Monday, September 02, 2013

My APSA Report, 2013

It's been a while since I've written any reflections on the American Political Science Association's annual meeting--in part, I suppose, because I don't get out to them as often as I used to. But I was back this year--originally, to meet with an editor at a university press about possibly turning my current research project (on what I am grandiosely calling "the political theory of mid-sized cities"), and then, at the last minute, to serve as a left-leaning contrarian commenter on a commemorative panel honoring the work of the recently deceased George Carey, a well-known traditionalist conservative interpreter of the American founding. (I should note that that particular panel, which was held early Saturday morning and was sparsely attended, and which resulted in a near brawl between Bruce Frohnen and Barry Alan Shain over how one should read James Madison's contributions to The Federalist Papers, was, from my point of view, an utter delight.) Along the way, I managed to connect with a lot of fine scholars and get myself, as is always the case, jazzed up and excited by and intrigued over what my fellow academics are thinking, writing, and debating about. (Most surprising discovery: on a fairly quick and not-at-all-thorough perusal of the exhibit hall, I came upon a half-dozen new books all, in one way or another, attacking or at least challenging the usually sacrosanct notions of individual autonomy and choice. Obviously, people have been studying their Sigal Ben-Porath.) So it was a fine weekend, all around.

What did I bring home with me? A bunch of books, and a few really thought-provoking arguments which will keep me thinking for a while. First, the books:

G.A. Cohen, Finding Oneself in the Other (a collection of essays, some of which I already had, but it's nice to have them all together)
Christian Coons and Micahel Weber, eds., Paternalism: Theory and Practice
Fred Dallmayr, Return to Nature: An Ecological Counterhistory
Fred Dallmary and Zhao Tingyang, eds., Contemporary Chinese Political Thought: Debates and Perspectives
Michael L. Frazer, The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today (I had dinner with Michael on Friday with several other scholars, and he wanted in to know may take on his Herder chapter--so of course I had to buy it)
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years (I tried reading this book before, but failed; maybe if I actually have a copy, I'll be able to get through it)
David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (our Honor Program here at Friends University is using this book this year, and since I'll be lecturing in the Honors class twice, I suppose I ought to actually read it myself)
Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: American After Meritocracy
Peter Levine, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For (I've wanted to read one of Peter's books for ages; my one real disappointment this past APSA meeting was that he was there, giving a couple of presentations, and I wasn't able to make it to either)
Eric MacGilvray, The Invention of Market Freedom (looks like a really fascinating book, but I can't figure out if I should shelve it with the history of political thought, republicanism, or political economy)
Philip Pettit, On the People's Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy
David Schell and John Delury, Wealth and Power: China's Long Marsh to the Twenty-First Century
Richard Sennett, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation
Gordon S. Wood, The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History
Gordon S. Wood, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States (I'm neither a historian of U.S. history nor someone who is particularly specialized in American political thought, but Wood is one of those authors you can rarely go wrong with)

Next, the arguments. I'll mention three: 

As I mentioned above, my current research project is leading me to think about communities--large, small, and in-between--in much more concrete terms than I have before. This has meant, among other things, that I didn't just haunt my usual political theory panels at APSA; I spent some time trying to familiarize myself with the discussions in urban political science as well. And in one really fascinating panel, talking about how various cities and societies have dealt with (or been overwhelmed by) rapid changes in population, one scholar--Christopher Berry, from the University of Chicago--advanced some truly counter-intuitive data about the growth of government. From his examination of aggregated county reports, it appears that the explosion in government spending in recent years has been primarily local, rather than state or federal, and moreover that such local spending seems to increase regardless of population declines in metro areas. He ran through a variety of typical explanations of this trend (e.g., "it's the unions fault!"), and demonstrated how they don't fit the data. The push-back he received from various commenters revealed some explanations he didn't account for (the federal government off-loading unfunded mandates on cities, for example), but even there he had at least partial replies. All in all, a question that I think--assuming my own project touches on the relative sustainability of legitimate governance in cities of various sizes--that I'll have to wrestle with at some point.

In a later panel, I finally was able to meet Benjamin Hertzberg, a fellow Mormon scholar and political theorist who has written some really interesting arguments dealing with political theology and church-state relations. In a paper he presented as part of an engaging, wide-ranging panel (at which I finally was able to meet Lew Daly for the first time; he actually grabbed on to me afterward, and wanted to talk about the history of Mormon collectivist economics), he made a fascinating--but, I think, profoundly limited--argument: that the models of deliberative democracy can show us how to justify certain ways of accounting for religious discourse and change in a pluralistic society. Basically, as more participants enter a conversation about values, the more facets of distinct reasons emerge, and while two opponents in a religious or moral stand-off may never see ground to compromise with each other, for reason of their opposing faith claims, an opposition which is constituted of three or four or five discussants, all of whom express their faith claims slightly differently, open up more room for persuasion. I actually really liked his argument--except that I found it rather "Protestant," dependent upon the multiplicity of expressions of moral convictions and values from one individual to the next, and not accounting very well for those who found their faith claims on assertions of  authority, as is the case with orthodox Catholics and Mormons. Both the discussant and I presented this to Ben, and for a short while, the panel turned into an inside-baseball Mormon discussion about the politics behind my and his church's official decision in 1978 to end the exclusion of African-Americans from Mormonism's lay priesthood. Ben didn't satisfy my doubts with his account, but he got me thinking more about our own religious history--which is what these conferences are all about, right?

Finally, the last panel I was able to get to before heading out on Saturday afternoon was a cool consideration of various non-Western approaches to cultural, epistemic, and political change and transformation. I had to leave before Farah Godrej finished her comments of the papers, and thus didn't hear the panelists' responses or get to ask any questions of my own, so my thoughts here are less complete. But I was particularly engaged by--as is always the case, it seems--Leigh Jenco's creative re-discoverings and re-readings of Chinese thinkers, activists, and scholars that are either mostly unknown in English-language scholarship or else have been filed away in one ideological category or another. The 1930s Chinese writers which Leigh focused in particular on suggested a continuum in how we should think about cultural change, ranging from an affirmative totalization (which traditionally has taken the form of one sort of Western imperialism or another), to a "parcelization," in which it is affirmed that certain practices, ideas, texts, or elements can be taken from one cultural context and grafted on to another, without by so doing affecting the fundamentals of the first culture. I really would have liked to have been able to ask Leigh more explicitly how she thought such an idea fitted alongside Kwame Anthony Appiah's famous argument about "contamination"--which used Chinese foot-binding as one of its primary examples as well. Is it really possible to conceive of distinct cultural practices as "parcelable" chunks which can be appropriated, without connection to a broad network of other assumptions? Maybe, maybe not. As always, the argument raises as many questions as it settles.

Well, there was more to the conference than that--there was spending time in a part of Chicago which was new to me, and catching up with old friends, and eating pâté for the first time. But that's enough of a report for now. Now, I need to put all these books away, and figure out what I'm teaching tomorrow.

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