Saturday, June 30, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Bad is Bad"

I make no apologies whatsoever for continuing to love Huey Lewis and the News's music. They came to the Kansas State Fair a couple of years back, and I kick myself for having missed them. When they were hot in the early to mid-80s, as they were in this show, there arguably was no better pop-music-making garage band out there.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Supreme Court: Already Undemocratic, and Just Getting More So

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

The Supreme Court will almost certainly hand down its decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act this Thursday. I'm going to be out of town when that happens, camping with my daughters in Oklahoma. So let me get my prediction in now, which some of you already know: a 5-4, strict party-line decision, probably written by Roberts himself, invalidating the individual mandate on commerce clause grounds and thereby eviscerating the whole law (but leaving the expansion of Medicaid intact, though good luck in trying to find some way to make that function absent the rest of the law's overall structure). The undemocratic, individualistic coup of America's always shaky ability to be able to effectively govern itself will continue apace.

I say "coup," because that's what James Fallows calls it. He looks all the way back to Bush v. Gore more than a decade ago, and he suspects that the decision on health care reform is going to end up being yet an additional step in our country's slow, crashing dissent into endless political wars, where dysfunction is the rule of the day, where every decision is an all-or-nothing one, and where the essential norms of democratic governability--that, as he puts it, "you'll go so far, but no further, to advance your political ends," where "loyalty to the system as a whole...outweighs your immediate partisan interest"--are functionally absent. Ta-Nehisi Coates rightly notes that, from the perspective of African-Americans anyway, those norms have been absent far more often than otherwise, and he certainly has a point...but I would argue, even if the idea of a "coup" is stretching things a little far, that Fallows is right to think that this is an arguably dangerous moment in American history, a moment that we haven't seen the likes of in many decades: a moment when all the instituionalized practices and routines of democratic government seem dubious or even irrelevant to the supposed ability of the people to organize themselves and take responsibility away from those whose wealth, position, or power allow them to easily grab it in the first place. The result is mutual disorganization, recrimination, retrenchment, and despair.

Yes, despair, which I've been feeling more and more often for a year now. I look back and I see a decades-long sweep of Supreme Court decisions that have systematically undermined the ability of the communities of the United States to struggle with and accept the burden of compromise, civic duty, tolerance, and responsible choices. Obviously there were huge differences between the relevant case law, the philosophical priorities, and the political and policy dynamics at work in cases like Roe v. Wade or Buckley v. Valeo or San Antonio v. Rodriguez, but I think that over the past decade--as the political gloves slowly but surely came off during the 1990s in years following the end of the Cold War, and the weakness and fissures within our overly praised global capitalist dynamo began inevitably revealed themselves--we've seen their fruit, in a series of decisions which, again and again, emphasize the idea that we're all on our own, and that the only real responsibility of a citizen in a democracy is to, above all, keep their hands on their stuff (and its corollary: don't let anyone else interfere with your stuff--your property, your rights, your land, your money, your opinions--either.). Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, Dukes v. Wal-Mart, Snyder v. Phelps (a decision I especially hated), and the just decided Knox v. Service Employees International Union...all very different cases, but all of them sharing one constant: that the people--even if openly and democratically organized, even if acting in accordance with well-established liberal procedures, even if taking into consideration minority perspectives, etc., etc.--probably just shouldn't be allowed to organize solutions to problems that might get in the way of someone who wants to be able to sell (or buy), or shout (insultingly) out, or sign (or oblige someone else to sign) a contract involving their precious stuff.

The way I conceive of this coup obviously cuts across the usual framing of America's ideologies, and I recognize that there are plenty of limitations to its general applicability (among the most obvious: not all rights/property/stuff is equal, especially given reigning gender and racial inequalities, and so presumably there do need to some varying standards as for when a polity's democratic policy-making can interfere with one's body vs. one's job vs. one's community membership, etc.). But as I head off on our camping trip, and expect to return in a week to learn that a concerted political movement has, in fact, managed to turn the Affordable Care Act--an admittedly convoluted, philosophically flawed, and yet, I think, nonetheless utterly necessary step towards figuring our how to manage the health needs of this too-large country with at least some sort of concern for equality--into yet another a constitutional crisis worthy of being stopped by five determined individuals on the Supreme Court...well, I'm just going to see it as one more step down a path which we've been walking for more than 40 years now. And unfortunately, there's no real turn-around on the horizon.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

What I Said About Citizens United in About 13 Minutes...

Here's a recording of my comments at the aforementioned community forum on Citizens United. (Many thanks to my fellow DSAer Stuart Elliot, who has the whole forum up on his blog.) I ended up touching kind of lightly on the matters I mentioned in that earlier post, and took a somewhat different approach in my criticisms (most of which I stand by, I think--though I think, in listening to it, I can spot at least one mistake). Feel free to listen if you can't get enough of me (but don't bother sticking around to listen to the repeat of my performance which got accidentally attached to this Youtube video; that would constitute stalking).

The Summer So Far...

I told myself at the beginning of the summer that I was going to make this one more productive that last year's. I haven't managed to make that the case professionally or academically (yet). But around the house? There, I'm way ahead:

Using the lumber left over from our disassembled jungle gym (taken down and left on our patio since last year, when we'd decided it was becoming too much of a potential death trap), I've built a new and improved death trap clubhouse for the girls. It's not finished yet, but as you can see, they've already marked it as their own. Next up will be building a bench, maybe making use of an old tabletop from a broken play table, and perhaps finding place for an slide...

On the opposite side of the back yard, making use of a bunch of rocks from the creek/run-off across the street from us (and nearly destroying our wheelbarrow in the process; I had to go and buy it a new industrial strength tire), I built a retaining wall around our garden space. Admittedly, I did this in two stages, the first one back in the spring when we first started getting our garden space ready after a year of letting it lay fallow. But that time we were able to use rocks that we had on our property; this time I had to haul them myself. (In case you're wondering, no, it doesn't seem to do much to stop the rabbits, but it does slow the grab grass down.)

Finally,our garden itself. The zucchini has come in like gangbusters, and after originally fearing we'd lost our cucumbers and melons in some early summer storms and hail, everything seems to be coming along nicely. It's even looking like we may break our losing streak and actually get some corn this year. The beans are developing nicely, and while the tomatoes look a little undersized, I'm hopeful. All in all, I'm surprised to say that our garden seems to be doing better than the Friend's University community one. I suppose there might be a lesson there about the superiority of private ownership to collective responsibility, but I'll do my best not to learn it for as long as possible.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Slippin' Out"

I saw Buddy Guy in the summer of either 1991 or 1992, soon after the comeback album this track was on, Damn Right I've Got the Blues came out. It was part of a big blues show at Snowbird ski resort in Utah, and B.B. King was headlining. But when King finally came on, it was an anti-climax; Guy had already burned the place down, having left the stage and wandered among the audience, his guitar wailing away. King just couldn't compete.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

If Wes Anderson Lived in the Real World Instead of a Glorious Retro Toy Shop...

...this would be the trailer to his latest movie. Lacking that, I suppose I'm just going to have to get this album. Aurally beautiful, visually profound. (Thanks, Laura McKenna.)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Werewolves of London"

How I wish I could have seen Warren Zevon live.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What to Say in 15 Minutes About Citizens United?

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

In two days time, I'll be speaking at an event organized by We the People of Kansas, titled "Is Democracy for Sale?" It's an officially non-partisan event--though, given its pretty thoroughly progressive liberal character, I've no doubt that movement conservatives will be thin on the ground. Still, I hope the organizers aims will be fulfilled--I hope we'll have a good conversation that will open a few minds to the terrible consequences of the 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Why terrible? That's what I'll have about 15 minutes to explain. To put it very briefly here, the reason why that decision essentially made it all but impossible to organize our elections in such a way as to make voting--arguably the primary responsibility of citizenship--more important than spending money (and spending lots of it, in particular).

The usual knock against Citizens United has to do with the idea of "corporate personhood," the assumption that, in the eyes of the law, corporations hold the same free speech rights that individual human beings do, meaning that, since current constitutional law mostly guarantees the right to contribute individually to political campaigns as an expression of free speech, so much also the law guarantee the right of corporate bodies to so contribute. Despite being defended by such luminaries at Mitt Romney, this offends a lot of people...

...and rightly so. There is an important principle here, having to do with, as I mentioned before, the fundamentals of citizenship in a democratic society. A society governed by the people (the demos) needs to make sure that it is the people--individual citizens and the parties, groups, and organizations they form--who are truly exercising sovereign power, or at least it is they who are ultimately doing so (as is the case in a representative as opposed to direct democracy, as we have in the United States). This is not, it should be noted, a necessary liberal principle; when people enjoy the liberty to give or withhold consent from a government, and thus put a break upon actions which might threaten their basic freedoms, they don't automatically have self-government: after all, it's always possible to consent to a tyrant (as Hobbes's Leviathan makes clear). So at least for those of us concerned with actual democracy, this is why the point of certain lines in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence--that all men are created equal--is often often captured by way of speaking of "one person, one vote" (as codified in the Supreme Court decision Wesberry v. Sanders). That is, all of us will have a voice in governing ourselves, and all of us will be heard equally.

The idea of corporate personhood potentially threatens this, because when one corporate body purports to speak for individual members of the community, it can, depending on the particulars of the election or venue where citizens make their will known, crowd out or silence voices that otherwise have a right to be heard. Obviously this is a reality in our current election system, where the lack of effective public financing basically makes running for political office, or organizing a political party, or circulating a petition, a question of money (hiring the workers, buying the television advertising time, paying the consultants and pollsters, distributing the posters, etc.). And that, of course, means that under our election system corporations, which generally can amass far more financial resources than an individual citizen, enjoy an distinctly unequal advantage over others holders of fundamental democratic rights.

This is an argument worth making...but if this solitary argument is pushed too far, it might lead one to forget that the above logic--the maximizing potential of forming a corporate body when it comes to running for office or expressing an opinion or influencing legislation--is exactly what explains why we have interest groups, lobbyists, political parties, and dozens of other different types of organizations: religious bodies, charitable groups, non-profits, and more. To attack Citizens United solely because of the nonsense of "corporate personhood" is, ultimately, to attack the Girl Scouts, Greenpeace, the AFL-CIO, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the NAACP.

The proper argument, then, obviously isn't simply that Citizens United (following in the footsteps of earlier cases like Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life) had acknowledged the right which corporations have to spend money in order to get out messages and influence voters on behalf of their preferred candidates and causes, but rather that Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion in Citizens United followed the "money = speech" logic of the 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo to an extreme end. Kennedy, writing for the majority, asserted that, because the Supreme Court had previously granted to spending money for the promotion of acts of political speech the same constitutional privileges enjoyed by acts of speech themselves under the First Amendment, almost any attempt to recognize that different persons or different corporate bodies may operate on very unequal levels when it comes to the functioning of our democracy was simply illegitimate. As a result, long-standing legislation and judicial precedents on both the state and national level--legislation and decisions which had developed over many decades in response to the obvious and highly unequal fact that, when money basically decides who has access to voters and who doesn't, our democracy doesn't work terribly well--was invalidated. Some of it was fairly recent, like Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which had originally defended a restriction on business corporations being able to spend their own normally acquired profits in political contests, and some of it was as old as the 20th-century itself, such as when the Supreme Court put a halt to the Montana Supreme Court's efforts, in Western Tradition Partnership v. Attorney General of Montana, to preserve campaign finance restrictions which Montana had put in place many decades ago in response to the particular forms of corruption which had plagued their state. But whether old or recent, all of these precedents existed because, after different times and places, state and national actors had recognized American democracy becoming overly shaped by the power of money, whether from wealthy individuals or powerful groups, and they wanted, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, to guarantee real equal democratic freedom and opportunity to all--not just respecting votes equally, but respecting voices equally as well.

We obviously don't have that today, as the rise of Super PACs and the recent recall election in Wisconsin certainly prove. This is not to say that overturning or event just modifying Citizens United--which I think would be both a delightful turn of events and an extremely unlikely one, though the fact that the Supreme Court has agreed to review Citizens United in light of the Montana Supreme Court's ruling is quite hopeful--would eliminate all the problem of unequal influence in elections. That problem goes far deeper than this 2010 decision, going all the way back to the Court's willingness in 1976 to see in spending money a fundamental act of citizenship, thus granting those with money (again both individuals and corporations) a constitutional right which, in practice, gives them an unequal advantage over those who don't. The problem with Citzens United is that it took much too far a principle which is, to my mind at least, of fairly questionable democratic validity--and thus, I further think, properly of fairly limited constitutional relevance. Money can and should be limited in the role it plays in democratic elections. Citizens United, whatever it's direct provable impact on skyrocketing election costs in America, is a denial of that principle--and hence, as I said, a terrible decision, both for what it said and for the consequences which follow saying so.

What Was High School For Anyway?

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Twenty-five years ago today (I think; my memory is far from perfect) I graduated from Central Valley High School in Spokane Valley (then "Veradale"), WA. Herewith some thoughts on this momentous occasion from my past.

1) High school didn't suck. Oh, there was a lot about it I hated, and as I think back on what little I can remember of my classes and locker-mates and student activities and all the rest from a quarter-century ago, there's much which fills me with embarrassment or loathing. But the truth is that I have the tendency (a definitely non-unique one, I've discovered over the years) to make many experiences of mine out to be particularly crazy, difficult, or dramatic, when they were probably mostly just dull. Looking as best I can over the whole sweep of my 43 years, I was probably no more messed up or depressed during my high school experience than at any other particular period of my life, and maybe even less.

2) That said, I've never really been able to relate to those for whom high school was a wonderful or transformative or memorable time--one of whom is my wife. So many of her life-long expectations and relationships and perspectives were shaped during those happy years, and I kind of envy that. Despite having grown up milking cows and baling hay, I'm probably about as commercialized a suburban kid as any other white American boy of my generation, and so I also watched Sixteen Candles and Breakfast Club, and wanted that kind of experience.

3) But what, really, is "that kind of experience"? Part of it is educational, of course, but only a small part--mostly, anyone who talks honestly about high school, about the prospect, pitfalls, and possibilities of packing dozens or hundreds or even a couple of thousand of 15 to 18-year-olds together, ends up admitting that the larger part of that experience is social and emotional and cultural and sexual and civic. Which one of those parts looms largest for you, and what you saw happening in regards to it, probably determines what you think of high school, no matter what grades you earned or what they enabled you to do afterwards.

4) Within two years after my graduation, my mother and father had decided that they were going to home school the rest of my siblings. The family legend is that it was my experience as a student--a precocious, socially awkward, emotionally resentful, intellectually confused, bully-attracting kid--that mostly led them to this decision. It's a decision which has extended on to most of my family; out of nine children, all of whom are married with children, six home school their kids.

5) Melissa and I aren't one of them, and not particularly because my wife loved high school, or even public schooling in general. No, it's because, on the one hand, we've actually been impressed by, and hence have strongly supported and invested ourselves in, the educational opportunities and outcomes we've seen benefit our children, and on the other hand, because we've never seen them be confronted by social or emotional or cultural or sexual or civic messages or environments that we deeply disapproved of--or if we have disapproved of them, we've never yet been unable to address and counter said messages or environments, with the result that the balance of pros and cons still tilts towards public schooling.

6) Besides, were believers in it. Trying to work out how to pay for or scale up (or down) public education is a never-ending argument, but by and large, as I put it once, "I like the idea of the state being a (partial) agent of education; insofar as the state is the reflection of the collective interest we all have in promoting and sharing certain civic goods with one another, especially the poor and marginalized, then it is an agency worth supporting."

7) We have one daughter in high school now. She's a smart and ambitious girl, more so than her parents (she'd going to summer school now, as she moves towards graduating a year early). Just the same though, when she had the opportunity to enroll in Wichita's International Baccalaureate program, she chose not to, preferring to attend our neighborhood's own Northwest High School, because she wanted to stick with her friends and the part of the community which she knew best. That was a decision which made me proud.

8) Not that she doesn't have regrets (there are always regrets to every decision, are there not?); attending East High School now for summer school, she's struck by how much public schools, especially high schools, have adapted (been downgraded, I think) with the times. Northwest is your typical contemporary high school--a sprawling (part-Panopticon) campus of prison-like buildings, though decked out within with the best technology and amenities which declining state budgets and limited bond-campaigns can afford. Older high schools like East, however, were often beautiful, multi-story buildings, constructed in the midst of an ongoing civic space.

9) There is a story there, a story of the decline of intact neighborhoods and stable jobs and cohesive families and the public schools which aspired to educate the people who lived and worked and loved in the midst of such. Time was that a high school education was the pinnacle, the finale, of the average American citizen's learning; the reason why people had such strong ties to their high school's football teams or glee clubs over the decades was because it was from there that they were ushered into the adult world of making careers and families. So of course high schools were imposing edifices; like churches and city halls, they were spaces where the surrounding community got  made. Yet when high school is transformed--thanks to the disappearance of reliable local work, the imperative of specialization and mobility, the breakdown of church and family connections, the shift of wealth away from the grounded vocations of land and manufacturing and to the distancing operations of finance and the "information economy"--into one more meritocratic step which the smart student (like my own daughter--and like, to be fair, her own parents as well) will negotiate as quickly and as efficiently as possible, looking at every class as something to maxmize for future college-application effect...well, if nothing else, it changes things. For one thing, the mind-numbing expectation to qualify everything that happens in light of some state-mandates assessment drives out much of the lunatic (but educational!) fun that putting so many kids together at least in theory ought to make possible (and the absence of which often just means all that remains, for some many students anyway, is video games and booze). For another thing, with such changes there's no longer any particular reason to make the high school building itself such a permanent fixture. Far better to build more flat, easily reconstructed schools out in the distant suburbs and bus the kids in; that will make it easier to build swimming pools and tennis courts, anyway.

10) It's a bad choice, if you couldn't guess what my conclusion would be. When I went to high school from 1984 to 1987, we still had wood and metal shop and home economics classes; they could be avoided if you were worked your schedule right (and many students, intent on landing that National Merit Scholarship, did just that), but they were there. For a long time now, they haven't been, at least not in the public schools I've seen (but I'm gratified to note that, in some small ways, they may be making a comeback; my daughter's botany class planted tomatoes and potatoes this year, and maintained a greenhouse). More relevantly, it's hardly an obvious conclusion that in streamlining high school into one more component of a globalized economy, the "public" which public schools were designed to serve have been helped. Yes, it's true that, in all likelihood, the old economic model of local manufacturing and production will never return. And yet, it remains a fact that, by some measurements, going beyond high school and specializing in one or another professional field accounts for only around a quarter to a third of all the productive work out there.You can spin one solution after another about how to turn those non-specialized practical jobs into high-paying ones through some creative additional education, but in the end, high school could be, ought to be (as it once was, and for many still is), a way to give experiences that help complete citizens in their lives and communities and attachments, rather than simply rubber-stamp them on their way to someplace else.

11) As always though, you roll with the changes, and try to build what you can out of where and what you have. I salute (though not without some reservations) those who, for reasons of religion or politics or personal preference, elect to take their kids out of public schools, as perhaps they were taken out themselves, and allow them to create a high school experience for themselves (and/or create one for them). For ourselves, thus far our local publics, as compromised as they are, have been worth supporting, just as, as I think back on it now, mine was probably worth the effort too, even if my own parents later drew different conclusions. I graduated, and I learned things, and I went through stuff, most all of which I've now forgotten. But there were some moments there, and while I won't say I'm grateful for them, I will say, anyway, that they didn't all suck. Considering that I was, after all, just a 15-18 year old dork at the time (note the proudly worn "Flock of '87" duck t-shirt), that's not a bad thing to be able to say.

(Go Bears!)

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Like a Rolling Stone"

Melissa and I caught a Michael Hedges show at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA, sometime in the early spring of 1997, about six months before he was killed in an automobile accident. It was the second time we'd seen him (he'd visited Utah and played a show in SLC a couple of years before), and by far the better of the two performances. He played this song as his final encore, pretty much exactly as he played it here. It was marvelous; one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time, played by, I think, one of the greatest guitarists of all time. We got a photo with him afterwards, and I treasure it to this day.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Ray Bradbury, a Wonderful Liar

Ray Bradbury, one of the greatest fantasists and science-fiction authors of the 20th-century, and arguably one of the greatest short story writers ever, has died. He was 91 years old. I can't say I was a scholar of the man's work, nor even someone deeply familiar with it. I loved Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes, as so many others did, and I read dozens of his short stories over the years (above them all, I think "The Veldt", a strange, subtle story of insidiously realistic horror, has stayed with me the longest)--but the fact is the man was so prolific, for so long, that any casual reader like myself can only be said to have scratched the surface. So I really don't have anything to say, except to note his passing, mourn it, remember his legacy...and, perhaps, add one small anecdote to the millions that will no doubt soon begin to poor forth.

Sometime in the 1987-1988 school year (I'd have to take the time to search on the internet to remember exactly when), Ray Bradbury visited Brigham Young University, to give an campus-wide address. I was a freshman that year, and had fortunately fallen in with a few choice other geeks; together, we staked out some seats near the stage, so I very nearly had a front row seat. His speech was, no doubt, a stock presentation which he regularly gave to university audiences, but we ate it up all the same: his celebration of the imagination, his endorsement of dissent and independence, his occasional curse words (which he immediately, though surely insincerely, apologized for; perhaps as a consequence, when the whole audience and everyone on the rostrum rose to applaud him at the end of his speech, our university president stayed conspicuously in his seat, politely clapping). He finished up with a wonderful tale, which I only later realized was an off-the-cuff abbreviation of a then-new short story of his, recently published in Playboy (which would explain why a good Mormon geek like myself had missed it). It was "The Toynbee Convector", a wonderful tale of a man who claims to have invented a space-traveling time machine, and had traveled to the future and returned to report that humanity had, within the coming century, been able to invent marvelous new machines, clean up the environment, resolve social problems, and basically create a utopia. This obviously inspires the human population, filling them with delight and confidence. And it just so happens that the utopia comes to pass, and in a hundred years the world is at peace and healthy and happy. And when the population of the world a century later gathers to await the orbit over the Earth of the time machine from the past, to celebrate this great turning point in their existence, and at the appointed time nothing appears, a reporter asks the now very elderly time traveler what must have happened, the scientist only smiles and says "I lied," before peacefully passing away.

I think there's a truth in that story, somewhere. And even there isn't, it was a story that struck my gang of wanna-be intellectuals and geeks as both wise and deep. And maybe getting people to believe things, even if by lying, is the whole point of story-telling--or at least of the sort of story-telling Bradbury excelled at, at least for much of his career. RIP, Ray.

Update, June 6, 2012, 3:38pm CST: An old friend of mine, Glen Henshaw, who was part of that geek gang I remember, had this to say:

I remember Bradbury's talk. I remember sitting there with you and Aric and Rob and loving it. But I only remember one thing Bradbury said during that talk, which if I recall correctly was actually an answer to a question posed to him during the Q&A afterwards. What I remember him being asked had something to do with space exploration and poverty and tax money and its wise use. His answer was "I believe we have a spiritual obligation to explore the universe. It is yours if you have the head and the heart for it." That talk, and indeed that statement, gave me the courage to give up my current plans, to start treating college as merely my day job, to ignore most of what my professors suggested as a career path for me, and to start dreaming bigger than I had to that point.

Additional Addendum, June 6, 2012, 10:36pm CST: Another old friend, Michael Austin, who was also witness to Bradbury's delightful visit to BYU, remembers an old, Bradbury-inspired poem of his. Ray would have liked it, I think:

Once upon a midnight dreary
As I pondered weak and weary
O’r many a quaint and curious volume of forbidden lore,
While I read from Bertrand Russell,
Suddenly there came a tussle
Of someone breaking down my bedroom door.
Tis, thought I, some visitor that’s breaking down my bedroom door.
Quoth the visitor, “University Standards.”

“I’m sorry to break down your door, man,
But this is not the Book of Mormon,”
Said he as he took my book and cast it on the floor,
“The thing you read is not included
On our list of novels suited,
And this sort of garbage we deplore.
We’ll let you read it, nevermore.”

“Wait,” I hastily demanded,
Aren’t we more or less commanded
In Doctrine and Covenants 109 verse 8,
To seek every form of learning,
To read all books instead of burning
Those ideas we can’t appreciate?
Quoth the Standards, “That’s not what it means.”

He looked up on my shelf of books
And frowned and said “My friend it looks
As though we’ll have to burn a whole lot more.”
Vainly, madly, I protested
As this maniac molested
All the books my father taught me to adore.
And on my shelf, he left but four.

I protested, “this is libel.”
“Shut up,” he said, “and read your Bible
And this other trash you should ignore.”
He didn’t leave a stone unturned,
Nor did he leave a book unburned,
And by the time he rose and went back out the door,
My shelf was full of. . . . ashes galore.

Now upon a midnight dreary,
I can ponder weak and weary
O’r many a dull and senseless volume of official lore.
My mind has long sense turned to Jello
All because some thoughtful fellow
Burned all my books upon the floor.
And I’ll be thinking, nevermore.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Creative Destruction and its Benefits, China-Style

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

A few weeks ago I was visited by a fellow Wichita resident who was thinking about getting into politics. We talked for a while about his education and background, about the situation here in Kansas, and about what might be involved in his finding volunteers and support. One thing he didn't lack--fortunately, for anyone with political ambitions--was money: he was a bit of an entrepreneur, and fortunately had lucked into some great opportunities in recent years in China. As we talked about his experiences in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Beijing, it became pretty clear to me--and he admitted as much forthrightly, when I asked him about it--that he'd in fact been doubly lucky: he'd been able to benefit from the chaotic and ofttimes corrupt circumstances which characterize doing business with banks and factories in southern China these days...and then he'd been able to get himself (and his money) out of those dealings, before the convoluted scheme he'd found himself helping to finance collapsed, as they do with great regularity in China these days.

That China today--and for the past twenty years, really--has been utterly transformed by pervasive booms and busts, a process of super-charged "creative destruction," as Joseph Schumpeter long ago accurately labeled it, seems like a commonplace observation. My youngest couple of daughters, just a couple of days ago, were joking about how everything was made in China, and when the revolutionary emergence of the most populous country on the planet as the primary manufacturing of half the mass-produced consumer goods on Walmart's shelves and our garages and bedrooms has become a source a casual, childish humor, what new is there to say? Not much, perhaps--at least not if you're looking at China's place as the clearing-floor of globalization in the marco, global economy sense. But the visit I received from this fellow who'd made a killing then gotten free of the rapacious capitalism of China put me in mind of a book I'd read recently, a book that looked at the "made-in-China" trope from a decidedly mirco level. The book is Leslie T. Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, and it puts a human face on a few young women out of the nearly 150 million people--nearly half as many people as live in the whole United States of America--who have become migrant workers, fleeing rural villages and economies, and traditional schooling and sexual expectations, and instead have flocked to the manufacturing centers of southern China, where they arrive mostly alone, undirected, and ambitious and open-minded and desperate beyond belief, crowding into apartments, quickly learning new jobs assembling cell phones or computer game joysticks or gas tank caps, taking night classes in English or computer programming or accounting, and somehow building lives for themselves. The book was published in 2008, so given the pace of change in China no doubt more than a few of its details are already out of date. But I found it fascinating all the same.

The primary source of my fascination with it was that so much of its story--whose broad outlines basically matched those of the stories my visitor told me--depicted a complete rejection of everything that I see my co-bloggers at Front Porch Republic taking seriously: tradition, locality, equality, and community. Chang's story (which she developed out of years of ground-level reporting for The Wall Street Journal, as well as from her story as a Chinese-American woman reconnecting with her own family's history) doesn't celebrate that rejection, though in some ways it does find it inevitable, or at least unavoidable. Mostly though, the rejection of family ties and the farming duties and traditional filial connections is simply documented, put into the reported statements and observed realities which Chang heard and saw. This rejection comes in many forms, put it essence it is repeated again and again:

Migrant workers use a simple term for the move that defines their lives: "chuqu," to go out. "There was nothing to do at home, so I went out."....Migration is emptying villages of young people. Across the Chinese countryside, those plowing and harvesting in the fields are elderly men and women, charged with running the farm and caring for the younger children who are still in school. Money sent home by migrants is already the biggest sources of wealth accumulation in rural China. Yet earning money isn't the only reason people migrate. In surveys, migrants rank "seeing the world," "developing myself," and "learning new skills" as important as increasing their incomes. In many cases, it is not crippling poverty that drives migrants out from home, but idleness. Plots of land are small and easily farmed by parents; nearly town offer few job opportunities. "There was nothing to do at home, so I went out." (Factory Girls, pp. 11-13)

Chang's observations (and her book is filled with hundreds of them, as she fleshes out her portraits of young women, in their late teens and early 20s, striving to educate, refine, and transform themselves, to better take advantage of endless opportunities for making money, being robbed, learning lessons, and starting over again) match those of studies which have been made of this phenomenon, the largest human migration in recent history. Most of those (particularly most of the women) who choose to throw off the predictable limitations of rural life and embrace the risks of migratory work, moving from one factory to another and not-infrequently from one name to another, do so mainly because staying at home and in school seemed both uninteresting and unpromising. What reason have they to stay, against the appeal of the city, especially for the ambitious and curious? What established system of mores, what reliable infrastructure of opportunity or security, what confident body of teachings or traditions, exists in the lives of the rural Chinese to overcome the capitalist lure of the dollar and the complete make-over? As Chang weaves her portraits and her own family story together, the absence of many of those countervailing communitarian weights seems, more than anything else, a legacy of the Cultural Revolution, when the parents of today's migrants were children:

For more than a century, Chinese leaders and thinkers had wrestled with how to fit their traditions into the modern world. The Cultural Revolution proposed a simple answer: Throw everything out. Over the decade that followed, radical student groups known as Red Guards beat, and sometimes killed, their own teachers. Seventeen million students went to the countryside to labor on impoverished farms, a life that rural Chinese had been fleeing for centuries. Education, long the mark of achievement and the path to mobility, was deemed "counterrevolutionary." The Cultural Revolution took everything the Chinese people had long held sacred and smashed it to pieces, like an antique vase hurled against the wall. It finished off the world of moral certainty and Confucian values into which my grandfather, and countless generations before him, had been born. (p. 160)

Partly as a result of this, Change observes, the world into which the migrants hurl themselves is one without any kind of stable system of rules or expectations: contract-breaking, dishonest job applications, faked resumes, copyright violation, false addresses, bank fraud, and more sit along alongside much more explicit and routine crimes (prostitution, theft, etc.). Those who find one or way or another of succeeding in this environment of graft, back-stabbing, and self-promotion often make no bones about the lack of moral or intellectual resources which their own identities or communities might have otherwise provided them with; they accept themselves as copying, adapting, or simply stealing, and feel it is only reasonable to do so. One of my favorite--and most head-shaking--examples of this came when Chang spoke with the one of the self-help gurus whose books fill the aisles of stores throughout southern China:

Ding Yuanzhi's bestelling book, "Square and Round," was a perversion of an American self-help book. It did not urge people to discover themselves, to look beyond material success, or to be honest about their failings and in their relationships....Instead it taught them how to do better what they already knew so well: pettiness, materialism, envy, competition, flattery, and subterfuge...."Square and Round" painted a bleak world of complicated relationships, intense workplace politics, two-faced friendships, corrupt dealings, and status-conscious bosses with absolute power over one's fate....[It] was essentially a point-by-point rejection of the virtues Chinese tradition had preached for two thousand years.

The author of this manual of unscrupulous manipulation....had come to Shenzhen in 1987....and decided to start a public relations company. "We thought it would be easy to say, 'We are China's first public relations company,'" Ding Yuanzhi told me. "We figured the commercial bureau did not know what is was, so it would be easier to get approval." The publication of "Square and Round" in 1996 was similarly unorthodox. Ding Yuanzhi did not sign a legitimate publishing contract; he simply bought a serial number from a publisher and printed and marketed the book on his own. On weekends he traveled to bookstores around Shenzhen, set up a banner and a table outside the front door, and signed books. "Square and Round" was written at a middle-school level so even factory workers could understand it. "Migrant workers need consolation in their hearts," Ding Yuanzhi said. "They need to know that success is possible. These books are a solace to them."

I asked him what he thought about the other success studies books sold in China. He hadn't read a single one. "All the books in China just take their ideas from the outside," he said. "China really has no original ideas." (pp. 196-201)

As someone who is rather passionate about the Confucian tradition which Chang depicts as often simply ignored or dismissed by the young women at the center of her story, and as someone who has even published some on the "original ideas" which that tradition conveys, this bothers me. But what bothers me the most, I must confess, is that Chang's work makes it clear that, however much abuse, confusion, frustration, misdirection, and pure waste (of money, time, talent, and plain good sense) may characterize their lives in the factories and faux-communities which have sprung up almost overnight throughout China, these girls, for the most part, nonetheless wouldn't want it any other way. They delight in having spending money of their own. They thrill in the realization of their own powers as actors without a formal script. They own up to the responsibility of providing a supplemental income to their limited families at home, and wield the authority that income gives them over their parents or friends who stayed behind with pride. Most of them recognize that their lives in Guangzhou are in many ways desperate, with most of them having to constantly watch their every step, with danger or destitution or despair as a constant possibility. But to go back to village life instead? Quite a few do, it must be said. But many more don't. Chang, a Chinese woman whose Nationalist parents fled to Taiwan when the communists triumphed in 1949, and who had lived most of her life in the United States, is sympathetic:

Staying in with Min [one of the migrant workers whose life and choices she documents, including visiting her ancestral home over the New Year holiday] in her village made me think about my own family....In America, my parents had raised my brother and and me very differently [from the traditional way they had been raised], encouraging our independence and freeing us from family obligation. My parents had not expected us to visit relatives; they never told us what we should study in school....One morning after a large family meal, I walked out alone on the muddy road toward town. I saw things I had not noticed before: a blackboard listing school fees and livestock vaccination rates, a store whose entire merchandise consisted of cigarettes and fireworks, children no more than four playing with lighters....I had been gone an hour when my mobile phone rang. "Where are you?" Min demanded. "We're all waiting for you so we can eat lunch."

I hurried back, to amazed accusations. "You didn't eat lunch! Where did you go?" "What were you doing walking on the road all by yourself?"

The Chinese countryside is not relaxing. It is a place of constant socializing and negotiation, a conversations that has been going for a long time and will continue after you are gone. Spending time in Min's village, I understood why migrants felt so alone when the first went to the city. But I also saw how they came to value the freedom they found there, until at last they were unable to live without it. (pp. 292-293)

Front Porch Republic's own Adam Webb has long been a fine traditionalist voice in the ongoing debate over what China's recent experiences suggest for the rest of the world. For sometime scholars of eastern Asia like myself, the conclusion that China's experiences suggest the obvious triumph of modernization, globalization, and atomism have been a constant refrain, emerging from bestelling books and academic conferences alike, and finding ratification in the observations of reporters like Chang. Webb has long noted this, having once described eastern Asia as "occupying a crucial place in the psyche of today's atomists" and as the "universal atomists' dream region" (Webb, Beyond the Global Culture War [Routledge, 2006], p. 124). For a long time, I saw myself as very much on Webb's side; I wanted to argue for a fuller and deeper appreciation of the possibilities for a Confucian revival in China and elsewhere, to effectively respond to the get-rich atomism and re-invent-yourself individualism which has stepped into the moral vacuum of Chinese life and unleashed such a magnitude of capitalist dislocation and creative destruction that, among other things, China has been transformed in less than a generation into the world's worst polluter, and resulted in dramatic increases in inequality. Against this, I wanted to think more about how Confucian traditions might directly challenge such awful developments; I wanted to see Chinese premodernity (perhaps when combined with some Western postmodernity) acting to provide a neo-traditionalist alternative to the ravages of modern life.

I still hope for this, at least to some degree. But I'm not sure I'm so comfortable with the way Webb and other traditionalist elide, at least as I (perhaps inaccurately) read them, the brute fact of technological and structural change in the construction of what is and isn't traditionally viable (much less desirable) in the lives of men and (especially) women. When Webb speaks of the status of women in a world that might be shaped by a Confucian revival, he rightly notes that we need to consider traditions as bearers of the means by which different people, in different time and different places, have attempted to inculcate, construct, or maintain virtuous lives--and hence we need to form our critiques around the virtuous point of the practices by which traditions were embodied, rather than simply fixing ourselves upon the (obviously often historically rather misogynistic) practices themselves. But I wonder if that doesn't go far enough. In a comment to that post of Webb's, I brought up the issue of technology, and how the changing contextual infrastructure through and within which people build their lives have to be considered if those of us interested in the power of local traditions want to bring the virtuous substance of those traditional ideas into conversation with the lives that are actually being built in Gunagzhou or Dongguan or anywhere else. That contextual infrastructure can be something as simple as the mobile phone, which in the lives of the young women Chang profiles takes on awesome importance as they establish (or reject) their identity in the midst of ever-changing networks of friends, colleagues, lovers, clients, and bosses. Or it could be something huge, like the steps China took in the late 1970s and 1980s to respond to the chaotic aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, on the one hand imposing draconian controls over family size (thus making it essential that children be wage-earners rather than simply maintainers of the family plot of land), while on the other hand greatly loosening the hukuo system that had been imposed a generation earlier to classify Chinese citizens as rural or urban (thus making it possible for large numbers of the former to become the latter). For women, in particular, the consequences of these changes have been monumental...and hardly uniformly "awful," as I once tended to believe. There was something condescending about that belief, something that failed to respect the reality that hundreds of millions of Chinese people were voting with their feet, and even if it is the case that economic destruction beyond their control is forcing most of it, the fact remains that, having voted, a not insignificant number of those people--many of them women who had never experienced this kind of individual liberty before--a building something with their choices. It may not be particularly beautiful what they are building, but it is their own, and that's something. Whereas the Confucian tradition, and the virtuous insights it may be seen to provide into how young women (and young men, and fathers and mothers, and everyone else too) might be able to order their lives--that isn't theirs, even if it is still part of them. Some balance must be struck, and perhaps if finding that balance requires some destruction...well, I'm no Panglossian; I don't think everything works out the way it is supposed to. But then there are Chang's young migrant girls, and more than a few are making their transformed, deconstructed and reconstructed lives work, and I have to acknowledge that.

Chang writes near her conclusion:

Learning my family story changed the way I saw the factory towns of the south. There was a lot to dislike about the migrant wold of Min and Chunming; the materialism, the corruption, the coarseness of daily existence. But now there was an opportunity to leave your village and change your fate, to imagine a different life and make it real. The journey my grandfather attempted was one that millions of young people now made every day--they left home; they entered an unfamiliar land; they worked hard....[T]heir purpose was not to change China's fate. They were concerned with their own destinies, and they made their own decisions. If it was an ugly world, at least it was their own. Perhaps China during the twentieth century had to go so terribly wrong so that people could start over, this time pursuing their individual courses and casting aside the weight of family, history, and the nation. For a long time I though of Dongguan as a city with no past, but now I realize it isn't so. The past has been there all along, reminding us: This time--maybe, hopefully, against all odds--we will get it right. (p. 383)

That is probably a ridiculously optimistic and simplistic conclusion--but then, speaking as I am as the as the descendant of immigrants, as I presume nearly all of those Caucasians (as well as many others) who read this in the United States are also, wasn't there likely a fair amount of ridiculous, simplistic optimism in the mind of someone, somewhere in my past as well, not to mention a little bit of destruction of tradition? That doesn't excuse not thinking about what is lost, but maybe it's a reminder that (especially when we are dealing with those who have usually suffered at least as much as they have benefited from the traditions in question) we ought to focus on what is being still carries and what is being built anew by those who have thrown the past off to move on.

So What's Kevin Spacey Been Doing Lately?

Apparently, he got together with these guys, and the result was...

...a quite awesome little comedy...

...a tight psychological drama, which I kept expecting to turn into a horror video, but never did...

...and a masterful sweet-and-spooky tale, comparable to some of the best old Twilight Zone episodes.

You can't deny it; man knows how to choose and make even better some great work.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Heaven In My Hands"

I guess I just can't stop giving myself a soundtrack to my own life. So that means that I've gone without some sort of regular music on this blog for too long. But what can I do next? I've done lyrics. I've done videos. What's left? Ah yes--as my own viewing habits have made clear, there's live music. Live music as recorded and embedded on the internet, that is.

Oh well--whatever. I hereby inaugurate a new feature (which will long? through the summer, anyway): live recordings of great music that I find online, and that I love. Let me begin with one of my absolute favorites from Level 42, a band that, in its prime, proved that a slick keyboard-and-bass-heavy pop band from England can be as brassy and as funky as anything that ever came out of Memphis: