we have the ranting about how President Obama or the Democratic party in the U.S. is promoting “socialism,” and therefore the oppression of what many accept as our basic political and economic liberties, which comes from the ignorant or paranoid or both, and of course we also have those parties and interests who consciously cultivate that ignorance and paranoia for their own political purposes. But as for a serious intellectual engagement with socialism, as a really and truly present alternative way of organizing the marketplace and our material life, whether as something to be immediately defeated it or anxiously promoted? You don’t see much of it, because what is the point of fighting for, or fighting against, something which has been passed over and dismissed, something which arguably never did and maybe never will exist?

Wright’s book is a long (perhaps over-long and belabored; that criticism of the book is probably fair, though others, I think, are not) argument insisting that “socialism” means something much different, and much more intellectually encompassing, than that which many people, including those of us on the left and our respectable opponents on the right, have perhaps long assumes. Socialism has been associated with the label “utopian” for as long as that word has existed in English--Sir Thomas More, in writing his book Utopia, which features an island society where there was no private property and all lived in a state of communalistic equality, borrowed the word from the Greek language, creating a pun: a “u-topia” is “no-place,” while a “eu-topia” is a “good-place.” As the marketplaces which had existed throughout all of human history were transformed by the end of feudalism and emergence of basic capitalist structures in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries (including the division of labor, vocational specialization, enclosure acts and the resulting commoditization of land, and then the collaterization of those commodities) into something much different, many people accepted these historical transformations as often harmful, even tragic for many, but basically unavoidable. Only a fictitious world, a “utopian” one, could be truly free of them.

Some early European socialists, looking at the long history of Christian experiments with devotional, egalitarian, even communalistic communities, more or less explicitly embraced the utopian label; the question was how to bring about this utopian condition. Some, like Robert Owen and his New Lanark community, believed that what was necessary was to build a “partial community” around the “whole faith”; once the equality and simple beauty of such small, cooperative, communitarian experiments because known, their appeal would spread. Others, such as the Fabian Society of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, dismissed such thinking, insisting that what was necessary was to use the existing state and economy to get the “whole community” to embrace socialism one part at a time. (See the discussion of this distinction in David Leopold, “Socialism and (the Rejection of) Utopia,” Journal of Political Ideologies, October 2007, pp. 224-225.) The arrival and impact of Karl Marx’s thinking upon European socialism starkly divided the Christian reformers and other utopians from “scientific socialism”; while Marx himself at different times over the decades expressed different opinions about various efforts to institute one or another aspect of the socialist alternative to capitalism, whether through unions or political parties or some other means, overall he was decidedly committed to the idea that the achievement of socialism depended strictly upon preparing the working class for the inevitable, historically and materially determined collapse of capitalism. Given that, over a 150 years after Marx made his mark, capitalism has, as yet, not collapsed, or at least not in the way Marx predicted--and also given that those societies which attempted to hurry Marx’s logic along through revolution ended up being for the most part horrifically murderous regimes--provides perhaps more than enough proof than most people need to see those of us who long for something other than capitalism as dreamers, nothing more and nothing less. They have no need to listen to us.

Well, Wright wants us to dream again, and he wants us, in thinking about utopian alternatives to the present system that really work, to dream broadly. So let’s doing some dreaming right here, right now.

Since we’re in a university setting here, let’s imagine a utopian socialist university. First of all, let’s stipulate that it’s free--no one pays any tuition or fees, and who desires to be admitted is, without question. The costs of keeping up the infrastructure and maintenance of the university is entirely covered by free-will donations, and they constitute more than enough wealth to cover everything that needs to be taken care of. Second, there are no restrictions on what you can study; you create your own agenda of research, and whatever that agenda is, it is treated with perfect respect, equal to every other student’s agenda. Moreover, every research agenda is a participatory affair; students are encouraged to bring their work and ideas into the development of each and every course of study, and those students are treated as perfect equals by those responsible for establishing the courses in the first place which all these participants are drawn to. And speaking of those in a position of responsibility, here’s the third point: they aren’t paid. Every single teacher or researcher who contributes to whatever it is that any other person wishes to study at this university does so on a purely volunteer basis: their only reward is the knowledge that they are part of grand educational project, one which contributes to the common good of humanity and the enlightenment of the human race.

What is this utopian socialist university? Any guesses? One hint: it really exists, and it turned 10 years old on January 15th, 2011. That’s right: it’s Wikipedia.

The obvious objection is that Wikipedia isn’t a university; it’s an encyclopedia, and one that exists solely on the internet for that matter. As such, it has no “real world” presence, and so presumably can’t count as evidence of a “real utopia.” Some of these objections could be countered, or at least played with, but for my purposes here I will grant all of them. It’s not a real utopia; it’s a marvelous bit of evolving web-design and collaborative programming, one that depends upon what is called “crowdsourcing,” or turning the goal of a project--in this case, the constant compiling, updating, editing, revising, critiquing, and promoting of any and all information that any given participant my think it valuable to share--over to whomever responds to the opportunity to be part of said project, whatever their level (or lack thereof) of accountability and expertise. All in all, it is something which academics like myself can’t possibly avoid and yet also find ourselves tearing our hair out over, especially when we get a paper handed in to us which is nothing but Wikipedia citations (that’s not counting the papers which are just cut-and-pasted Wikipedia entries themselves). As an open-ended internet resource, it provides no credentials, which are the life-blood of any modern university’s bottom-line, and no direction, meaning that anything one wishes to do with it counts equally as a “course of study.” So no, Wikipedia is not a utopian solution to the many struggles which face universities today. (And of course, all of these arguably virtuous characteristics which I associate with Wikipedia can be disputed; the accusations about its biases, inaccuracies, and other problems are legion.)

But the reason why I make use of Wikipedia--and it’s not my idea; Wright did it first, in chapter 7 of his book--as an example is not to emphasize its utopian nature, or lack thereof; it is to emphasize, rather, its socialist nature, the fact that it presents an alternative to capitalism. This should, and probably does, strike most of you as strange. Wikipedia doesn’t apparently involve any of the usual forms or structures which are popularly or historically associated with any type of socialism, and moreover, most of those deeply committed to what might be called the “ethos” of Wikipedia--the idea of mass collaboration through open-source software and non-hierarchical competition and initiative--generally describe themselves as anything but socialist. One of the founders of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, is in fact reputed to be a huge fan of Ayn Rand, an iconic defender of individualism, self-interest, and capitalism. Yet nonetheless, Wright makes the case for seeing Wikipedia as “not simply non-capitalist,” but in fact “thoroughly anti-capitalist” (p. 195). Consider the following elements of Wikipedia’s basic operation:

1. It depends upon non-market relations: voluntary, unpaid contributions and free access.

2. It encourages full, open, egalitarian participation, not distinguishing between providers and consumers.

3. In that participation, there is direct and deliberative interactions among contributors; there are no intermediaries or interest groups or licensing boards which control who gets involved.

4. And finally, the maintenance and administration of the encyclopedia is characterized by democratic governance and adjudication. (These points are made by Wright, pp. 195-197.)

All of these points could be contested, to be sure; nothing ever operates entirely as it is designed to. But still when you go down the list--unpaid voluntarism, open access to resources, equal participation, absence of competitive market relations or economic distinctions, opportunities for democratic deliberation, rule by consensus--it really does sound rather “socialist.” Is it? Wright would have us changing our thinking so that we recognize it as just that. No, it does not involve, or even suggest, many of the aforementioned forms or structures associated with socialism: no state-owned industries, no government-regulated utilities or social services, no controlled wages, no free housing or health care or any of the rest. And certainly, it doesn’t match the hysterical and practically nonsensical fears which depict any and every kind of socialist arrangement as involving murderous actions comparable to the worst communist tyranny. But to limit our thinking about “socialism” to such tropes is to fail respect the fundamental appeal of socialist ideals, an appeal which keeps bringing them back into our collective arrangements, whether we recognize them for what they are or not.

What are those socialist ideals? Wright defines them very simply as “social justice” and “political justice.” (See pp. 12-20.) The former involves making access to the necessary material means of human flourishing as equal and open as possible; the latter involves empowering people as members of their societies to be able to construct that access as they think best within their own collective spheres. If you think about it, this definition of socialist ideals makes Wright very much a democratic socialist; but even more than that, it makes him a socialist who wants us to keep our eye on the “social” ball, and remember that every aspect of socialist thinking ought to be subject to constant critique, so as to better measure just how well it promotes the sort of radical, democratic egalitarianism that he thinks is inseparable from social and political justice.

Wright makes no bones about his belief that socialist thinking has, in the 150 years since Marx, frequently taken its eye off that ball. While he gives great credit to Marx in the ways in which he opened up the eyes of millions of people to the harms of free market capitalism as it took industrial form during the 19th century, he ultimately insists that socialists should disregard Marx’s “brilliant, if ultimately unsatisfactory, solution to the problem of specifying an alternative of capitalism” (p. 89). Marx’s belief in the long-term economic unsustainability of capitalism, of the intensification of the struggle it, and the eventual revolutionary transformation of the marketplace into a socialist (and eventually fully communist) one, had a religious-like appeal; indeed, his philosophy of historical materialism and determinism permeated those beliefs, lending them an almost metaphysical character, whatever Marx’s insistence otherwise. Wright very concisely counters Marx’s theories of capitalist self-destruction, of worker proletarianization, of class solidarity and ruptural transformation--not that there is nothing to be learned from those theories, and not that there is no historical truth to them whatsoever, but simply that we cannot trust in them as providing a clear and reliable direction. What we need, Wright argues, rather than the path which Marx’s socialist arguments provided (a path that, because it seemed philosophically mandated by history, was easily collapsed into convictions about its end-state, and with that the desire to mandate that end through the barrel of a gun), is a “compass”--a set of general orienting guidelines that will help us identify whatever it may be which brings greater social and political justice, meaning greater democracy and equality, into the world. This does not mean that anything which seems to achieve such is automatically “socialism”--but by the same token, it also does not mean that those looking for alternatives to capitalism should automatically discount the socialist potential of any given type of social or economic organization and project. If it is something which has at least some of the social and political implications or consequences which the socialist compass points toward, then it is something to take seriously. Hence, Wikipedia. Obviously, it is not a tool for accomplishing greater economic equality, or local collective governance, or participatory democracy. But then again, it is an arena of action which is open to teaching lessons about those things, and other open-ended alternatives to strictly capitalist marketplace exchanges as well.

Those few of you who may be somewhat familiar with the many arguments out there over the political and social theory of socialism may think that a lot of this is old news: if you do a couple of Google searches, it’s not hard to find plenty of information about libertarian socialism, market socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, individualist anarchism, and many other approaches to thinking about alternatives to capitalism for which Wikipedia may make a good fit. But the fact that there are very likely only a few people here who fit that description is partly evidence for Wright’s point; the left has gotten locked into a much too narrow range of ways to advance “utopian” possibilities, meaning radical, emancipatory, democratic and egalitarian possibilities. We need a different set of frames to appreciate what really is “realistic,” and what we on the left can and should be working with to achieve the social and political justice that we desire.

Being a good academic, Wright provides a plethora of alternative frames--perhaps too many, and perhaps they overlap each other a tad much, but by and large he defines them well, and I find them clarifying. Beginning with Marx’s essential observation that, under the capitalist system, the possession of capital gives one not just personal power, but social power as well, he tracks and delineates the many different forms that power can take at the present time. He defines “statism” as those forms of social organization where “the means of production are owned by the state and the allocation and use of resources for different social purposes is accomplished through the exercise of state power.” Capitalism, by contrast, becomes a form of social organization “within which the means of production are privately owned and the allocation and use of resources for different social purposes is accomplished through the exercise of economic power.” That leaves socialism, where “the means of production are socially owned and the allocation and use of resources for different social purposes is accomplished through what can be termed ‘social power’” (see pp. 120-121). This means that socialism is anything which seeks to empower democracy and civil society, anything that moves economic decision-making and influence out of private hands and into the public realm, into the commons to be used and expanded upon as communities articulate and make use of it. He recognizes that no form of social organization is ever going to be purely one or another; as anyone familiar with the collusion between corporations and governments can recognize, there is no pure capitalism, and no pure statism, and there will probably never be a pure socialism either: we are all, always, going to be dealing with “hybrids” (pp 123-124). So within our chosen frame–-socialism–-we are going to have to think carefully, and always be rethinking, the strategies we pursue.

Wright's focus on the social (which permeates the whole book; the original subtitle he wanted for it was "Putting the Social Back in Socialism"), is likely to seem worrisome to the philosophically liberal among us. Would a democratically empowered civil society actually be a force for egalitarian emancipation? Obviously, not always; as Wright himself admits, many actually existing civil society institutions and associations around the globe do not (pp. 146-147). The anarchistically inclined response might be that such is the wrong way of looking at things--a civil society that can "achieve sufficient coherence as to provide for social order and social reproduction" is all that one needs hope for when it comes to exploring socialist possibilities. But a proper socialist response, a radical democratic egalitarian one, would have to be different, Wright thinks; it would "require a state...with real power to institute and enforce the rules of the game," to construct or at least preserve that which is democratic and egalitarian in the midst of "pluralistic heterogeneity" of the "public square." Wright continues:

There is no guarantee that a society within which power rooted in civil society predominates would be one that upholds democratic egalitarian ideals. This, however, is not some unique problem for socialism; it is a characteristic of democratic institutions in general. As conservatives often point out, inherent in democracy is the potential for the tyranny of the majority, and yet in practice liberal democracies have been fairly successful at creating institutions that protect both individual rights and the interests of minorities. A socialist democracy rooted in social empowerment through associations in civil society would face similar challenges: how to devise institutional rules for the game of democratic deepening and associational empowerment which would foster the radical egalitarian conception of emancipation. (p. 147)

And so Wright acknowledges that, as we commit ourselves to experimenting upon different paths and testing different theories in pursuit of greater community and equality, as the socialist compass directs, certain kinds of institutional brakes or controls need to be kept in mind as we seek to place power in the hands of civil society institutions. Some of these brakes and controls should probably be liberal ones, thus pointing towards the well-understood controls provided by the language of state-enforced rights and constitutional balances. But not too many of them. Part of the power of the protests in Wisconsin is that what we are seeing is a political fight in which the interests of the collective, or the public, is being pitted against private and corporate one. Of course, as always, the story isn't that simple (unions, to be sure, can be corrupt and corporate as much as businesses can be!); but that is part of the story. In fact, it is at the crux of the current story--we have unions talking freely about surrendering a great deal of what their marketplace negotiations, conducted between the political representatives of various groups and interests, had secured them...just so long as they don't have to surrender the power to demand and organize collective negotiations in the first place. This is democratic, social power, and beside it, the liberal and redistributive and protective egalitarian accommodations in the marketplace that most of us treasure (weekends, health insurance, cost-of-living wage increases, civil rights protection on the job, labor standards and safety regulations, etc.), as vital as they all are, are nonetheless secondary. Keeping unions as one of the tools of "social empowerment...[and a] radical egalitarian conception of emancipation" is the reason why socialists should care about this fight, and only secondarily because of what rules about lay-offs the use of those tools have resulted in. For Wright, socialists should look at unions the same way we look at Wikipedia--what power can they move into the realm of the social? We should be wary of how that power can be abused, and liberal protections and guarantees are a valuable part of protecting against such. But we should not allow ourselves to become sufficiently fearful of the radical and democratic potential of civil society institutions or other participatory organizations--even if they are not, on first glance, properly "socialist"--that we look fail to back them when they appear.

Of course, most of the examples Wright proposes (and unions, it should be noted, are not one of them--not that he speaks against, only that they are quite the sort of "utopian" tools he has in mind) naturally do reflect elements and tropes of typical socialist thinking; he is not claiming that every previous socialist had gotten everything wrong! Still, he makes some interesting choices, pointing his readers toward the participatory budgeting process in the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil (pp. 155-160), the social organization of the childcare and eldercare economy as well as investment capital in Quebec (pp. 204-212, 225-230), and the worker-owned cooperative firms of Mondragón in the Basque region of Spain (pp. 240-246). An important shared element amongst these various utopian practices is that they all emerge from and contribute to a specifically and culturally embedded form of community feeling. Sometimes Wright acknowledges this is a positive way (he notes that Quebec has a "highly favorable social environment" for associational economies to take root, due to the province's extensive history of "social movements, cooperatives, and civic associations" by which the province has worked to maintain the "strong sense of solidarity" which goes along with being a minority linguistic community--pp.211-212), sometimes more as an obstacle (he also notes that the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation, in expanding beyond the Basque territory and purchasing firms elsewhere in Spain and around the world, faces a "global melding of capitalist and cooperativist principles," a melding complicated by the fear many in MCC have about the "dilution of solidarity [which could result] from the inclusion of so many worker-members from outside the region"--p. 245). That community feeling, and how our socialist compass ought to incorporate it, is worth dwelling upon.

Marx, in line with his overall philosophical project, saw socialist transformation as necessarily a cosmopolitan one--"workers of the world unite!" and all that. But what if the ability to articulate and pursue an alternative to capitalism, a route towards economic democracy and radical empowerment, sometimes requires a prior dependence upon a civil society constructed from highly specific and local historical experiences?

Consider the case of the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation again. By most measures, these worker-owned firms, and consequently the effects they have had on the distribution of social and economic power throughout their home region in Spain, represent among the most successful examples of a communitarian, "socialist" market economy anywhere in the world. Yet it is not difficult to find criticism of MCC from the left. Part of it is the legacy of a doctrinaire Marxism which rejects the idea that worker cooperatives can ultimately contribute a socialization of power relations within a country, part of it simple cultural and historical suspicions (Mondragón's founder was a Catholic priest who eschewed any talk of "class struggle" and was at one point honored by General Franco), and part of it derives from specific, arguably anti-democratic actions which MCC itself has taken. Wright's own analysis of these latter actions suggest they have their roots in the tensions and expectations which have come to the corporation as the success of its firms and egalitarian pay distribution have obliged it--or tempted it--to expand beyond those conceptual (meaning, local and cultural) boundaries within which the participatory ethos of its founder was first promulgated and embraced:

Since the mid 1990s, the MCC has adopted an aggressive strategy of expansion beyond its historical home in the Basque country. This has, above all, taken the form of buying up capitalist firms and turning them into subsidiaries of the cooperatives within the corporation....[For example] Fagor Elian, a cooperative that manufactures various kinds of auto-parts, created a new wholly owned subsidiary in Brazil, to manufacture parts for the Brazilian arm of Volkswagen. The director of the MCC explained...that although the Fagor Brazilian plant loses money, the Volkswagen Corporation insisted the Fagor Elian provide parts to its Brazilian operation if it wanted to continue to supply parts to Volkswagen in the EU....[Hence, the] MCC believes that, given market pressures linked to globalization, this strategy of national and global expansion is necessary for the survival of the Mondragón cooperatives in the twenty-first century. Whether or not this diagnosis is correct is a matter of considerable controversy, but in any case the result of this expansion has been to intensify the capitalist dimension of the Mondragón economic hybrid. (pp. 243-244)

There are, to be sure, many ways in which we might contemplate and develop responses to the pressure which exist in the global marketplace--and some undoubtedly, ought to involve more "vertical," comprehensive, or "cosmopolitan" parameters. But there remains the fact that a reliance upon those parameters moves one away from the diverse forms of real solidarity and social power which the hope for radical egalitarian and democratic transformation in part depends upon. So why would it not be equally viable--why would it be any less "utopian"--to approach the compass of socialist empowerment and look for ways to preserve the local and cultural environments that provide spaces for emancipation in the first place? This is not a question which Wright directly asks, but it is one which his analysis, I believe, presents us with nonetheless. The struggles of Mondragón mainly have to do with maintaining a reliable cooperative ethos while simultaneously handling an enormous increase in workers pressing for membership, whether that be through a) developing procedures for encouraging "spin-off" cooperatives to be formed, or b) abandoning the "unitary organizational form" which have guided the cooperatives from the beginning, and accepting that the push for democratic and egalitarian reforms will have to come through unionization in the subsidiaries, rather than full participatory membership. Would any of these struggles have arrived in a global marketplace more resistant to globalization, and where national economies--and the firms that operated within them--enjoyed greater self-sufficiency (which, yes, would also mean the national markets they supplied would also "enjoy" greater restrictions on the range of pricing and goods available)? Perhaps they would have anyway--but then again, in a global economic environment less hostage to the neoliberal terms of the IMF and the EU, perhaps the Mondragón cooperatives would have developed as an even stronger example of the socialist ethos, one less implicated in the tensions that could pull a civil association away from radical democratic egalitarianism, because the sources of that tension would be, in a sense, literally "foreign" to the local, cultural site wherein this particular association was able to plant its socialist seed.

Wright's masterful book plants numerous seeds all its own, most of which give rise to ideas that, on my reading, support each other in development towards both known and as-yet speculative radical democratic and egalitarian futures. I suspect one of those futures--one which I hope our socialist compasses will be attuned to--will need to make a space for local instantiations of socialism, and that defending and promoting such will require those on the left to make peace with more than just liberals, whom have long been their allies in many respects anyway. There will also need to be some peace, at least some of the time, between different types of culturally communitarian movements and institutions, because those locally embedded expressions of social power cannot help but be a significant component of any proposal to involve the wide range of civil associations and groups in countering the power of corporations and the state.

Ultimately, in an environment where Marx's doctrines have passed into history (though they continue to teach us), and where all alternatives to capitalism sometimes seem equally utopian, we who which to be part of a movement towards something better must recognized that radical democratic and egalitarian possibilities will, and should, involve multiple hybrid forms, moving on many distinct fronts--some confrontational, some liberal, and some, quite importantly, being local and cultural--indeed, it may sometimes be the case that the latter will require action on the part of the former to long survive. If Wright's book has made that point well--if it helps convince those of us on the left that the communitarian component of social empowerment, when properly recognized and tended, needn't be either something singular and forced, or something which necessarily undermines egalitarianism from within--then his book has done something important indeed.

Now, let's hear it once more for the protesters in Wisconsin!

Update, 3/3/11, 8:50am, CST: for the truly obsessive amongst you, here is a video of the lecture as delivered. Hat tip: my fine fellow DSAer, Stuart Elliot.]