Monday, December 24, 2012

All Creatures Great and Small

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

My father decided that we needed to learn how to work--and since he ran a feed mill, getting farm animals that we could feed relatively cheap seemed like the best idea. My father had been part of the world of alfalfa fields and cattle auctions since he was a child, but he wasn't a farmer, per se; just someone who knew and respected the social and economic place of farm life, and saw an opportunity to continue to make it a part of his children's lives. As so we got dairy cows, and starting around age nine, I and my older brother Daniel and older sister Samatha would milk them (usually two, sometimes three, sometimes only one) by hand, morning and night. Of course, that would include Christmas.

I'm a fan of holidays and traditions; I always have been, and probably always will. As a child, as a believer in Santa Claus (my father, I recall, informed Samatha and Daniel and I all together when I was seven or eight that there was no Santa Claus, and I insisted he was wrong, a position which I continue--with perhaps a little more philosophical sophistication--to maintain to this very day), I would attempt to talk to the cows on Christmas eve and Christmas day, in the hopes that they would speak to me, as the legend says they can on Christmas. But of course, they never did--not with words, anyway. And of course they wouldn't; they only speak at midnight, and I was always in bed by then. But I would still try.

God made the cows, and all creatures great and small. I'm certain that, as part of His creation, they are, in some way imperceptible to you and I, part of the joy of this season, as they are surely part of its stillness and darkness and its surprise as well. So it is right, I think, that we imaginatively bring them into our celebration, through song and story--and through this, my favorite Christmas poem. I've linked to it before, and I read it at our congregation's Christmas celebration yesterday. I wept like an idiot as I read it, because I wished, and probably always will wish, that I could be as steady and simple as Eddi, and his audience in this poem, and the animals that I tended on Christmas eves and days decades ago:

Eddi's Service, by Rudyard Kipling

(A.D. 687)

Eddi, priest of St. Wilfrid
In his chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service
For such as cared to attend.

But the Saxons were keeping Christmas,
And the night was stormy as well.
Nobody came to service,
Though Eddi rang the bell.

"Wicked weather for walking,"
Said Eddi of Manhood End.
"But I must go on with the service
For such as care to attend."

The altar-lamps were lighted --
An old marsh-donkey came,
Bold as a guest invited,
And stared at the guttering flame.

The storm beat on at the windows,
The water splashed on the floor,
And a wet, yoke-weary bullock
Pushed in through the open door.

"How do I know what is greatest,
How do I know what is least?
That is My Father's business,"
Said Eddi, Wilfrid's priest.

"But -- three are gathered together --
Listen to me and attend.
I bring good news, my brethren!"
Said Eddi of Manhood End.

And he told the Ox of a Manger
And a Stall in Bethlehem,
And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider,
That rode to Jerusalem.

They steamed and dripped in the chancel,
They listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops,
Eddi preached them The Word.

Till the gale blew off on the marshes
And the windows showed the day,
And the Ox and the Ass together
Wheeled and clattered away.

And when the Saxons mocked him,
Said Eddi of Manhood End,
"I dare not shut His chapel
On such as care to attend."

Monday, December 10, 2012

Conservative Wisdom from an Original Radical

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Last Friday, Tom Hayden, co-founder of the Students for a Democratic Society, principal author of 1962's Port Huron Statement (or, if you Big Lebowski fans insist, the compromised second draft), Freedom Rider, anti-war activist, social worker, California state representative for 18 years, author, and all-around inspiration to anyone on the left, visited Wichita and spoke at a local church, as part of our Peace and Social Justice Center's 20th anniversary. What I got out of that visit is that his words ought to be an at least partial inspiration to those on the right as well.

Hayden has, of course, spoken at probably thousands of similar occasions, to millions of people, over the past half-century. And deservedly so: the Port Huron Statement stands, in my opinion, with Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail and perhaps at most only a handful of other documents as one of the truly essential political expressions of the 20th century. I teach the Statement a couple of times every year, and when I do I strive to point my students towards the arguably ambiguous place which its passionate, communitarian, participatory, democratic radicalism occupies in the history of modern progressive liberalism. Today "liberal," when anyone can be bothered to think about the term honestly and seriously, is usually understood to mean the use of the state (its bureaucracies, its technologies, its manpower and money) to promote a kind of positive liberty and general equality. But Hayden and his co-radicals, thinking about the struggle for civil rights far away from their comfortably elite universities in the northern United States, had much more on their minds than vigorous enforcement of the 14th and 15th amendments (though they were thinking about that too):

[W]e are...countering perhaps the dominant conceptions of man in the twentieth century: that he is a thing to be manipulated, and that he is inherently incapable of directing his own affairs. We oppose the depersonalization that reduces human beings to the status of things--if anything, the brutalities of the twentieth century teach that means and ends are intimately related, that vague appeals to "posterity" cannot justify the mutilations of the present. We oppose, too, the doctrine of human incompetence because it rests essentially on the modern fact that men have been "competently" manipulated into incompetence--we see little reason why men cannot meet with increasing skill the complexities and responsibilities of their situation, if society is organized not for minority, but for majority, participation in decision-making...The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with image of popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic....

This kind of independence does not mean egoistic individualism--the object is not to have one's way so much as it is to have a way that is one's own. Nor do we deify man--we merely have faith in his potential. Human relationships should involve fraternity and honesty. Human interdependence is contemporary fact; human brotherhood must be willed however, as a condition of future survival and as the most appropriate form of social relations....Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man.

These young, privileged, and courageous twenty-somethings were doing more than laying out grievances. They were doing something prophetic, responding to the distancing, the conformity, and the apathy which post-WWII suburban wealth and stability had spread across much of white America, capturing and articulating some early whiff of the 60s utopian zeitgeist, one suffused with a spirituality that, even when not fully reflected in the final document or the actions of those who trumpeted it over the decades of activism to come, is undeniable. As Hayden himself put it, both in this reflection here and while talking to me after his presentation Friday night, "the Port Huron Statement wrote us, not the other way around."

Hayden, in speaking and responding to numerous questions (and yes, even in Wichita, KS, there were more than enough of us liberals, progressives, former hippies, Occupiers, and other assorted radicals and wanna-bes and interested others to fill Fairmount United Church of Christ up to the balcony), returned repeatedly to that theme of apathy. The milieu he'd grown up in (like that of so many in this wealthy nation still today) was that suggested to him that it was only crazy, disturbed people, like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye or Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, who felt the need to take real action in opposition to the status quo--and yet there was the example of African-American citizens throughout the American South, engaging in sit-ins and protest marches and boycotts, risking their livelihoods and their very lives to be fully recognized members of the American community. They were taking incredible risks--and, from the perspective of decades later, he said he was more convinced than ever that they were capable of taking such risks because they knew how to "take the long view." Not that the didn't have immediate demands; they absolutely did! But they also were part of "communities of meaning" which much of the white consumer-capitalism-created college-educated class lacked, communities that provided them with strength and resources for when things get absurd and "sideways"--which, of course, they always will. He credited his own religious tradition (he was raised in a strong Irish Catholic family) with giving him a little of that, and, Californian that he has been most of his life, the example of the protesting Hispanic farm workers as well. This stronger sense of history--one might even call it "tragic," though he didn't--is something which he feels so much of the progressive left in the U.S. has lacked over the past half-century. Liberals, he said, have too often been oppositionally inclinced and easily frustrated consumers, people who don't how to do the organizing, or to respect and build upon the organizing done by those who have gone before, or to accept defeat and keep on working, confident that the lack of any coherent--much less "rational"!--story of progress in one's ability to govern one's community justly doesn't mean the end of the story. When he spoke about the need to recognize one's limits, to address oneself to those causes which one can most immediately respond to on the ground here in Kansas (or wherever), to be conscious of history, and to reject abstract "hope" in favor of realistic "planning," the man sounded almost Burkean.

Hayden remained humorous and thoughtful and reflective through his presentation, with perhaps his only genuine flash of energy and anger coming when a questioner from the audience confessed that Obama's inability or unwillingness to follow through on certain promises he made regarding civil liberties and the wars in the Middle East (an issue which has had much impact on my own thinking) had "broken his heart." "Don't let him do that!!" Hayden almost shouted in response. He continued: what activists and radicals are trying to do is make change, but when those changes happen they will because millions of individuals and neighborhoods and communities and groups have changed the conversation--"burst the canopy," as he put it--through their own slow, constant activism. To expect change to be quickly delivered through signing an online petition or casting a vote and then nothing else, like buying a jar of pickles at Walmart and getting angry because they taste bad, is just another kind of consumerist apathy--one that the corporate masters of our whole socio-economic and political order no doubt delight it. (On more than one occasion during his presentation, I thought he was about to break into a quotation from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.) He's happy to criticize the President, but as one who fully lines up with many progressive liberal views on environmental regulation and women's rights and more, he's frustrated at the idea that anyone whose vote might have made a difference in the 2012 election might have chosen the Green Party over the Democrats. Not because the Democrats are so great--he ripped into their war record and their dependence on Wall Street money often--but because are part of the conversation. The long view, he insisted, has to be about getting a place at the table, and then doing the deal-making you must when you get there. To make it all a grand, be-all-and-end-all moralistic struggle (he also said he hated talk about "lesser evils"--as if any actual Democrat or Republican in America today, no matter what they vote for or support, should be labeled "evil," in comparison to the violence so common elsewhere in the world!), one that has you shouting in triumph when your bill passes or speaking of being heartbroken when you candidate losses, only shows that your sense of history is in the wrong place: that your focus isn't a family or community that provide real meaning to your life. Political wins, he ultimately implied, shouldn't be nearly as important to us (no matter what the issue) as the communal context that allow us to participate in political contests in the first place.

A few days before Hayden arrived in Wichita a student of mine--a wounded veteran of the war in Iraq, and one who drinks deeply from the wells of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity--saw the flyer for Hayden's visit on my office door, and went on a predictable tear, about how men like him were responsible for the decline of America's greatness and had let loose in American public life a revolution in immorality which our country may never recover from. He was wrong of course--and I wish my student could have been there, as all sorts of folks, from academic eggheads like myself to Mennonite handymen like my friend Leroy Hershberger, were. If he'd come, he would have heard what he expected in terms of policy preferences: Hayden is today, as he was a half-century ago, a crusader on behalf of liberal progressive causes (climate change, the war in Afghanistan, public employee unions, immigration reform, the drug war, etc.), and it would be interesting to talk with him about how his own chosen causes, and the candidates who back them, arguably sometimes complicate his own almost "conservative" insistence upon planning and organizing and working to build communities democratically. But, if my student had been open-minded, he might also have been surprised to hear this man, so long and so thoroughly dismissed as a revolutionary hippie, talk quietly and seriously about the local, and radical, labor of politics, about striving to enable all citizens to be part of the never-ending conversation of government, and about the bureaucracies, the corporations, and commercialism that gets in the way of individuals making such authentic moments for themselves. That's his wisdom; that's his example. And frankly, if you take a look at what the man has represented and what he has'd be hard-pressed to find a better one.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Dave Brubeck, RIP

A year and a half ago, we lost Joe Morello. Now, David Brubeck has joined him. Of the greatest cool jazz quarter of all time--Brubeck on piano, Morello on drums, Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, and Eugene Wright on bass--only Gene remains with us. Brubeck on the piano had the lightest, yet also the strongest, touch of any jazz player outside of Bill Evans; he wasn't bluesy, but mannered, calm, Californian. The results were...well, listen to him (he cuts loose around 3:12).

Put on a good show, Dave, wherever you are.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Home Teaching and the Miracle of Interruption

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Yesterday, I and another member of our church went to talk and counsel with a family in our congregation. (In Mormon parlance, this is called "home teaching" or "visit teaching.") They're a young couple, married less than a year. He was born and raised in the faith, but unfortunately also had made some bad choices and developed some addictive behaviors along the way--enough that he ultimately found himself in prison and excommunicated from the church. He's now on parole, and it was through his and his extended family's efforts that the woman he'd met and was dating chose to be baptized into the faith. Now they are expecting their first child, and the real difficulty of the path before them--the legal as well as spiritual one--as they make plans for their family has crashed down on them, hard. As it happens, I'm a little familiar with some of the behaviors that ultimately led him to place where he now finds himself, and I'd like to believe I was able to offer some solace and support. But it's hard to tell. Our congregation's boundaries were recently redrawn, and I was asked to take on some new responsibilities at church, and so I am suddenly meeting new people, confronting new problems. Thrust into this situation by choices I made--as, in a very different but still similar sense, this couple also find themselves confronted by the unexpected, despite all the ways in which their own choices put them in the place they are--I do the best I can....but you never know what will come of these interruptions.

Late last night, after returning home, I finish a movie I'd been watching over the previous two evenings: The Interrupters. It's a harsh and difficult documentary to watch, but I finished it, thinking about the home teaching visit I'd completed hours before, and wished that I could find some way to show this movie (whose language is off-the-charts vulgar) to my fellow church members--all of whom are, in one way or another, asked to do what the characters in this film do: interrupt the lives of others. Walk into violence, or despair, or poverty, or confusion, or irresponsibility, or ignorance, and pose a challenge, send a message, offer a helping hand. The movie's many parts build slowly, but by the end of the film's two hours the different pieces of its tale of CeaseFire, the brave outreach organization which sends former gang members into the streets of Chicago to confront and heal violence, come together in a manner both haunting and inspiring.

Ammena Matthews is just one of those whose belief in her cause, her willingness to speak truth to the bad paths others are on, presents an example which ought to thrill and shame every Christian who has ever been in the position, and perhaps felt the expectation, or even had the responsibility, of standing up and calling out, of interrupting.

Here in the United States our Thanksgiving holiday is past, and for many the Christmas season has begun. Christmas means many things to me, but one of those many things is that wintertime, this season of endings and beginnings and gifts being given, is so often a time of quiet surprise. Of interruption, one might even say. The sudden freeze, the unexpected blizzard, the rush to get things done and then the unanticipated moment when it all halts and holds still. In the Mormon faith, those of us with home or visit teaching responsibilities are supposed to check in with one another at least once a month, and so of course--this being America--it's become a rueful commonplace that every rushes to get things done at the end of each month. That's what I was doing yesterday--but meeting and speaking with that young family slowed me down, put me on the spot, obliged me to speak more than just the usual rote pleasantries. If I interrupted them, they--their needs, their struggles--also interrupted me.

Nobody could ever mistake Hannah Arendt for a believing Christian, and yet in her political philosophy, she saw the root of all real, meaningful human action in the miracle of interruption: the unexpected moment when our own responsibilities and routines suddenly present us with moments of freedom, of being an authoritative actor in our own lives as well as others. Riffing on St. Augustine, she wrote:

Man does not possess freedom so much as he, or better his coming into the world, is equated with the appearance of freedom in the universe....God created man in order to introduce into the world the faculty of beginning....[T]he human capacity which corresponds to this power, which, in the words of the Gospel, is capable of removing mountains, is not will but faith. The work of faith, actually its product, is what the gospels called "miracles," a word with many meanings in the New Testament and difficult to understand. We can neglect the difficulties here and refer only to those passages where miracles are clearly not supernatural events but only what all miracles, those performed by men no less than those performed by a divine agent, always must be: namely, interruptions of some natural series of events, of some automatic process, in whose context they constitute the wholly unexpected....Every act, seen from the perspective not of the agent but of the process in whose framework it occurs and whose automatism it interrupts, is a "miracle"--that is, something that could not be expected. (Arendt, "What is Freedom," Between Past and Future, 1993, pp. 167-169)

Arendt, a secular Jew, made this Christian observation even more strongly--and, considering the present time of year, more seasonally appropriate--in The Human Condition, when she wrote about "unpredictability": "The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, 'natural,' ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted....Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope....that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with the Gospels announced their 'glad tidings': 'A child has been born unto us.'" (p.247)

As anyone who knows anything about contemporary Mormonism can tell you, all of us grumble about home and visiting teaching--that it's a chore and a hassle, that it's ineffective and inauthentic, that it pulls us away from what we already know how to do and confronts us with the Sartrean hell that is other people. (Okay, maybe only I bring up Sartre, but you get the idea.) And for certain, there is a basis for all of those complaints. But going about my own "automatic process" yesterday put me before someone else, whose similar wish for some dependable routine has left him entangled him in painful legal and moral quandary, and--last night, at least--in need of someone to stick his arm out, cry halt, open a hand, and try to help pull him into a new place, to--in some small and hopeful way--perhaps even play midwife to the birth of something new, preceding the new actual birth in their family which will, one again, interrupt all that they imagine their daily automatic lives will be. That was a good thing, a real thing. Something I need more of. Jesus was, truly, the ultimate interruption; if I, or any of us, claim to be His people, then we need to take action, and watch for and be part of His continuing unpredictable and interruptive miracles, day by day.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Posner's Wrong about the Electoral College

Richard Posner has written a defense of the Electoral College, which is one of the several elements of our national Constitution which I don't like. I read his defense of the EC last night, and wasn't persuaded. I didn't intend to write anything in response, but then my friend Michael Austin proposed it as a matter for debate on his Arguing as Friends blog. I wrote this lengthy response there...and since I'd written, I figured, why not include it here? So here you go everyone: why famed lawyer and intellectual Richard Posner is all wrong in his defense of the Electoral College:

1) Posner claims that because of the winner-take-all distribution of electoral college votes in nearly all of the states, we have mathematically clearer counts of the winner in an election than would be the case in a national popular vote. I would respond: true, but irrelevant. Any accepted count of votes, electoral or popular, is “clear” exactly to the extent to which people accept the math supporting said count. Would a national popular vote result in less acceptance, more demands for recounts and litigation? Probably–for the first election cycle, at least. But would it continue? Or would judges be forced to establish precedents for counting votes, states be forced to upgrade their voting technology and training, parties be forced to adjust their campaign strategies to minimize such close and legally costly outcomes? I think the latter is far more likely, and thus a new understanding of what makes for “certainty of outcome” would emerge relatively quickly.

2) Posner says the Electoral College forces successful presidential candidates to have transregional appeal. The two-fold flaw with this claim is a) it depends upon a rather limited and historically exclusive definition of what consists of “regional” (does the fact that Obama won the large urban areas on both the East and West coasts make him “transregional”? does the fact that Romney won the South but lost Florida, or won the Intermountain West but lost Colorado, mean that he didn’t actually have “regional” appeal?), and b) it runs against the bedrock (and Supreme Court articulated) standard for a representative democracy that what needs to be counted are the votes of citizens (“one person, one vote”), not where those citizens come from.

3) Posner argues that because the math of the Electoral College forces candidates to spend a lot of time in certain swing states to try to win their votes, the result is that citizens in those states which are likely to decide the election receive enough attention and information from the candidates that they become highly informed voters, and we want the decision for the presidency to rest in the hands of highly informed people. But this tautological. One could just as easily say that, with a national popular vote, the candidates would spend a lot of time and money trying to communicate with people in major media markets, with the result that the people in those media markets would be highly informed, and that’s a good thing, because major media markets serve large population centers, and of course we want the election to be in the hands of those population centers where there are lots of highly informed voters. His claim proves nothing.

4) Posner's weakest claim is that the Electoral College fixes some of the undemocratic consequences of the Senate by forcing presidential candidates to often spend lots of time in big states, giving them a level of electoral consequence which better fits the number of citizens who live within them. Well, yes, all that is true…but it would be even more true if you simply had a national popular vote, and allowed the millions of voters in those large states to make their votes matter directly (as is presently not the case with the millions of Republican voters in California or New York, or the millions of Democratic voters in Texas).

5) Posner's final argument is that, since the Electoral College makes clear majorities very likely, it eliminates the need for run-off elections. But the bug in this claim of his is actually a feature: why not have run-off elections for our chief executive? (They have them in France, after all.) He needs to make an argument for his position besides asserting how it supposedly would make our system irredeemably more complicated.

As a final note, Posner adds that the electoral college doesn’t discourage voters from “express[ing their] political preference.” I’m not sure what study he makes use of to support this claim; the simple fact that many people turn out to vote for losing candidates in safe states doesn’t mean that there aren’t any voters who would like to believe that their “single vote may decide an election.” Ultimately, people vote (as I well know!) for all sorts of different reasons, strategic and expressive alike. A national popular vote would allow all of those motivations to have their place, rather than being marginalized or magnified simply depending on where one lives.

One last thing: obviously, my disagreement with Posner here really begins with the simple fact that we very likely hold to fundamentally different theories of government, and presumably our different justifications for those theories differ greatly as well. Basically, I think it’s best to live in societies that are democratic in whatever areas of governance which can plausibly be conducted democratically, whereas he obviously doesn’t see democracy as nearly as normative as I do. So I don't expect to convince anyone who is by nature suspicious of democracy. But at the very least, I'd like people to come up with better arguments in defense of the Electoral College than these superficially smart but actually quite weak ones here.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Why I'm Not Troubled by My Decision Not to Vote to Re-Elect Obama, Round II

This morning I dropped my oldest daughter off at an early-morning church class, then drove to another church, which happens to be our local polling station. I was in line by 6am, when the doors opened. A half-hour later I was filling out my paper ballot, voting in support of putting fluoride in our city water system (the most important vote I was personally able to make, I think), after which I voted a straight Democratic ticket on all the local and state contests that were available to me  (have to do my part, however small, to support whatever limited local opposition exists to the way Governor Brownback and his Republican devotees are turning Kansas into a Tea Party testing ground). But for President of the United States, I wrote in Jill Stein of the Green Party, and I'm proud of that.

I voted that way for reasons that I've laid out before. No, I am not suffering from any kind of delusion about the immediate value wasting a single vote on "throwing the election" or getting us to some fantastical "tipping point," after which we will enter a new paradise of different party options. Instead, like Timothy Burke, I've come to recognize (as my despair has grown ever since last summer), that rooting out the pathologies driving our current deadlocks and divisions isn't something that one can reasonably expect any election to do--that, unless somehow some new civil covenant can be articulated that enough Americans buy into beyond superficial patriotic sloganeering, what we face is just more of the same: "two or three or four factions that have strong political and social bases hunkering down and holding on fiercely to what is theirs, defending their perceived rights and the character of their communities, blocking and sabotaging whatever they can of their opponents’ political desires, with legislatures largely being used as battlegrounds or as weapons of war." Not a pleasant thought, but I suspect a true one.

Given that I don't hold to any kind of utopian illusions about what a presidential election--much less a single vote in guaranteed-Romney state in a presidential election!--can do, why go for a third-party candidate? Why not, instead, employ the same logic I used in voting against Brownback's Republican takeover, and contribute in some almost-insignificant way to pushing the least-bad party some infinitesimal distance further towards articulating the kind of common purpose which I think this country's political system desperately needs? Wouldn't that be the responsible, civic-minded, even  (dare I say it?) communitarian thing to do?

That's how I read Erik Loomis's argument (to pick up once again gauntlets thrown down by the LGM guys!). He's looking at the way those on the left have acted in this election, and he sees narcissism and consumer-minded individualism:

There’s...a leftier than thou aspect to this, which again is a spawn of our individualistic fetish. Politics have become like a tattoo for many on the left--how you mark yourself means how cool you are....This is all just silly. There’s a reason socialists and communists worked to reelect FDR in 1936 and 1940, even though they thought he was a sell-out to the capitalists. They knew he was the best hope they had to build the kind of society they wanted and that by running some kind of 3rd party, they would completely alienate the base of people they wanted to organize....

We need to think less about our own personal moral position in voting. It’s not about you. It’s about the community where you live. Even if you vote for Jill Stein, the blood of Pakistani babies killed in drone strikes is on your hands. You cannot wash off that blood without changing the system–something that 3rd parties have never done. You want clean hands–organize the American public around the issues you care about. It will take the rest of your life. That is the timeline of real change....The real story of the left this year is smart and tough--the Chicago Teachers Union. That’s how you demand and make change. Writing editorials obscuring the differences between Obama and Romney and encouraging well-meaning people to protest vote is worse than worthless–it’s mendacious and serves as a tool for conservatives to continue pushing this nation back to the Gilded Age.

Scott Lemieux piles on as well:

Voters, based on this line of reasoning, should see voting not as part of a collective project to choose the best available majority coalition for the country, but as an act of self-absorbed individual expression, like choosing a favorite brand of designer jeans. These arguments are self-refuting. In actual politics, walking away "empowers" the left about as much as being able to choose between Coke and Pepsi "empowers" a worker negotiating with Wal-Mart. Conservatives didn't take over the Republican Party by running third-party vanity campaigns. The legislative victories of the Great Society happened because civil rights and labor groups stayed in the Democratic coalition after decades of frustration (it was the segregationists who were repeatedly threatening to take their ball and go home by running third-party candidates.)

Well, the last thing I want to be accused of being is an individualistic consumer-oriented voter, one who sees politics solely as a mark of personal virtue separate from the practical, collective demands of government. So how do I respond to all this?

Part of my response here has to be pointing out that my original response still doesn't find any direct refutation in these observations: namely, these accusations of third party individualism and civic irresponsibility continue to operate on a conceptual plane which elides the fact that elections take place in multiple contexts--and that this is especially the case in regards to presidential elections, where the electoral college (which Scott rightly decries!) to a great extent makes a mockery of the ability of individuals to join with larger movements to influence the ultimate election of our chief executive. I recognize that I'm hardly the stereotypical member of the progressive left that the LGM bloggers are speaking to, but still, it genuinely mystifies me a little that a bunch of very intelligent, very savvy political and historical writers and thinkers can look at the present moment and see a national struggle with stakes and dynamics as clear and as obvious as those of the Great Depression or the 1960s appear to be in retrospect--because where I stand, they aren't, at least not such that it becomes necessarily obvious that anyone primarily motivated by anger over our emerging national security state, or the arrogance of Wall Street bankers, or our inaction in the face of climate change, or the ruinous costs of the drug war, or any number of other "left" issues, cannot help but fall behind the existing Democratic party, in every state and in every election! Really? The collective, responsible work of building up majorities in support of those issues which most concern you can only be legitimate--no matter what the state, no matter what the issue--if they take place in the restricted context of those choices provided by the dominant parties? Anything else is reducing the election to a consumer choice? I think we are misunderstanding who is actually doing the reducing here! I don't deny that much ignorant reductive thinking takes place on "my" side, the side of the radical or socialist or decentralist left; the Matt Stoller article which they rail against was paranoid and politically silly (though the heart of its criticism of the insurance-industry-friendly ACA was dead-on). But to agree, as Erik did in the midst of the earlier rounds on this topic, that there are no battle-ground states and no safe states, and that the only coalitions available to voters wishing to act conscientiously are those coalitions which have been already constituted, not those which may be constituted by their own actions (such as, for for Jill Stein!), seems to partake of the same sort of all-of-nothing mindset.

Another point about coalition and majority building--Erik, in that same post, argued that refusing to vote for Obama because he has licensed actions in our misbegotten War on Terror which one might consider beyond the pale (as I did; it was one of my primary reasons for feeling that I could responsibly refuse to show support for his administration) is an unrealistic, head-in-the-sand denial of the unfortunate truth that "AMERICANS LIKE KILLING BROWN PEOPLE OVERSEAS IF THERE’S NO COST TO THEM." He goes on with this point:

The problem of drones and civil liberties and human rights is that Americans don’t care about these issues. It’s not about Obama or Romney, not about the Democratic or Republican parties. It’s that there is a bipartisan consensus in this country, supported by a majority of voters in both parties, that using drones to bomb Afghani wedding parties is completely OK.That’s completely messed up. But there’s nothing I can do about that with my vote. There are other issues where I wish greater differences separated the parties. Agricultural policy, defense spending, etc. But on these issues, I have to accept that I sit in a deep minority here. I could file a protest vote but that’s pure narcissism unless one is truly committed to building party structures that would transform American politics.

Exactly! And, how does one demonstrate commitment to building party structures that would transform American politics? By contributing one's time and energy and money to such, of course; by reaching out, recruiting, spreading the word. And also...oh yeah, by voting for such candidates. Like Jill Stein, in other words. (Always voting for such candidates? In every context? Not at all--that would partake of the idea that self-government-by-elections constitutes a one-size-fits-all, contextless series of identical voting calculations. Which is what I've been denying all along.)

In the end, I'm confident that my voted didn't matter when it comes to helping to get the least-bad of two bad candidates elected to the presidency. But though my vote, thanks to the electoral college, doesn't matter, it was counted. And in being counted, I wasn't just doing something for myself; I was, on the contrary, doing what every act of democratic expression does: sending a message, registering a voice, showing myself beside like-minded others (hey, maybe Stein will win 1%  of the electorate!). The central issue for all communitarian thought--at least for those who take the very notion of granting some legitimacy to collective aligning and identifying oneself--has always been which community. Because we are plural people; we belong to different groups, embrace different causes, live in different states, feel solidarity in different contexts. When I voted this morning, I enjoyed the small thrill that political dorks like me always do: I had, as Chris Stevens famously put it about his uncle Roy Bower's vote in 1972, just "showed them." A reductive view of voting cannot fully give place to that feeling of collective expression, the romance and ritual of self-government; it must instead always be about winning and losing, about moving the legislative needle some tiny distance one way or another. I don't deny that voting really is, as David Watkins rightly observed, a way of exercising "democracy against domination," and thus is to be calculated in terms of majorities built and coalitions secured. But it is not only that--there is so much more going on than what is on my ballot on this, or any particular, Election Day. And to forget all the other stuff going on only serves to make those of us who actually do agree with the LGM guys, or the Democratic party, 50% or 70% or 90% of the time, feel like staying home. And surely they don't want that, do they?

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Best Book I've Read This Political Season (About the Last One)

Writing a book on current events is a complicated crap-shoot. In an age of blogs, social media, and basically instantaneous communication, to write and get published a book that examines in depth a current trend and actually catches the wave of commentary which that trend generates must require not only great speed and acumen in researching and expressing arguments and ideas, but some real talent at prognostication as well. Michael Austin (who is both an old friend of mine, and the provost of a university which is located barely a mile away from my own) clearly has the former skill; as for the latter, I suppose he's about as good as anyone else I know. Damon Linker, another old friend, wrote an excellent book (though I had my own critical comments to make about it) on religion and American politics back in 2010, and it was perfectly timed to take advantage of all the controversy surrounding the religious positionings of Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Barack Obama, and others...during the presidential primaries of 2008. Which takes nothing away from the ideas and arguments which Damon advanced; it's just that he missed the wave. And now Mike's equally excellent, thoughtful book, That's Not What They Meant! Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America's Right Wing, has hit the shelves--actually, it hit them about a month ago; I've been slow getting this written--and it carefully and thoroughly takes apart the loving-the-Founding-Fathers-equals-hating-government fetishism which powered so much of Glenn Beck's fan base and the Tea Party's political power...during the midterm elections of 2010.

Que sera, sera. So what about the book itself? Why do I think it's good?

It's good because Michael is, above all else, a close and omnivorous reader; he tracks down sources, then reads not just the whole quotation, but all the pages of context which precedes it, and all the pages of qualifications which follow it. He's a scholar of English and a university administrator, while I'm the one who teaches political science; yet he immerses himself, in this book, in documents and disputes between those individuals most instrumental to the framing of our system of government to such a degree that he comes up with stuff that, even after having received a PhD in politics and having taught American government for ten years, I still had never heard of. (Embarrassing truth: until I read this book, not only had I never read James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments--his important defense of the idea that a liberal society needs to be, in certain key aspects, a secular one--but I think I'd even forgotten it existed.) Some might think that all this reading which he did amounts to shooting fish in a barrel; after all, as he makes clear from the outset, his goal is solely to challenge the "conservative extreme that . . . has constructed a simplistic and intellectually indefensible narrative of America's Founding" (p. 13)--and that is something which anyone who bothers to actually read a half-way reputable biography of any of these men, much less an even moderately decent history of their interactions, disagreements, and achievements, ought to already know how to do. Really, it's not difficult to show that the often-hysterical, borderline-libertarian, Christian-conservative, Tea-Party worship of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Franklin as authoritative guides to politics depends on asserting that they said and did and claimed a great deal which they never did. Still, someone needs to do it, and I'm glad that Michael did, succinctly demonstrating the ignorance, inaccuracy, and incoherence of the many right-wing talking heads (Glenn Beck most predominantly, but also Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and many others) who have made their name in part by wielding the Founding Fathers as a club to try to pound their often paranoid and generally ahistorical notions about religious liberty, federalism, the commerce clause, taxation, judicial interpretation and power, and more into the head of the American public.

The heart of the book, and Michael's whole case against the abuse which some unknowingly (or knowingly!) do to the Founding Fathers, is contained in the book's second chapter, "Founderstein: How to Turn Six Dead White Guys into one Political Monster" (this was also the name of the blog which began Michael's whole involvement which this subject). Michael's pithy summary of the phenomenon he's attacking--namely, the way "the Founding Fathers" has become a reductive trope in so much Tea Party discourse, one which ridiculously insists upon viewing these highly opinionated and very different 18th-century men as all a single, uniform body of constitutional wisdom--deserves quotation:

"The Founding Fathers" were not all devout Christians who sought to limit the power of government any more than they were all slave-owning atheists who wanted to expand the federal mandate. They were actual human beings with insights and moral lapses, virtues and vices, and, perhaps most important, little ability to agree with each other about much of anything.

At the heart of the Founderstein phenomenon lies a rhetorical need for unanimity. All the authors mentioned at the opening of this chapter [Tea Party favorites like Utah Senator Mike Lee and Texas Governor Rick Perry] would have been on solid ground if they had claimed "some of the Founders" held the positions being presented as collective, and, with a little work, they could have identified which ones. But identifying with just some of the Founders blunts the real assertion of these arguments: that people who disagree with them are bad Americans. Rather than give up this point--and the righteous indignation it inspires--these authors present open questions as settled ones and disputed assertions as universal principles, and, in the process, they assert a higher level of agreement among the Founders than the Founders themselves believed to be possible in this world (p. 35).

Michael takes very seriously this charge against the Tea Party--that they are making an idol out of ideological agreement for the sake of being able to shut down ideas they consider (wrongly, as it happens) beyond the pale of America's political culture. His discomfort with this kind of rhetorical extremism and drive of unanimity is evidenced in other projects of his, like his Arguing as Friends project, which is attempting to demonstrate that there can be real civility even in the face of deep partisan disagreements over issues of both public policy and constitutional principle. It is also, I think, an unfortunate kind of limiting factor in his own presentation of the Founding Fathers and their ideas in all their complicated and diverse glory. Not a seriously limiting factor; I suspect that Michael's book will have a long life as, if nothing else, a pithy summary of the many appropriate responses which those who know and care about what the framers of our constitutional order actually said and did need to make to those who instead want to enlist Washington as a clear defender of Christian morality (he wasn't--pp. 69-70), or Madison as a promoter of states' rights (he wasn't--pp. 94-96), or make the claim that the Jefferson was the good guy of the American Revolution and Hamilton the bad (see pp. 127-132 for this complicated story), or say any number of other nonsensical things to bathe their conservative positions in the reflected glory of the Founding. No, the limit I see is one that is likely only apparent to academics and intellectuals like myself who are sympathetic to radical critiques of our system.

Whether he realizes it or not, Michael is a believer in that kind of political moderation and slowness that many critics and bloggers have long referred to as "High Broderism"--namely the idea, ripping on the late Washington Post columnist David Broder, that our constitutional system itself exhibits a kind of natural balancing genius, enabling our country to operate a democratic government that will both represent the will of people and achieve the common long as no one abuses the responsible, moderate, political and economic establishment at its core. You can see his praise for trusting in how things are throughout the book--he begins his main analysis claiming that the Founding Fathers gave us a political system "that has kept democracy vibrant in America for more than two hundred years" (p. 32), and concludes his last chapter by stating that our constitutional order "remains as robust an engine for liberty and human progress as the world has ever seen" (p. 186). Michael is too smart to be sucked in by the often naive applause for "bipartisanship" (p. 183), recognizing instead that, of course, any democratic system is going to be a contentious one, and that moreover the logic of factions is built into our Constitution's very operating presumptions. And yet Michael's distaste for deep critique, and his preference for applauding moderate compromises rather than popular reform, repeats in every chapter. He dismisses the possible value of respecting popular majorities more than Madison did (pp. 99-101); he praises Hamilton's defense of the necessity for an economy of credit that respects first and foremost the claims of capital (pp. 114-116); he thinks it obvious that the judicial branch needs the undemocratic independence which our Constitution provides (and which Marshall expanded through his decisions on the court--pp. 162-168). But really, all this is just to say that Michael isn't a socialist or a radical democrat--he is, as he says in the book's Preface, a man who stands "squarely in the center of American political discourse," and who is critical "of extremists on both the left and the right" (p. 13). A more radical thinker, like myself, would like to argue that such a "pox of both houses!" anti-extremism ignores that some extreme critiques of the system may be correct, or at least worthy of consideration, as well as passing over without comment how these different extremisms may deserve different kinds of criticism, rather than just assuming that if they don't get the basics of the system right, then they just don't understand how the whole thing is supposed to work. But again, there's no reason why Michael's argument against a few influential Tea-Party fools needed to include that kind of perspective; from his moderate perch, he knocks them down just fine on his own.

In the end, books like this don't change any minds when it comes to voting; certainly not within the final weeks before an election, in any case. So perhaps it's just as well that Michael's book missed its perfect political moment. The unfortunate truth is that Americans have been abusing the Founding Fathers for as long as the term has been in use (and Michael's investigation of that question was one of my favorite parts of the whole book--p. 20), and many of the less informed and more passionate of our citizens will no doubt continue to abuse them as long as they can. Hopefully, Michael's work will make some of them a little less likely to slip simplistically into insisting that there is only one right way to understand Jefferson or Washington, etc.; failing that, his work will definitely make the work of those of us who feel obliged to correct them a whole lot easier. So thank you, Michael, for writing such a solid helpful book. The best book I've ever read on the Founding Fathers or our constitutional order? No. But it's the best book I've read on the subject since Glenn Beck (the poor, earnest, well-meaning, stupid guy that he may be) started dumbing down our conversations about the Constitution, and that's no small praise.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Dude, I Don't Have a Jet Ski."

It starts out as just another one of those delightful bits of perverse fake lip-reading...but then, a little past the 2 minute mark, it turns into some much, much greater. I think we've found the greatest work of greatest parodic work of political art since the heyday of JibJab. Watch, and don't hurt yourself when you fall on the floor laughing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Why I'm Not Troubled by My Decision Not to Vote to Re-Elect Obama

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

About three weeks ago Conor Friedersdorf, a libertarianish blogger for The Atlantic, put up a post about how even those who support most of President Obama's policies, even those who see him as a much better choice for president than Mitt Romney, should refuse to vote for him. His reasons were pretty simple and straightforward: that Obama, through his toleration of (and participation in!) the expansion of extra-constitutional executive powers, through the murderous drone war which he has promoted over the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and through his willingness to fight terrorism through such explicit means as targeted assassination of targets (not excluding American citizens), ought to be beyond the pale for liberal and left-leaning voters. His actions, in short, are "dealbreakers."

Friedersdorf's post generated a storm of controversy. There were plenty of accusations that his version of the Obama administration's actions were tendentious and misleading, and that his construction of "dealbreakers" when deciding who or what is worthy of a vote was highly simplistic; he acknowledged the point of some of these criticisms, and hedged his position (slightly) in a couple of subsequent posts. But if his aim was to get presumed Obama supporters to argue about whether his (in some ways disappointing, in a few ways arguably appalling) record legitimated their voting for someone else or else not voting at all, he succeeded. One of my favorite political blogs, Lawyers, Guns, and Money (though guys, a quick note: if you were getting a new masthead, couldn't you have at least made use of a proper serial comma?), went ballistic, putting up post after post after post after post after post after post denouncing Friedersdorf's position, sometimes taking on other, perhaps less partisanly united leftish blogs like Crooked Timber along the way. It was a busy week, to say the least.

I'm not going to vote to re-elect President Obama. I hope he wins the election, because if he doesn't that will mean Mitt Romney will be president, and I like and agree with more of what Obama is likely to try to do in his second term than I do with what a President Romney would likely do with his first. But right now I just don't feel any personal inclination to support him with my vote, and I'm not troubled by that in the least. I laid out some of my reasons for this decision five months ago, and my thoughts haven't changed much since then. But because I promised David Watkins, one of the LGM bloggers, that I'd reply to at least some of their furious assault on the leftists-not-supporting-Obama camp, let me see if I can restate some of my thoughts differently. I'll start with David's central contention, in my (and many others') favorite post in the whole LGM blizzard, and see where that leads.

David wrote:

The moral purpose of democracy is not to keep my hands clean and feel good about myself, no matter how much politicians and other demagogues claim otherwise. The moral purpose of democracy is the reduction of abusive power in the world....If he is “beyond the pale” for the purposes of whatever endorsement you believe a vote implies, so to is pretty much all of American politics at the federal level. Identifying yourself as “better” than the American federal state in some important moral way is just fine; you probably are. So am I! I don’t kill people, either. But to move from that banal observation to abdicating the duty to use the primary tool we’ve got to constrain its abusive power is to badly miss democracy’s point.

His conclusion being, of course, that to present any singular (or cluster of) moral issue(s) as a dealbreaker which must necessitate voting outside of the politically relevant dynamics present in this presidential election--which for left-leaning voters presumably must mean either not voting for anyone for president, or voting for a third-party candidate, rather than Obama--misunderstands what democracy is about.

Two points in response. First, I disagree that the "moral purpose of democracy" can be contained within the narrow definition which David proposes. I see a number of diverse purposes to democracy, any number of which could be simultaneously described as "moral" depending on which conceptual plane (individual? civic? materialist? idealist?) one was operating upon. Personal expressive purposes have their moral content, as do collective identification purposes. To say that controlling the abusive power of the state is democracy's "primary" point is to cast politics into a utilitarian calculus (David betrays this move of his when he describes democracy as a "technology"). To employ that kind of calculus--probably slightly more people with health insurance! probably a slightly greater chance of preserving the social safety net! probably a slightly smaller likelihood of undeclared, murderous, and financially ruinous wars!--is obviously a completely defensible decision to make (I may ultimately be on Friedersdorf's "side" here, but I would never agree with him that it is somehow "immoral" to vote for Obama--but then, I don't think it's necessarily a sign of immorality to vote for Romney either), but it is nonetheless a prior decision about one's preferred moral calculus, and in no sense an obvious ethical imperative contained within the history of democracy.

Second, I would note that David makes it clear that he's talking about the presidential election; his point of reference is the "federal level," or in other words the national government. So, then, does he think that the "moral purpose" of democracy is different when you're voting for Congressional candidates, or for governors, or state legislative candidates--or, as I just suggested, local fluoridation? Perhaps he does; again, employing a legitimate utilitarian calculus, he might argue that there is a sliding scale present in how we balance concerns with abusive power versus other, less state-centered and more aesthetic, personal, or communitarian concerns. I'd in fact probably agree with his defense of such a scale; I'm much more comfortable with identitarian political decisions when I'm thinking about who I'd like on city council or what values I'd like my state to exhibit than I am with similar moves on the national level (as evidence, consider my confession that I'm a Mormon who has no interest in voting for the first member of my tribe to make it to such a prominent political level!). Nonetheless, should David admit to such a scale, then he's admitted that "democracy against domination" logic that he wants to invest the presidential election with is, at best, a contextual logic, one which operates not as a general rule, but in light of other variables, possibly objective (the office being voted upon, the level of government which that office inhabits), and possibly subjective (judgment calls about the relative benefits and harms which are presumed to be within the scope of the powers of the office or level of government in question).

All of this is relevant to a theme which (upon my reading anyway) recurs regularly throughout the above LGM posts and the long threads which followed them: the deep conviction that, in the struggle on behalf of liberal, progressive, and/or leftish causes, there are no battleground states, there are no caveats or qualifications particular to certain contexts or jurisdictions--there is only the general ideological battle, and you are either committed to it (meaning that you are, for better or worse, locked in by your own beliefs to the dominant political dynamics--the party structures, the available candidates, the campaign finance rules, etc.--which are available to this particular group of voters, which for the LGM bloggers obviously means President Obama and the Democratic party), or you're on the wrong side. There seems to me to be some deep Ralph Nader regret motivating this theme; at least a couple of the LGM bloggers, David included, cast votes for Nader in 2000, and have taken that lesson horribly to heart. Suffice to say, I've never felt that kind of guilt for my Nader votes. I knew what I knew then, believed what I believed then, and voted where I did then; if everything had been different, my votes in 1996 and 2000 probably would have been different, but it isn't, and so they aren't. To take the fact that the system allowed someone who I and many other leftists allowed--both intellectually and with our votes--to pursue policies that were stupid, immoral, and unwise for so long, and use it as an argument that somehow every vote and every democratic action, at all times and all places, needs to be weighted primarily against a particular kind of morally and ideologically constructed scheme of defense against state domination, is to completely ignore that obvious problem of aggregation, which Jacob Levy succinctly spelled out against David in a comment to his post. Very simply, you can't simultaneously affirm that every vote equals total responsibility for the ultimate results (that is, hold you nose and vote for the lesser evil, since one should imagine that every vote is the decisive, wherever you are and whatever the issue!) while also insisting that the only results which matter are those which are pertinent are those which involve what the two dominant candidates and parties end up doing or not doing (that is, forget about party or movement-building, or registering dissent, or anything else that won't in the short term have direct relevance to who wields power in which cause).

Both David and Scott Lemieux have responses to Jacob's point above, and while they both make some good points about the practical realities of nation-wide contests in today's America, with the general ineffectiveness of popular political signaling to larger parties and interest groups, they both seem to me to come down to a kind of in-group response: that their logic ultimately really only applies to "a group of like-minded about politics people," and that for voters with other sets of beliefs "the calculus is different." Scott is of the mind the democratic socialists are obviously included in his own left-liberal/progressive Democrati partisan group, but I'm not sure that's the case--again, depending on where you live, and what you're voting on. I can say, at the least, that it's not the case for a Kansas-dwelling populist/localist/Christian democrat/anarcho-socialist like myself.

So I will approach the election three weeks from today with every intention of supporting whatever Democrats I can locally and state-wide, since given the way Governor Brownback and his Koch-backed supporters have almost entirely cleansed the local Republican party of moderates, I have to support whatever practical resistance I can find. But nationally? Knowing that Romney has essentially a 100% chance of winning all six of Kansas's electoral college votes? In that case I look at Obama and the national Democratic party, and I see Bradley Manning still in jail, I see a president still dissembling when it comes to the horror of drone warfare, I see a refusal (in the face of mounting pressure) to rethink an invasive HHS mandate, I see no indication that there will be any grand social democratic economic push (just more neoliberal fine-tuning) in response to the continuing economic struggles of the poor and the lower middle class, and I don't see any interest in saying anything new about the war on drugs. Is that enough reason to not support the president? In a state where my vote won't help him do the many good things he might still be able to help make happen? When there is a candidate that represents, if not the correct response to all that I mention above, than at least a more correct response to most of them: namely Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president? I have to say, David, that I'm sorry, but you and your LGM colleagues just haven't changed my mind. (But please, keep fighting the good fight in Ohio--Obama needs your Democratic vote there far more than he needs my socialist vote here.)

The Most Important Vote I'll Make on November 6th

Three weeks from today, I'll be able to vote for my preferred candidate for president of the United States, for my regional congressional representative, for my local state house and senate representatives, and for various judges and city officials. All of those votes are relevant to my life--but the most important vote will be the one on whether or not Wichita should add fluoride to its drinking water. Do I think this is the most important vote I'll make on November 6th because fluoridation is a vital public health issue, and supporting it is a demonstration of good government and smart public responsibility? I do, in fact, think all those things about water fluoridation--but that's not why I think it's the most important part of my November ballot. No, I think it's more important than all those other candidates and issues I will vote on because this question, unlike all other choices I'll be faced, is self-government in action. And self-government is what living in a free society is supposedly all about.

Drinking water is a public resource, and obviously a precious one. Too many people decline to worry much about public resources, whether it be drinking water or sidewalks or sewer lines. In particular, those who are tempted by libertarian ideologies (and we have a lot of that here in Wichita, unfortunately) too often feel justified in forgetting that they live in communities, as opposed to privately contracted enclaves. But however much we may feel as though we are fully independent, sovereign selves, we aren't. We live in a social order, and freedom doesn't mean untrammeled individualism; rather, it means taking it upon ourselves to collectively govern that order. Now we usually do that indirectly, through electing representatives whom we trust--ideally, anyway--to act as our delegates in making decisions and writing laws. But sometimes it is both right and good for us, in our communities, to make decisions about public resources both directly and collectively. And that is what Wichita is going to have the opportunity to do.

It is really a rather precious thing, when you think about it, to be able to take on through one's own voice, one's own words and actions, and one's own vote, the power of self-government. Too many of the people I meet, too many of my students, too often see it as a bother, an annoyance or a distraction. In truth however, it is anything but. It is the most positive kind of freedom a citizen can enjoy, far greater than hunkering down on one's property, cursing the government, and insisting on one's independent liberty. Direct democracy, through voting on public initiatives like this one, whether we love or hate the results, is a grand human accomplishment. For certain, it's not always the best way to govern. But when it comes to deciding about the water I drink and how I pay for it, I'm delighted that the city council declined simply make a decision one way or another (as just happened in Portland, OR, another long-time fluoridation hold-out), and instead gave me, and all my fellow Wichitans, a chance to directly govern ourselves.

Do I hope water fluoridation passes? Absolutely. Why? Because I trust the dentists and health professionals who defend it, I concur with the observations of those who have seen its effects, because the science against fluoridation strikes me as paranoid and slightly nuts, and because I don't see anything wrong with democratically deciding upon communitarian responses to public health issues, especially when their result will be to address social inequities. Some may call it "mass medication" or "paternalism"; I say that if it was paternalism--namely, required immunizations--that has all but completely wiped out certain once-devastating childhood diseases in the United States, then its track record is worth taking seriously. The scholar Sigal Ben-Porath commented that "paternalism offers an opportunity to share the responsibility for one's actions with the state" (Tough Choices: Structured Paternalism and the Landscape of Choice [Princeton, 2010], 41); if the state in question is a democratically governed one--and in regard to this issue in Wichita at this time, it is--then sharing responsibility seems to me exactly what votes like this are all about. But the larger point is simply this--that by voting on this issue, you're helping to govern. Whether we here in Wichita wish to share responsibility for public health through our public resources or not, this vote will allow us to directly, democratically, decide. That's why it, and not my vote for president, is the most important thing I'm going to be doing, three weeks from today.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Find Myself a Sunny Spot"

It was 1992, in Provo, Utah, and a student newspaper I contributed to, and a feminist club I hung around with, had a joint, great idea for a fundraiser: we'd bring the Crazy 8s, one of the truly awesome college rock-ska-funk bands of the 80s and 90s, to town! They had a gig lined up at the Zephyr Club in Salt Lake City that same week, and their manager was always looking for ways to get them more shows, so he said, sure: why not swing down and put on concert in that old Provo Armory which we rented out for the occasion? Well, that show and fundraiser ended up being a near-total bust, but I did score myself a couple of tickets to the SLC show, and my friend Bob Ahlander and I went up to see them. We were at the Zephyr until about 1am, and danced our asses off.

The Zephyr is gone now, and so is the Portland-based Crazy 8s band which I knew then. Not much of them is to found on YouTube; a hard-working reunion-revival band which carries their name and plays some of their old tunes, and a clip of their performance on Star Search back in 1985. But this sweaty, infectious clip of the Crazy 8s in all their early 90s reggae-rock glory--that's about as close as I can get to the summer of 1992. It's close enough, I guess.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Steamroller" and Much More

I'd never consciously listened to a James Taylor song before the two years I spent in South Korea on a proselytizing mission for the Mormon church from 1988-1990. I'm sure I'd heard his music before, but I hadn't paid any attention to it. But while a missionary in Korea--alternately confused, excited, frightened, and bored--the songs of JT, which I picked up from contraband music tapes and from a fellow missionary who had broken the rules and brought his guitar with him to Korea, absolutely went to my heart. After I came home to U.S., I bought his albums, and then, while an undergraduate at BYU, would drive up into the mountains, and just listen to them while staring at the stars. Kind of pathetic/romantic, I know, but true all the same. JT is the only major musical performer that I've ever paid serious money to see live in concert twice--and of those concerts, the best one was during his tour for New Moon Shine, which is exactly the tour which the following bootleg recording of JT and his band's dress rehearsal captures. I remember so much from that evening in the spring of 1992, which you hear here--"Down in the Hole," "Shed a Little Light," and most of all, an awesome version of "Steamroller," with Don Grolick at the piano and Jimmy Johnson on bass. It begins around 7:40, but seriously: listen to the whole thing.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Mocking Romney's Mormon Self-Sufficiency, and What That Misses

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Amy Sullivan has an article on The New Republic's website this morning, calling Mitt Romney "insufferably cheap," and arguing that the "frugal quirks" which have been well-documented in recent news stories--according to the Washington Post, Romney "duct-tapes the holes in his gloves....rinses and stacks the dishes at the sink before loading the dishwasher after family holiday meals....picks up his own dry cleaning, pulls his own suitcase, eats at burger joints, counts his change"--reveal a "pathological" personality, make Romney "sound like a complete loon," and "must make him a bit annoying to be around." I respectfully disagree with all those claims. Far from making Romney seem like a tightwad jerk, learning about Romney's devotion to personal penny-pinching--though only in some areas of his life--does more to make him seem to my eyes like an authentic human being I can relate to, than anything else that he's done or has been said about him in all his years in the public eye. I'm not going to vote for him, but for the first time, I feel as though I kind of like the guy.

It surprises me to read Sullivan express such vehemence on this point, because the larger story about Romney's inconsistent frugality is one that pertains, at least as much as to his personal habits and economic class, to his (and my) religious faith, and talking about faith and politics is one of the things which Sullivan has done long and well (even when I disagree with her). But in this case she misses the story entirely, despite David Campbell having opened the door to this argument in his contribution to the Washington Post piece. Campbell, the co-author of a sweeping analysis of American religious beliefs and their relevance to politics, and a Mormon like Romney and I, observes that in Mormonism "there is a strong egalitarian impulse....There’s no paid clergy, so you might very well have someone who is a schoolteacher as the bishop and within the flock investment bankers and neurosurgeons, but he’s the pastor and in charge. Beyond that, there’s this ethos of people being not just frugal, but also using foresight in their planning." That might seem like a rather banal observation, and so one that Sullivan--whose focus in her article is both the supposed weirdness of a wealthy and successful presidential contender "sweating the small stuff, as well as the presumed hypocrisy of a multi-millionaire who talks about job creation yet refuses to hire a contractor to do some landscaping which he figures he could do himself--could ignore while building her argument. But actually Campbell's comments--about both Mormonism's ethic of frugal planning, and its often-unexplored egalitarian implications--provide a valuable insight to Romney's mind.

Mormonism, as has been frequently noted, was for a decades a persecuted religion. It is also an American religion which found its lasting home, and developed many of its still-enduring practices and norms, in the at-the-time unsettled American West. The idealization of the sacrifices of 19th-century Mormon refugees and colonizers, and of the twin pioneer virtues of self-sufficiency and collective responsibility, remain vibrant throughout much of the Mormon church today. And for Romney, as the descendent of a branch of Mormons which actually fled to United States to Mexico to continue to live their faith, those principles of frugally sacrificing wants and comforts for the sake of securing long-range needs and goals would presumably being doubly-present in his thought. To be sure, this kind of frugality is hardly unique to Mormons; millions of people who lived through difficult times like the Great Depression and passed on those lessons to their children similarly embraced such homespun conservative and self-sufficient wisdom as "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." But what Sullivan misses is that, within the Mormon church, with its long-standing (and, yes, often ignored) encouragement of its members to plant gardens, to maintain long-term food supplies, and to eschew personal luxury (several of the prophetic figures in the Book of Mormon, following Isaiah, explicitly condemn fine clothing, and Joseph Smith himself, in one of his revelations included in our text the Doctrine and Covenants, urged church members to content themselves with plain clothing and those things they could make themselves), such frugal principles operate not as a call to cheapness, but to piety.

And not just a personal piety, but a cultural one: indeed, a counter-cultural one. And here is where Sullivan's accusation of Romney's inconsistency really missed the boat: she failed to recognize that the whole point of that frugality for Mormons, at least originally, was not to serve some sort of solely personal virtue, but to collectively bless the whole. The usually unstated but nonetheless clear reason for food storage was so that others--one's family or neighbors or the whole congregation or community--would have stores to fall back on and share when bad harvests or outside forces threatened. Mormon cheapness--of sacrificing luxurious pleasures for limited and practical needs, of forgoing expensive expertise and learning instead to do without or do it oneself--was a function of the Zion-building ideal, of a community jointly sacrificing (by, for example, supporting the local Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution, rather than ordering through the Sears and Roebuck catalog) for the sake of the employment and income and sustenance of everyone else. This kind of economic ethic, which was an important supplement to the collectivized economics which early Mormons practiced throughout the 19th century, obviously runs counter to the entrepreneurial, expansive, debt-addicted, and acquisitive ethos of American capitalism today--and especially counter to the rapacious financial practice of "economic restructuring" which made Bain Capital and Mitt Romney his hundreds of millions. As Laura McKenna and many other writers have noted over the years since the economic meltdown of 2008, being frugal--doing your own laundry, growing your own food, traveling cheap, saving old clothes and furniture--is the truly counter-cultural idea of our moment, because it resists the presumptions of consumer capitalism itself. And of course, if there is one thing that Mitt Romney, in all his variations, has never been, it's a cultural opponent of capitalism.

To be fair, our church isn't much of one either any longer; despite the Mormon welfare program and its many other gestures towards economic equality and community, the ideal of Zion is mostly long gone from our practices today. So it really may well be that whatever Romney's religious inheritance, his tight-fisted reputation has nothing to do with any kind of pioneer ethic, and have everything to do with just his own personal tastes and his father's frugality; certainly his performance at the Republican National Convention, which on its final day highlighted the faith experiences and numerous examples of church service which have shaped Romney as a person, nonetheless not only didn't connect that history with his faith's communitarian legacy, but actually, if implicitly, pushed the opposite thesis: that Mormonism is as American as, well, business. And on that basis, perhaps Sullivan's snarks at Romney's cheapness rightly connect with the inconsistency between his habits and his economic message of job growth. Ultimately though, mocking Romney for his sometimes ham-fisted attempts at self-sufficiency misses the bigger picture. First, that self-sufficiency and frugality, assuming they don't border on miserliness, are real personal virtues. And second, that Romney's own faith long insisted strongly on personal part of larger projects of sacrifice, conservation, local production, and mutual support. Romney's plan calls for selective austerity, but comparatively little by way of shared sacrifice. That's the real scandal.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Not Fade Away"

I had a couple of chances to head down to Las Vegas from Provo, Utah, when I was an undergraduate at BYU two decades ago, just to see the Grateful Dead. Never went, because I'm an idiot that way, I guess.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cleansing the Altar, and the Anvil Too

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Some interrelated thoughts for today, which is Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that I kind of wish every year was one of my own. First of all, the text:

Okay, so that's not the actual text; as Noah Millman helpfully reminded us in his post today, the real textual basis for the holiday Yom Kippur is Leviticus 16:18-22. And the meaning he takes from that text is very different from the one which Northern Exposure provided me with when I first saw the above episode (titled "Shofar, So Good") nearly twenty years ago. But I love the show's portrayal of the Day of Atonement nonetheless, and not just because I'm a huge fan of A Christmas Carol. No, I love it also because it's just a wonderful combination of whimsy, misanthropy, ordinary realism, religious respect, and moral seriousness. (The above clip, while it conveys the main message of the episode, actually leaves out the entire best subplot, which is Holling's feelings of guilt and shame over a child he'd never known, and the way Ed becomes a scapegoat for him.) I've never pretended to be anything other than a holiday enthusiast, happily borrowing them wherever I can, and finding in them whatever meaning I may; Yom Kippur is a holiday that, for me at least, invites just such an appropriation. I want to be reminded, viscerally, ritually, of the need I have for atonement, for resolution, for forgiveness. Mormons get reminded of it every week as we take the sacrament, and I love that ritual, but perhaps because of its very ordinariness it often--for me, anyway--lacks real weight. The call of the Shofar and the recitation of the Shema Yisrael...well, that's not something one can easily elide.

But back to Noah's interpretation of the scriptural text, which departs slightly from Northern Exposure's more traditional focus on prayer and personal atonement. He asks, intriguingly, just what the atonement, the scapegoat, is for. His answer is, it's not for the person, or the people. It's for the altar:

If you look closely at the text, what you’ll see is that the scapegoat ritual isn’t about atoning for the people, and taking away their sin from them, but about atoning for the altar. That’s what it says: the priest “shall go out unto the altar that is before the LORD, and make atonement for it”....What on earth does that mean?

When someone transgresses, and performs a sin offering to atone, the offering is not a penance, something the person gives up to make up for the sin, nor is it a bribe to the judge, something God finds pleasing and that will encourage His mercy. Rather, the blood of the offering is a kind of spiritual cleanser, which takes the residue of sin off the sinner. So where does it go? It goes, with the blood, onto the altar.

Which is why, once a year, the priest needs to make atonement for the altar, to cleanse it of the sins of the people that have accumulated over the year. It’s like cleaning the filter. The scapegoat ritual transfers these accumulated sins to the goat, so that the altar can continue to do its job of receiving the residue of sin for another year.....

We moderns...don’t think we can cleanse ourselves by pouring blood on an altar. But we do recognize that the need to make restitution and the need for spiritual “cleansing” are not identical processes. The one is social; the other is psychological. And we do make use of intermediaries of various sorts for that process of cleansing, whether clergy or therapists or friends and family or even objects that we imbue with the kind of spiritual power once attributed to the altar.

And those intermediaries, who have taken on the residues of our sins, also need a cleansing.

So that’s what I’m going into this Yom Kippur thinking about. Who have I been using as an altar for the past year, making them the receptacles of my guilt and frustration and anger and all the rest of it, and what can I do to help them get clean of all I can go on using them for another year.

I read this post this morning, before the holiday began, and it made me think of an old line attributed to George MacDonald--that in this life, we are not always the already-tempered and helpful hammer which is shaping and pounding another, nor yet the heated and shapeless iron, in desperate need of some honing, receiving our necessary though much regretted pounding. No, sometimes we are only the anvil. I first encountered that thought when I read an old sermon by Neal A. Maxwell, an apostle in my church. I found that sermon--which is simply titled "Patience"--in a missionary apartment in South Korea close to 25 years ago, and it struck me as one of the truest things I'd ever read:

Paul, speaking to the Hebrews, brings us up short by writing that even after faithful disciples have “done the will of have need of patience” (Heb. 10:36). How many times have good individuals done the right thing only to break, or wear away, under the subsequent stress, canceling out much of the value of what they have already so painstakingly done?

Sometimes that which we are doing is correct enough but simply needs to be persisted in--patiently--not for a minute or a moment but sometimes for years. Paul speaks of the marathon of life and how we must “run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). Paul did not select the hundred-yard dash for his analogy!

My mother-in-law had a saying, which was in due course passed on to my wife, Melissa, and now has become second-nature to me as well: "The problem with life is that it's so daily." Not an original insight, to be sure; millions have noted, in all sorts of ways, the real burden that comes from the repetition of ordinary responsibilities, the constant need to attend to the same, whether with family or work or anything else. I know that I often struggle with that dailiness. I actually think that I'm not doing too badly insofar as basic spiritual matters are concerned, but I also know that I get worn down by it all. And when I do, I can see that I make anvils of my wife, my children, my friends. I don't treat them badly, or at least I hope I don't...but I do dump on them, let loose my sarcasm and annoyances on them, use them as a break from needing to be, from even wanting to be, a decent person. Because I know--or at least hope--that they'll forgive me, and let me get away with being a jerk sometimes. I hammer on them, in other words; maybe what I'm hammering is me, or some unresolved issue I have at work or church or somewhere else. But I'm not doing it for them; I'm doing it for me. And that, itself, is a sin that I need forgiveness for.

So I thank Noah, and Neal Maxwell, and Northern Exposure, this Yom Kippur. The occasion of the holiday has provided me with a needed insight: that in trying to be honest and repentant of my sins, I take for granted some of those on whom I spill (metaphorical) blood, and employ (I hope at least mostly unintentionally) as anvils as I hammer out my own issues and the issues of those my church responsibilities put before me. I hope God's grace is sufficient to cleanse these anvils and altars in my life, because I love them so. I hope I can be someone else's altar and anvil as well...because that means that I'll also get some reprieve sometimes (at least once a year, if the Jews are right!) from all that hammering and blood-letting which, in this mortal coil, we probably can't ever fully avoid.