Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving Morning Live Music: "Thanks A Lot"

I realized early this morning, while extracting the giblets from our now thawed turkey, that it had been ten years since I last shared these sentiments on Thanksiving Day. So here it is again.

I'm a lucky man. The Fox family has a home, we have our health, and--often, anyway--we have a lot of genuine happiness. We're all together this holiday, and we also have many friends and large families spread all over, a small portion of which will be spending Thanksgiving with us this year. We have traditions that, however silly they may seem, bring meaning to our lives. We have our faith, however inconsistent and complicated our experience of it is. In the midst of a world filled with anger and confusion and disagreement and violence and despair, we have--if I am honest with myself, anyway--only minimal amounts of any of the above. We are, in short, very lucky, and have much to be thankful for. My holiday wish is that many of you, in your own distinct ways, will be able to say much the same.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Obama, Immigration, and Why I am Not (Much of) a Constitutionalist

So, if you haven't seen the SNL video which this image comes from, go watch it here right now. I'll wait.

It's a simplistic and unfair--what did you expect? it's Saturday Night Live!--depiction of the debate over President Obama's executive order on immigration last week, but it gets the heart of the whole legal and political argument. Executive orders have been around as long as the American presidents have, but as our national government has increasingly broken down and executive orders have--predictably--grown in size and scope to fill the gap, more and more people have paid critical attention to the way they allow presidents to, in essence if not in actually, make law. Regarding Obama's order, plenty of people's opinions are quite clear: the president has crossed a Rubicon and become "an elected Caesar, a Cheney for liberalism, a president unbound." Do I disagree? Partly, but only partly; I really do think his action, however beneficial on its merits or legal on the basis of relevant statutes, was unconstitutional--or at the very least, involved what I called elsewhere "a rather, shall we say, impressive expansion of presidential authority."

My comments sparked a fair amount of debate on my own blog and, particularly, following a very thoughtful and critical post by my friend David Watkins. To respond, let me try to explain myself more clearly by way of a few key questions:

1) What is the difference between constitutionality and legality, and do I think one is prior to the other?
2) What does procedural traditions, norms, and precedents have to do with either of those?
3) What specific norms do I think Obama's action violated, in light of the actually existing history of executive orders?
4) Isn't it irresponsible to toss around terms like "unconstitutional" in our current political climate anyway?

So let me try to work some of these out, beginning with the first two put together:

1 & 2) "Constitutionalism" is usually used to denote the idea that those individuals and entities in possession of governmental authority are circumscribed in their use of governmental power by and agreed upon rule of law. In the American case, the rule of law is--for most citizens anyway--understood as very much bound up with the idea of popular sovereignty, so much so that it becomes easy for most Americans to identify the U.S. Constitution, as supposedly that which provides the means by which the will of the people, with the rule of law itself. Obviously there are some who disagree; for example, a small but not insignificant minority of Americans see the Constitution as properly reflecting the rule of law in a Biblical or explicitly Christian sense. But either way, the assumption is usually that constitutions are a function of the rule of law. I disagree. As David noted in his post, the idea of law itself is an "essentially contested concept"; I would say the same for constitutionalism, which I see as rather distinct from, and likely actually parasitic upon the idea of law. My guiding lights here are such radical democratic--and Arendtian--political theorists as Hannah Pitkin, Melissa Williams, Douglas Lummis, and especially Sheldon Wolin. For all of these folks, to one degree or another, a close study of the history of constitutions--both American and otherwise--seems to suggest that the last thing they involve is a concern with what David called "the interactions of the different parts of government with the governed," and instead focus overwhelmingly on establishing preventative rules so as to protect individuals and property from invasive government action. Here's Wolin:

Stated simply, American thinkers conceived a constitution primarily in terms of legal limits and procedural requirements for a selected set of institutions which were then identified as "government" and declared to be formally separated from social institutions of class, status, religion, and economy. Ideologically, the formal separation was justified on liberal grounds; that is, it promoted political equality, toleration, and private rights, especially those of property....

[A constitution] becomes one only when it is put into practice. Practices consist, first, in offices that designate the location of authority and, second, procedures or formalities that legitimate the exercise of power. There is, however, more to "high offices." They are publicly visible, and those who hold them not only are said to discharge an office's responsibilities but also to perform the office. High political office is a symbolic per(form)ance. Those who hold them are expected to display public virtues and to preserve public formalities. The authority of [constitutional] office is, therefore, both a right to power and a rite of power....

Modern constitutionalism, from Hobbes and Locke to Rawls and Nozick, has developed its notions of citizenship almost exclusively through the language of contract. Although that tradition of political argument puts great stock in the notion of "performance," what it means by performances is the virtual opposite of its political-cultural meaning. To perform a contract is to complete it....It is not a question of special skills but of knowing what a promise is and then of discharging it. (Wolin, The Presence of the Past [1989], pp. 13, 85)

So what do I take from all that? I conclude that whatever the popular imagination invests in our Constitution, in function what it really does is serve to discipline the democratic wishes of the American people so that their expectations that their rights and property will be protected depend upon the procedural performance of those invested with high office. David makes use the arguments of political philosopher Jeremy Waldron to claim that the law, as something which is both knowable and reliable, is empowering of the freedom of citizens, and I don't dispute that reading at all (as David knows, I'm quite a fan of Waldron). But I think it's beside the point. When we speak of "unconstitutional acts," we're invariably speaking of whether or not someone in high office has performed an act in such a way as to show that she or he has respected the distinct and limited (and limiting!) terms of our supposed contract with them.

I don't think speaking in that way is itself a bad thing; on the contrary, I recognize that constitutionalism, as the above makes clear, has historically been an enormously powerful tool in promoting the liberal imagination and providing substance to basic individual rights and protections. But I don't think it's the only such tool available to us in the history of political thought; I think fundamental guarantees of personal liberty can be realized just as well in more parliamentary or populists contexts--and with the added advantage that such "uncodified" governing frameworks are far less likely to get caught up in myths about the rule of law and the will of the people than is the case with our founding document. However, for better or worse that's not the regime which we have--despite changes in party, electoral, and legislative structures pushing us in those more democratic directions, we are still governed by a constitutional framework, with all its attendant expectations. To insist, in opposition to the logic contained within this conceptual package, that an action which is allowable within existing statutes but which is performed in a way that violates symbolic precedents and procedural norms which that come to be assumed over the passage of time must nonetheless be defended as "constitutional" is to, I think, work against the grain which shapes the whole appeal of constitutionalism for many in the first place. It seems to me, to the contrary of this position, that it is entirely possible (indeed important, stuck as we unfortunately are with our present system of government) to insist that an action can be both legal and unconstitutional. That is it may, on the one hand, fulfill our democratic concept of law--as in this case, by making the administration of immigration policy more knowable and reliable, lessening its ambiguity and increasing the policy's clarity and match to widely recognized preferences--but also, on the other hand, show disrespect for (admittedly, always evolving) informal expectations and procedural rites that, however frivolous they may seem to those in favor of the administrative improvement, are nonetheless entirely a piece in the way both parties employ (and have always employed) the rhetoric of "unconstitutionality."

3) So, having written at length about procedural rites, symbolic precedents, and other stuff which many commenters dismissed as so much "woo," let's get to brass tacks: what is it that makes this particular executive order such an impressive and challenging leap in administrative authority? The simple fact that it was taken in wake of a midterm election where President Obama's party suffered numerous defeats, and in the face of fierce (and, let it said, essentially incoherent) opposition from the party which will take control of Congress in less than two months' time. Yes, of course I know we don't have a parliamentary system and that the president's executive authority stands independent of Congress; and yes, I also know that Congress has been abandoning its legislative responsibility for decades. Still, like it or not, the contorted fiction we tell ourselves about the will of the people has created assumptions about what we mean when we speak of something being "constitutional" or not. To make use of a common example which many who have supported Obama have invoked--when President Reagan and the first President Bush ordered extensive administrative changes (though, it must be said, not as extensive as Obama's) to just who was and was not going to be subject to America's immigration law in 1987 and 1990, it was following immediately in the footsteps of the 1986 comprehensive immigration reform passed by Congress and signed by the president. And so it goes back through history, or at least 20th-century history (the Civil War is obvious a pretty unique and precedent-setting case on its own): the president is presumed to be able to responsibly take direct executive action, however outrageous (and President Roosevelt's orders, for example, were often very outrageous), in conformity with recent popular, political, and/or partisan support. This isn't a democratic defense of those executive orders, but simply an observation that I think is indisputable: whatever theories we employs to shape our conceptions of government, our regime--like many other constitutional democratic regimes--our quick to swallow abuses of constitutional limits if they are done in a way which conforms with symbolic representations of the people's supposed will. (Does this mean that I think that the push-back against Obama would have been less if he'd taken this executive action before the election, or ideally immediately after the last failed attempt by Senate Democrats to get House Republicans to allow a vote? I certainly do.)

4) Finally, about the appropriateness of this kind of language: shouldn't those of us who are critical of the president's action, but supportive of its administrative consequences (and even, in my case at least, supportive of its legality) stop using the term "unconstitutional," since that is just red meat for the president's opponents? Perhaps...but then again, how can we make our point otherwise? We've seen a major executive reach into the administration of our immigration laws, done on the authority of one man and one man alone. That's not good for democratic self-government. Those kind of administrative invasions into the substance of our laws can be made acceptable and legitimate, if our governing institutions reflected the contesting interests of the voting population in a more populist or parliamentarian manner. But as we don't have those kind of institutions, those who dislike legislative overreach--even if legal!--have to content themselves with falling back on the ritual language of "unconstitutionality." That is, Obama certainly isn't a tyrant in any substantive sense (yes, I was engaging in hyperbole), but he's been forced and/or incentivized into disregarding constitutional norms, however flaky the relationship of those norms to democracy actually are, and those flaky traditions are one of the main controls we have left. Should Obama be able to point to the fact that, in regards to immigration at least, Congress has become far more dysfunctional, and the parties far more uncompromising and therefore legislatively incapable, than was the case 25 years ago? I absolutely think so. But, given the norms we have, I think he should also be obliged to recognize the legitimacy of those who say what he has done as unconstitutional, if only to press the case that, given how our electoral and party systems are ruining their own ability to govern, it was inevitable that unconstitutionality would increasingly become a norm for presidents, if it hasn't already.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Recognizing the Religion of Total Security, and Its Costs

KiddiedangerThere are relatively few developments in the world's present socio-economic and cultural moment that give me much hope--but one of them is the increased frequency in which I see people talking about this:

Insurance underwriters are merely the high priests of what has become our new American religion: the Cult of Kiddie Danger. It is founded on the unshakable belief that our kids are in constant danger from everyone and everything....The Cult’s dogma is taught diligently unto our children who are not allowed to use Chapstick unless it is administered by the school nurse, nor sunscreen, lest they quaff it and die of poisoning, nor, for the same reason, soft soap in pre-k. It doesn't matter that these fears are wildly at odds with reality. They are religious beliefs, not rational ones....

In a society that believes children are in constant danger, the Good Samaritans are often terrible people. So, recently, when a woman in Austin noticed a 6-year-old playing outside, she asked him where he lived, walked him home (it was just down the hill), and chastised the mom, Kari Anne Roy, for not being careful enough. Then this Samaritan called the Inquisitors. Er...cops. An officer showed up at Roy's doorstep and despite the fact that the crime rate today is at a 50-year-low, a CPS investigator was also dispatched to interview all three of Roy's children. She asked Roy's 8-year-old if her parents had ever shown her movies with people's private parts. "So my daughter, who didn't know that things like that exist, does now," says Roy. "Thank you, CPS."

Of course, calling out this kind of backyard hysteria for the demeaning, infantilizing, civility-destroying cult that it is doesn't solve any problems: there is still the reality that whole private industries and dozens of governmental agencies (some federal and state, but most, unfortunately, are local) contribute to preserving the whole infrastructure of paranoia. I've written about this before, as have many others, so I suppose the only reason I'm (slightly) hopeful is because in regards to this trend, unlike so many others, there are still actually things individual families can do. Namely, let your children play. Make noise--and enlist other parents in making that noise--at school board and PTSA meetings. I really do believe that there are enough parents out there who still remember fondly the lack of structures and restrictions which characterized their (our!) childhood in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that, if you're willing to take a chance, make your voice heard, and be an example, you'll discover an audience nearly as fed up as you are.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Lawyers, Guns & Money"

Because I'm being made to think hard this evening by David Watkins, a friend and longtime Lawyers, Guns & Money blogger, here's Jackson Browne singing the Warren Zevon classic:

Friday, November 21, 2014

Mid-Sized Meditations #6: Anarchism, Global Citites, and a Confucian Cosmopolitan Education

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

So, as I mentioned, I recently attended a conference in Nanjing, China, hosted by the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and organized by fellow Front Porch Republic member, Adam Webb. You can read a short summary of the conference here; for my part, in the midst of meeting new people and seeing new places, I found it a wonderful opportunity to reflect on cities on a very different--and far more cosmopolitan--scale than has been the case in most of my work on urban communities so far. Specifically, it made me thing about "global cities"--and whether there might be a sense in which a world dominated by connections between them, rather than by state governments, might open up some genuine anarchic possibilities of the sort any localist ought to be attentive to. I am including a parsed down version of my presentation at that conference here:

Numerous scholars from a variety of different perspectives in political theory, urban studies, and international relations have, over the past several years, surprisingly come to rather similar conclusions, whether implicitly or explicitly. First, they argue that the classic Westphalian nation-state, with its attendant notions of territoriality and sovereignty, simply cannot adequately respond to the challenges which contemporary developments in globalization pose. Sovereign states, these scholars claim, inevitably frame problems which are transnational in scope--such as climate change, economic inequality, ideologically motivated terrorism, and more--in terms of state bureaucratic interests which the speed and multidimensionality of contemporary technology, trade, and communication have rendered at best inefficient, at worst irrelevant. Presumably therefore, a new system or basis for global governance must be conceived. Second, they argue that the basic elements for this new system are already in place, and have been in place for a long time: cities. Globalization has enabled commercial and informational transactions--as well as the flow of peoples and goods--to proceed along lines which are increasingly distinct from sovereign borders, and cities are the social and economic hubs through which all these transactions and flows are made manifest. Hence, the coming post-sovereign world order will necessarily be city-centric, which will to a degree be a return to the roots of Western political thought--with its emphasis upon the polis, or the classic city-state. These cities will, of course, not resemble those idealized republican communities; the global cities of today and the foreseeable future will be, for the most part, sprawling megacities with huge populations and massive wealth, containing within them the headquarters of multinational corporations, government agencies, and major financial institutions, and providing jobs for millions of people employed in finance, insurance, real estate, banking, accountancy, marketing, and all their supporting industries. It is cities of this sort, if the aforementioned scholars are correct, which will form the nodes of the cosmopolitan order of the 21st century and beyond.

There is a great deal which this evolution of globalization forces us to reflect upon, both theoretically and practically. Here, I ask only two inter-related questions. The first is what a move away from global assumptions which prioritize the history and capacities of territorial states, and towards one which prioritizes an interlocked networks of commercial cities, will mean for how we think about freedom and order. The second is the how to find, in that different sense of order, the sort of civic resources which notions of popular government have long depended, and whether classic Confucian ideas about education might suggest an answer.

First, regarding the nature of freedom in such a potential future, one frequently repeated theme in the literature on this topic is that a post-sovereign, city-centric perspective will be more open to the many overlapping and inconsistent ways in which social and economic order are realized in the life of cities. Of course, that assumes that “post-sovereignty” and “order” are, in fact, compatible, which is debatable; it has long been assumed by many observers that outside of very small and very homogeneous communities, claims of sovereign power--that is, in the Weberian sense, the successful centralization of the legitimate use of force in rationally determined hands--is inseparable from any kind of social ordering. I dissent from this assumption, but rather than explaining my dissent at length, I will simply note the work of Michael Taylor who, in his analysis of the Weberian state, makes it clear that sovereignty cannot really mean an actual monopoly on the use of all physical force, thus underlining the importance of Weber’s qualifiers “successful” and “legitimate.” After all, no sovereign state, no matter how totalitarian, has ever been able to effectively regulate and harness all the possible forms of physical discipline, intimidation, rough-housing, or boundary-maintenance that human beings can conceive--and as much as we may fear criminal violence, very likely every citizen of modern democratic states is grateful for that fact. Taylor thus concludes that sovereignty, in the classic state sense, is in practice tied up with the concentration of force and the attempt by those in whose hands it is concentrated to specialize in its use.

If we adjust our thinking about to fit this perspective--one in which sovereignty is recognized as involving primarily the rather narrow delegation of coercive power into the hands of a specialized group of individuals--then we can all recognize the real world of cities today, in which numerous non-sovereign authorities and bodies contest each other over numerous overlapping jurisdictions and agendas. City life is, in this sense, profoundly anarchic, often frustrating ambiguous and changeable, with systems of ordered regulation and practice emerging and disappearing both officially and organically, all of which are regularly dependent upon individual initiatives (whether formal or informal) or small factional coordination. For some, the prospect of such inconsistent urbanity characterizing the global order of passports, airports, and shipping containers is terrifying. For others, however, it captures an important element of freedom. In Western political thought, classical republican thinkers are in the former camp, seeing in the complexity, unpredictableness, and pace of cities something which ultimately invites invasive regulation, dependency, and the loss of civic virtue. Though they would express it differently, more than a few anarchist authors have put forward similar concerns about the “mass man” which modern urbanity has introduced. But many liberal thinkers have long taken a contrary position, depicting the opportunities of city life as that which liberates individuals from poverty and social oppression. Steven Schneck captures this individualistic attitude well:

[C]onsider a line between “city” and “village.” The line is drawn well by that apocryphal 15th century peasant who claims that “Die Stadtluft macht frei!” Consider the tension revealed here between the qualities perceived in village life and those anticipated in the city. Village represents a smothering community. An homogeneity of tastes, styles and desires is inscribed on each villager’s soul by an intrusive familiarity that begins in the cradle. The village represents a life lived with intimate, ubiquitous authorities wherein all is public. City, for our peasant, offers the heterogeneity of anonymity and the possibility of private spaces resistant to intrusive, public scrutiny found in village life. In the peasant’s ideal of the city there is room for private space and authority is formal, not intimate or personal....Consider Athens on the eve of Alexander’s empire; note the distance between the experiences of its occupants and the polis of Aristotle’s Politics. For the 75,000 people who left their villages and communities for the Stadtluft of Athens’s Piraeus the appeal of city life was not corporate hierarchy and communal place. The city was not sought for its public space so much as for its private space. They saw city life as desirable for the space it offered that was relatively free from the suffocating presence of community as experienced in their village living.

The urban writings of scholars such as Jane Jacobs and Richard Sennett have explored this idea or a "heterogeneity of anonymity" at length, arguing that city life makes possible a kind of “disordered order.” For the purposes, this observation leads then to the question of what kind of civic resources can be found in the midst of such a heterogeneous, city-centric context. Assuming that some kind of non-sovereign, non-specialized social order in regards to governmental and public concerns will still be needed, we as citizens--or, as many of these scholars prefer, “residents”--will need some means of being socialized to those requirements. Throughout the history of Westphalian order, civic education played that role; here, I wonder if classical Confucian education might not provide one.

The Confucian tradition is, of course, strongly associated with moral education. But that education in particular ritual practices and social understandings, while obviously deeply rooted in a particular kind of ethical conception, is also profoundly civil. That is, it instructs people in a kind of belonging, in being part of a civil order. This is not, to be sure, the same as the civic ideal, which was to inculcate into citizens a specific affection for and attachment to the state which granted them citizenship, and from that affection and attachment make it possible for the civic virtues necessary for responsible popular government–including social trust, a sense of service, and a devotion to the common good--to arise. One cannot simply translate this tradition into a context where state citizenship has either disappeared or at least has taken a back seat to a networked governmental system of numerous cities around the globe. It is true that some scholars, like Martha Nussbaum, argue that civic virtues of the Western tradition are in fact cosmopolitan in character, but this is not a persuasive claim. The prophets of a more anarchic, more interdependent, postmodern world of cities need to present an argument for attachment that would be not at all connected to sovereign civic constructions, but rather to a kind of abiding civil constructivity, one that could be collectively realized in the diverse circumstances of an overlapping and world-wide urban order.

Words like “anarchy,” “interdependent,” and “postmodern” probably do not strike most non-specialists as at all relatable to Confucianism, which has been long assumed to be traditional, hierarchical, and indeed, in many ways, perfectly amendable to ideas of sovereign domination. But while there are many historical reasons to support this assumption, the philosophical reasons to do so are not nearly so conclusive. The scholarship on Confucian thought and practice is far less conservative than many would at first believe. Rather than attempting to summarize it, let me briefly explain how these Confucian ideals, contained in its particular educational tradition, can relate to the needs of a non-state-based, non-civic, broadly civil context, by way of quoting a passage from the Confucian classic, The Great Learning:

The ancients who wished to manifest their clear character to the world would first bring order to their states. Those who wished to bring order to their states would first regulate their families. Those who wished to regulate their families would first cultivate their personal lives. Those who wished to cultivate their personal lives would first rectify their minds. Those who wished to rectify their minds first make their wills sincere. Those who wished to make their wills sincere would first extend their knowledge. The extension of knowledge consists in the investigation of things. When things are investigated, knowledge is extended; when knowledge is extended, the will becomes sincere; when the will is sincere, the mind is rectified; when the mind is rectified, the personal life is cultivated; when the personal life is cultivated, the family will be regulated; when the family is regulated, the state will be in order; and when the state is in order, there will be peace throughout the world. From the Son of Heaven down to the common people, all must regard cultivation of the personal life as the root or foundation.

Now all of these steps are hierarchical; that is undeniable. But they are also more than merely hierarchical. L.H.M. Ling argues that the best interpretation of these steps in connection to the larger civil order is to analyze them along two axes: a “vertical-moral” one, reflecting the authority of the cultural-linguistic core embodied in those who become educated as to the virtuous performance of their place within a given community (as a parent, child, friend, minister, etc., reflecting here the Confucian doctrine of the Five Bonds), as well as a “horizontal-geographic” one, reflecting the physical space, and its relation to other spaces, that a given community literally occupies. Looking at the history of Chinese political relations with other states throughout the centuries where Confucian teachings defined the official policies of the empire, Ling sees multiple layers of sociality (“vassals,” “neighbors,” etc.), leading her to the conclusion that, within the Confucian tradition, “territorial borders” were in fact “instantiations of social borders.”

Membership in a state--identifying oneself as a citizen of a particular state, in other words--would therefore, as incorporated into this kind of education and "civilizing" scheme, be an incidental byproduct of the more primary task of coming to a knowledge of and properly naming one’s own social relations; the consequences of such an educated realization and performance of one’s nature would then extend both upwards and downwards (implying, to borrow the terms of political science, a solidifying of legitimacy betwixt the government and the governed, whether in a family, an office, an association, or an empire), as well as outwards (implying solidarity and mutual collective identification with ones fellow members). These are virtues wholly relevant to the maintenance of any particular civic body, though they are, in this case, substantively “civil” in nature, and do not make state citizenship a necessary prerequisite to their expression.

Moreover, to continue with ideas that draw upon the study of politics, one might argue that the dimensions which such ritually informed relationships and communities involve all educated individuals in--a moralistic, and therefore vertical or hierarchical, one, as well as a spatial, and therefore horizontal or social, one as well--invoke a “constitutionalist dimension” along with an “educative” one. The discipline of a Confucian education, when fully and linguistically performed, takes the form of “institutional mechanisms” which both establish a disciplined relationship between the governed and the government, and educated a people into a proper regard for (and expectation of) the restraint and reach of that government. This is all highly speculative, of course. But it does suggest, for those who may be concerned about such things, that the eclipse of a state-based sovereign order, and its gradual replacement with a more anarchic and interdependent city-based one, need not mean the end of constitutionalism or even most civic virtues. Assuming we can find a way to slowly, haphazardly accept an ethic of civil order, a world of cities might not only be more free in an individualistic sense than our current one, but it might not be lacking in the blessings of membership and mutuality as well.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

There's Actually a Name for Those People, Secretary Kobach

As the hysteria over President Obama's upcoming and, sadly, rather run-of-the-mill abuse of presidential power over immigration policies builds to a fever pitch, let us hear some clarifying words from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach:

"The long term strategy of, first of all, replacing American voters with illegal aliens, recently legalized, who then become U.S. citizens....There is still a decided bias in favor of bigger government not smaller government. So maybe this strategy of replacing American voters with newly legalized aliens, if you look at it through an ethnic've got a locked in vote for socialism."

There is more at the link which features Kobach speculating thoughtfully, in response to a caller who asks about the possibility of Hispanic immigrants engaging in a murderous ethnic cleansing of Caucasians, about the rule of law in America, but let's stick with the quotation above, and one slight problem with it. Not the presumption that all these poor Hispanic immigrants are going to vote for expanding government programs, nor the (incorrect) assumption that expanded government programs is the same thing as "socialism," but rather just the language Secretary Kobach uses. You see, if you are an "illegal alien" whose residency in this country is "legalized," such that you are now a "U.S. citizen" who can "vote for socialism" (or whatever), well, then that means you are what is usually called an "American voter." And additional "American voters"--even "newly legalized" ones (and by the way, you can't call them "newly legalized aliens," because by virtue of being "newly legalized" they aren't "aliens" any longer, but "Americans")--cannot possibly be understood as "replacing" other "American voters" because they are "American voters."

Unless, I suppose, Secretary Kobach was suggesting that Hispanics immigrants who "become U.S. citizens" and vote still aren't really "American voters," but rather are something else. I'm sure that was just a slip of the tongue, however. I mean, who could possibly mean something as silly as that?

Rank Your Favorite Presidential Tyrants!

With only hours to go until President Obama presents his executive order that will--unless he pulls a fast one on his Republican opponents--remove the threat of deportation from the lives of up to 5 million illegal residents of this country, the political and legal arguments are lining up. Sadly but predictably, the policy arguments, by contrast, are not. In terms of our overall immigration problem, this ordered action by the president will be fairly small potatoes; additional opportunities for many of the children of illegal immigrants--the "Dreamers" who benefited from Obama's previous executive order, the DACA program--but very likely nothing for their parents, nothing for undocumented itinerant farm workers, and no ACA benefits for anyone. But since the only bill which the Tea Party-spooked congressional Republican leadership has allowed to come forward for a vote ever since Senator Marc Rubio withdrew is own proposal is a ridiculous Dreamer-deportation non-starter, it seems reasonable to assume that the national Republican party will simply describe anything the president orders as "amnesty!" and prepare their government shutdown or defunding or impeachment proceedings.

But as everyone must surely recognize, that's exactly the point, right? The partisan dysfunctions of our federal government--which, I don't deny, President Obama makes every bit as much use of as anyone in Congress of either party--have presented the president, when it comes to immigration, with an opportunity that he considers to be both politically expedient (a correct conclusion, I'm sure) and within his legal prerogatives as chief executive (about which I am far less than certain). Smart pundits like Ross Douthat and Damon Linker have made I believe a pretty solid case claiming that while what the president is proposing may not necessarily explicitly contravene any legal rule on where the president's executive authority ends, it does appearing to be throwing the sort of "norms, precedents and judgment" that ought to guide "how things are done" by the chief executive in a presidential democracy out the window. Which, ultimately, just echoes what other conservative thinkers and rabble-rousers have been claiming for years: that Obama, as everyone knows, is a Constitution-flouting tyrant! (That's assuming, of course, that he ever had a legitimate claim to the office in the first place.)

Now realistically, if you actually drill down and examine the real history of the number and scope of presidents issuing Congress-circumventing executive orders over the years, Obama's record is far more ambiguous. But the heck with that! The die has been cast! Now those who have long been critical of this president really do have a genuinely credible basis accusing him of acting beyond the scope of his Constitutionally-delegated powers. So I say, this is as good a time as any: let's rate just how tyrannical President Obama really is! Below, I list my top five presidential tyrants. Let me know if you agree or disagree, or provide rankings of your own!

(Quick note: it should go without saying that my list should be taken for a grain of salt, for at least two reasons: one, because on the level of theory I actually don't care all that much for either our current system of government or even the principle of constitutionalism in general; and two, because I'm a fan of the War Powers Resolution, and thus basically believe every president that has denied it's controlling authority since it's passage--which is all of them--is acting like a tyrannical war-monger anyway. Also, note that I am just focusing on the past century here, thus leaving aside the always sticky issue of Lincoln's blatantly unconstitutional actions during the Civil War, and as well as the obvious clear winner of the tyrant sweepstakes, Andrew Jackson, the only president we've had who--you've got to give him credit for honesty!--just out and out told the Supreme Court, when it issued a decision he didn't like, to go screw themselves.)

#5: Barack Obama. Look, I'm not going to belabor this. Has this president found himself, for structural reasons mostly (if not entirely) beyond his control, dealing with congressional opposition that is unprecedented...or at least, unprecedented in this century? Yes, I think that's pretty clearly true. So I suppose you could say he's been forced into an abusive position in regards to his executive prerogatives. But that doesn't change the plain that what he's likely going to announce tonight is of a piece with his recess appointments, his targeted (and, shall we say, "extrajudicial") assassinations of both foreign nationals and even American citizens, and more. The man clearly takes presidential power to unconstitutional extremes. Though he hasn't done so as much as...

#4: Ronald Reagan. We remember Iran-Contra, yes? Specifically evading the Boland Amendment, so as to be able to continue to fund--though channels that were also illegal all on their own--a conflict that made use of American resources and advisers without Congressional approval? Not to mentioned the executive orders given by President Reagan which became the building blocks of the NSA's 4th-Amendment-circumventing data-collection activities (though is was executive orders from a later member of this list which through those into overdrive). Clearly, the man was a at least a little bit of a tyrant. Though honestly, probably not as much as...

#3: Lyndon Johnson. Not a lot to argue about here. It's well known that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was obtained at least in part by President Johnson outright lying to the American people about what had transpired that August night off the coast of Vietnam. One can make all sorts of apologies of dishonesty, of course, especially when dealing with delicate matters of state--but this was a matter of war, and specifically whether to get into one or not, and I can't think of any situation which mandates greater honesty on the part of elected leaders than that. But still, if you're willing to forgive his lying to get us deeper into Vietnam (and his ordering of the CIA to disrupt student protest movements across the country), then clearly you're probably willing to forgive the tyrannical actions of...

#2: George W. Bush. First of all, there was his rampant abuse of signing statements to shape the enforcement and implementation of laws before they even technically fell under his jurisdiction as chief executive, essentially giving himself the unconstitutional power of a line-item (this is one of the--unfortunately too-few--bad precedents set by Bush which President Obama, to his credit, has not followed). Then there was his expansion of the NSA's authority to engage in the widespread surveillance of American citizens without obtaining a warrant, and then of course everything associated with the Iraq War: the military tribunals, the summary arrest and denial of habeas corpus and basic due process to anyone suspected of terrorism, and, most of all, the knowing presentation of false or at least incomplete information--in other words, lying--while making a case for war (though he never actually sought Congress's permission, as arguably Johnson did; only their approval). All in all, that makes George W. Bush about a Caesarish as modern presidents can get. Or would, if it wasn't for...

#1: Richard Nixon. Not infrequently, I run across people and writings that, for any number of reasons--pure contrarianism, a particular kind of Republican revisionism, a stylized kind of anti-democratic "realism" that likes to self-consciously prioritize policy accomplishments over political legitimacy, etc.--present Richard Nixon as a great president, or at least an unfairly misunderstood one. Please, people. You're not losing any hipster cred or letting down your chosen political party or selling out to the Baby Boomers to recognize that Nixon was, in addition to an admittedly smart and effective president in many ways, a crook. And not just some sort of tragic figure who finds himself constitutionally trapped and thus embraces a crooked defiance (that might arguably apply to Obama), but no: an actual, real, Constitution-violating nogoodnik. He aided and abetted in the commission of felonies: breaking and entering, theft, intimidation, bribery, and more. He was a liar, and--given his actions during the 1968 peace talks--arguably a traitor to his country. All that, and the man wanted to turn White House Secret Service officers into his own palace guard, complete with snappy uniforms. If Obama's expansions of presidential power ever get anywhere near to any of that, do give me a call.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Some Populist Perspective, Ten Years (and Two Weeks) in the Making

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

This image on the left--which shows how the Democratic candidate for governor, Paul Davis, was systematically slaughtered across Kansas--is pretty much what I saw on the screen towards the end of a long night at KWCH, our local CBS affiliate here in Wichita, two weeks ago. I was their on-air political talent, so I was in the newsroom throughout the evening, watching the whole debacle unfold. And I do mean debacle--both in terms of my many predictions (which all turned out completely wrong, though I wasn't entirely alone in that), and in terms of what I think it means for our state. The news since the election has made it pretty clear just what a financial and political hole our ideologically blinkered majority party has created for the Sunflower State--and, of course, the same could be said for many other states, to say nothing of our national government itself. So yes, I was depressed that night. Then I left the country for a week, and tried to forget about it all.

Now I've been back for a week, and I've been pondering what to make of Democratic losses locally and nationally. And what I find myself thinking the most about is how things stood pretty much exactly 10 years ago, give or take. The elections of 2004--anyone remember them? President Bush re-elected, the Republicans expanding their control of both the House and the Senate, all after an extreme fierce campaign which so many on the left saw as their best chance to correct for the Bush's indefensible, Supreme-Court-assisted win in 2000. And afterwards, the internet (we weren't calling it "social media" back then!) was filled with images like this:

There was a great deal of serious--and I do mean serious--soul-searching following that election, and what it meant for the Democrats' hopes for either 1) reaching out to, and finding some sort of way to win the support of, what seemed to be a mostly white, mostly church-going, mostly socially conservative, mostly middle-class-at-best, rural demographic that was--thanks to the quirks of our electoral maps--capable of holding on to our political institutions, or 2) bringing into politically-salient existence a more liberal, more secular, more educated, more diverse, more economically oriented, urban demographic that would enable progressives to win nationally. The amount of pixels enlisted in this soul-searching surely ran into the billions; everyone was reading and arguing about Thomas Frank (or Ruy Teixeira or Ronald Brownstein or Robert Reich or any number of other pundits of the moment). People talked (humorously, mostly, I think) about secession. And in the midst of this, I got into a debate with one of the great ur-bloggers of that distant moment in internet history, Timothy Burke.

His position was straightforward: the future of the Democratic party needed to begin with maximizing the appeal of "Bicoastia," not trying to triangulate from or invest in or find identity with "Heartlandia." (Because, modernity being what it is--as Timothy presented it, anyway--any such efforts would necessarily be either condescending or inauthentic). What was necessary, instead, was doubling down on the the second option: "soft libertarianism" in regards to lifestyle issues, meritocracy and means-testing in matters of government regulation, celebrating social mobility, embracing "South Park Republicanism," etc. All of which, of course, stereotypically aligns with the interests and expectations of individuals who had made their home in an urbanized, globalized, worldly, pluralistic, secularized world. I, on the other hand, insisted upon the first option (and not just once, but many times thereafter): that the left, if it was to succeed, needed to abandon the meritocratic and ameliorative nonsense of the Clinton years, and embrace a whole-hearted egalitarian communitarianism. Christian social democratic populism, in short: we on the left needed to re-embrace union workers and farmers and--most crucially--the communities they had built for themselves and the churches they worshiped in, and build up our cause through a respect for their legitimate popular demands. That and only that, I thought, would enable the left to credibly win electoral contests against the financial powers that were both tearing American democracy apart and turning us into a crusading empire around the world.

Well, ten years are a long time, and plenty of things have changed. (Obama happened, among many others.) But thinking about the two maps above, I realized two things. First, whatever the ultimate ethical calculus of those two debated routes a decade ago, Timothy's approach is the one which won the argument for the Democrats. The logic of libertarianism is pretty much all around us. A jury-rigged (and philosophically limited) package of reasonable health insurance reforms has emerged as the absolute benchmark of liberalism (and been incorrectly labeled "socialism" for its efforts). The conventional wisdom for the past half-decade or more has all been about how the Republican party is dying demographically, with the Tea Party being a mad lashing out by angry white men against the new ascendant majority: minorities, single working women, gays, recent immigrants, and most of all: young people. Populism may not have ever really been tried, but in the wake of 2008 and 2012, perhaps there was no reason to.

But my second realization goes back to what I saw in the studio that night: a manifestly unpopular governor (Sam Brownback has never been above 50% in state-wide approval polls) re-elected, Democratic turn-out in the sewer, and the Republicans winning all the way down the ballot. It's very easy to talk dismissively talk about how Kansas is a conservative Republican state, end of story (though that is simplistic at best); it's also easy to talk about the current unpopularity of President Obama and the nation-wide campaign of paranoia and hysteria which so much of the Republican party promulgated, and how that filtered down to the grass-roots (especially when we here in Kansas have the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity as ready enablers). One can cavalierly insist that the Obama majority just happened to stay home this time around, and will easily be back in 2016. But that runs against everything I saw here on the ground: huge efforts and excitement at center of local Democratic and progressive organizations, all of which saw their chance, and all of which was reflected in the polls, and apparently none of which translated into votes. And the fact is, I've seen this--we've all seen this--in midterm after midterm, for the past ten years. 2006 is very likely an anomaly, driven by the combination of an unpopular war and conservative exhaustion; if it is the case, as some have hopefully suggested, that the GOP has crafted an electoral strategy that is deep but not broad--and I think that analysis is likely correct--then it would seem the Democrats, as the party for liberals and progressives (and all the rest of us socialists and Greens when there are no other responsible options on the ballot) has the opposite problem: it's support is broad, but not deep. Its message is not changing voting habits, or even really challenging them, much less inspiring them. The majority that seems to support progressive causes doesn't care enough about its nominal candidates to bother consisting showing up.

Anyone who cares about Kansas politics and finds himself on the left side of the political spectrum could do much worse than to read the long, provocative series of exchanges between liberal and progressive activists and Kansas Democratic party leaders which Daily Kos has hosted over the past couple of weeks (I caught up with them all after I got back from China). Even allowing for the selective viewpoint of those writing, it captures something pretty fundamental (and noted nationwide): our state-wide Democratic party wasn't thinking along Timothy's preferred lines, but neither were they embracing a strategy of deep, locally grounded populism such as I once imagined. They determined early on that "education funding" was a winning issue, and thus that became the first, last, and only focus of their campaign. Same-sex marriage (even when the courts handed that to Kansas Democrats on a silver platter!) wasn't touched; minimum wage hikes and agricultural policy and immigration--the sort of stuff which logically ought to have at least have been on radar screen of Kansas's many rural poor and urban minorities--was only lightly pushed at best. Now, maybe that wouldn't have made any difference; I'm not going to go up against the high-priced data that the state party was able to get a hold of (though I'm not sure all those polls were worth their cost...). Still, from what I can tell, Timothy's meritocratic, social libertarianism-plus-fiscal-moderation model has only succeeded nationally, not locally--and in our federal system, figuring out some way to draw out and build upon the progressive concerns of local communities is an absolute must.

Note that I said "progressive" there. I'm not going to retire my reliance upon the term populist entirely, but I have to recognize that it carries with it a lot of baggage, and over the past 10 years the playing field--and the players, both rural and urban--have changed enough that its use needs to be qualified. Ten years ago, living in Arkansas in 2004, I voted (along with a broad majority of Democrats and Republicans alike) to put an anti-same-sex marriage amendment into our state constitution; a decade later, I've changed my mind, and am happy to see the first legal same-sex marriages here in Kansas, and I'm not alone. Changes in technology--social media, not the least!--have meant it is ever more difficult to separate the increasing cosmopolitanism of urban (and therefore, for better or worse, "bi-coastal") life from penetrating and shaping the hopes and interests and expectations of even the most rural communities. And perhaps for related reasons, the current zeitgeist--which I see reflected in my own political interests--is one of decentralization, localism, diversity by way of a re-evaluating of connections. I hope, for all my usual deeply communitarian reasons, that those connections--and the culture they make possible--isn't going to go into even greater eclipse than they already too often have, but I have to own up to shifts in the terrain under my feet: the old populism--based on making the state over into a community of egalitarian identification--can't connect to a majority of left-leaning voters any longer, but maybe a new kind of populism--one that empowers both individuals and local communities--could.

It's a difficult passage that America (indeed, modern capitalism, and the modern nation-state itself) is going through at present. To use a banal but I think revealing example, it may be that more and more young people are returning to the DIY lifestyle, but they aren't doing it in the name of embracing either Brooklyn hipster urban farming or their grandparents rural gemeinschaft. There is a different mix of the progressive-libertarian and the populist-egalitarian out there, a different mix of what seems to be done best locally and what needs to happen universally. The Democratic party has a potential platform which captures at least one version of that mix: generous immigration policies, nationally portable health care (or at least health insurance) policies, student loan forgiveness, net neutrality. It's not everything, but it's something. At the very least, maybe it'll give my state's Democrats a shot of convincing enough voters that they can be trusted to fix the mess which I fear that four more years of Brownback is going to continue to build in my state. Fingers crossed, anyway.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Flight Films

Right about now exactly a week ago, as best as I can calculate it, I was halfway between Seattle and Minneapolis, after having left Nanjing, China, early Monday morning for a one hour flight to Shanghai and then a 14 hour flight to the U.S. Unlike my trip to Hong Kong four years ago, this time jet lag--plus headaches and nausea--hit me pretty hard, both going and coming back. Also unlike that trip, I wasn't in a situation, unfortunately, where I could really get out an explore the city (though I suppose that's at least as much a result of how I was feeling as it was of where I was staying. So while the conference was great, and the tour we made of the Nanjing Fuzimiao (Confucian temple and museum) was wonderful--both of which I should probably write posts about--I unfortunately have to confess that probably the thing which sticks out most in my mind about this trip was just how many movies I saw on the flight there and back. Seriously, film-wise it was a productive trip. Here's the run-down:

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: finally saw this. I still think Sam Raimi's and Tobey Maguire's take on the whole Spider-Man mythos is superior; Andrew Garfield mumbles as a teenager should, but ultimately this reboot of Spider-Man makes Peter Parker fated and tragic and super-charged--the glory of the previous trilogy was that Peter was always a bit of a schnook, an accident, a guy continuously in the wrong place at the right time, or vice versa. I do like this version's Harry Osborne a lot better than the way James Franco played him, though.

Captain Phillips: it was a good thriller and all, but I have to confess that as Paul Greengrass did his usual skillful arrangement of men and machines, I mainly found myself thinking not about the life of Captain Richard Phillips, nor about the fate of the Somali pirates that hijacked the Maersk Alabama, but rather just about the cost involved in the whole operation. I mean, assuming Greengrass depiction is accurate (and he usually takes great efforts to make sure he gets the technology and bureaucracy correct), then we're talking multiple warships, helicopters, an immense intelligence apparatus on the ground in Somalia, sophisticated satellite tracking, highly trained and heavily equipped Navy SEALS, plus all the computer infrastructure to make it happen and the fuel to get everyone to where they needed to be. Add it all up, and the rescue of Captain Phillips had to have had an ultimate cost in the tens of millions of dollars, if not the hundreds. So really, wouldn't paying the Somalis ransom have been cheaper? Food for thought, anyway.

The Fighter: proof that when you've got a strong script, solid actors, and a great director and editor, even as straightforward a story as this one--down-on-his-luck boxer gets one more chance!--can be presented honestly, and result in something terrific. I was genuinely cheering at the end; a great, great movie.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: there's only been one Wes Anderson movie that I honestly didn't really care for--Fantastic Mr. Fox--and this movie definitely continues the trend; I wouldn't call it one of his best, but it was a lot of fun, just the same. This film, even more than most Anderson creations, really struck me as a huge Rube Goldberg machines, and endlessly weird chain of inputs-outputs, this-thing-and-then-that. There was a manic rhythm to the whole thing which I really enjoyed.

The Monuments Men: about the most maudlin and manipulative World War II movie that I've ever scene. A couple of good moments though, with Cate Blanchett's dedicated, suspicious, and sex-starved defender of the integrity of French art, and Bill Murray and Bob Balaban playing a kind of Abbott and Costello of the European theater.

Ran: the first time I saw this tremendous Kurosawa epic I was watching it closely for King Lear, which I suppose makes sense; I was a university undergraduate at the time, and that was he sort of thing you're supposed to look for. But this time around the deep pacifism of the film, the contempt with which violence is portrayed, as always coming back to destroy those who choose violence initially, rung most clearly. Stylistically, it's probably the greatest work of Noh theater ever put on film.

12 Years a Slave: both devastating and fascinating, it is, among many other things, a horrifyingly compelling look at the may various ways both slaves and masters accommodated themselves to the daily routines of the fact of chattel slavery in the American south. Freedom, marriage, sexuality, religion, violence, the law--all of it appears in often unexpected (and usually despairing, but sometimes fascinating) ways through this great, great film.

War Horse: if you're the sort who likes animals in movies, then see this one. It's not the greatest horse film of all time--that remains The Black Stallion, which did what no other comparable film has done, as far as I know: relate a significant amount of the story from the horse's point of view--but it's a very good one, with appropriately Spielbergian teary moments at the end.

 X-Men: Days of Future Past: one of the best comic book film adaptions I've ever seen. It's not perfect--why, exactly, does Kitty Pryde suddenly have this ability to send someone's consciousness into the past?--but by and large it serves the iconic comic book storyline upon which it was based extremely well. If this was the final appearance of Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier and Ian McKellen as Magneto (and it almost certainly was), then they had a great send-off.

Also, I should mention that I also brought a laptop with me, and on dvd, the complete Faulty Towers, which was a great deal of fun to be re-acquainted with; it's been a while. John Cleese's Basil Fawlty--how can you say too much about him? One of the greatest comic creations in the whole history of the English language; he's the very summation of a character as old as Dogberry and as recent as Niles Crane: the person too stupid to know how stupid he is, and thus is convinced he's brilliant. The result was quite possibly the greatest sitcom of all time, though rewatching it reminded me of why it was a good thing there were only ever twelve episodes made. Each and every one of them is simply a pitch-perfect farce, and stretching Basil and the rest of his motley gang beyond those limited confines would have made it impossible to maintain such a tone. Basil would have had to, well, develop as a character, and who would have wanted that? Not I, that's for sure.

Mormons and the American Liberal Order

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Seeking the Promises Land: Mormons and American Politics is a superb work of social science. David Campbell, John Green, and Quin Monson make exhaustive use of numerous recent surveys conducted by the Pew Forum and Gallup, and a half-dozen surveys which they designed themselves, to produce about as detailed and revealing a look at the political preferences and peculiarities of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in America as probably any group of scholars ever could. While some of the information which the authors make use of has already been reported in American Grace (a blockbuster in the sociology of religion in America which Campbell co-authored with Robert Putnam), here that information is packaged alongside numerous historic observations and other scholarly insights, resulting in something which stands entirely on its own. Of course, as with any academic study that depends largely upon survey research and the self-reporting of those interviewed, the compiled results need to be recognized for what they are: namely, the best conclusions that correlational and regression analysis allows. Still, I think it is fair to say that just as all serious discussions of actual religious practices and behaviors in the U.S. need to take Putnam and Campbell's work into consideration, this book by Campbell, Green, and Monson is indisputably the new starting point for all serious conversations about American Mormons and politics from here on out.

The book is arranged into three broad sections, looking at "Mormons as an Ethno-Religious Group," the "Political Behavior of Mormons," and "The Consequences of Distinctiveness." In the first section, their overall argument is that American Mormons have, to a significant if not an absolute degree, resisted the ideological sorting which has characterized the political journey of other white religious groups in America (African-American Protestants have not followed this trend at all), thus maintaining a level of "subcultural" distinctiveness that was once typical in the United States--Irish Catholics voting Democratic, for instance--but which now is nearly non-existent. That is, while it is obvious to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with American Mormons that the huge majority of them vote Republican, that political behavior is not (or at least isn't fully) the result of the same regional or socio-economic or historical trends that have brought about a cultural alliance between evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics. American Mormons by and large follow a distinctive ethno-religious logic when it comes to their political beliefs and actions. They have created what the authors call a "sacred tabernacle," within which moral and political distinctions (initially from other Christian churches, but over the past 35 years primarily from the vaguely defined secular "world" on the outside) are propagated, even as larger trends invariable sweep the nation as a whole along.

How is this "tabernacle" maintained in the midst of such trends? The authors develop some rather ingenious indices to chart "Mormon-ness" in terms of one's degree of activity, respect for institutional authority, insularity, and self-conscious in-group affinity. While all contribute, none are more determinate than levels of activity--that is, nothing (not support for prophetic authority, not agreement with particular doctrines, not self-identification) matters as much as the amount of time one spends amongst fellow members of the church for determining one's own support for Mormonism's dominant political culture. This is clarified in one of the book's most surprising conclusions: "When it comes to questions about the role of authority in the Church, Utah Mormons do not differ from their non-Utah Mormon counterparts....[T]he 'Utah effect' is largely in the social networks Mormons form....These similarities illustrate what we mean by the 'portability' of the sacred tabernacle--the self-reinforcing subculture Mormons form wherever they reach a critical mass, whether it be in Provo, Portland, or Pawtucket" (p. 68).

What is the content of those moral and political distinctions within the tabernacle? That is the focus of the second section of the book, which charts the rise of partisanship amongst American Mormons (the authors conclude, after comparing various different measurements, that the bulk of American Mormons are more distinctive and party-aligned in their voting habits today than at anytime in the 20th century; you have to go back to the earliest days of Utah statehood to find as unified a bunch of Mormons as you have casting ballots for Republican candidates today). As I said above, the socialization which takes place within the Mormon tabernacle isn't utterly unique to overall demographic tendencies in America: while Mormons identify with politically conservative preferences at a much higher rate than does the American population as a whole, still, there more male Republican Mormons than female Republican Mormons, more white Mormons voting Republican than Hispanic Mormons, more higher-income Republican Mormons than lower-income Republican Mormons, and as the reported rate of church attendance increases the likelihood of the respondent identifying as a Republican increases dramatically. The only notable demographic distinction which the authors report is that there are (comparatively speaking) more young Mormon Republicans than older, which is obviously the reverse of the general population.

But the real significance of Mormon distinctiveness comes when you get away from broad voting habits, and look at particular details. While American Mormons score higher on the racial resentment index than Catholics or the population as a whole--though not as high as Southern Baptists!--it was not the civil rights movement of the 1960s that stands out as especially influential in moving the American LDS population towards the right (which, incidentally, sets the thesis of Campbell, et al, somewhat against the historical argument made by Jan Shipps and others that it was the 60s-era anti-communism of Ezra Taft Benson and some other general authorities that did the most to set American Mormons on their current political course). Instead, the authors of Seeking the Promised Land look in particular at two "politically infected religious views": American Mormon views about the U.S. Constitution, and about gender roles.

In regards to the first, the authors review both official and folk doctrines within the church, note that "Mormons are the 'most exceptionalist' of any religious tradition in the country," with 94 percent agreeing with the statement "the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights are divinely inspired" and 72 percent believing that "the United States has a special role to play in world affairs and should behave differently from other nations," and conclude that "[i]t is only a short step from Mormons' reverence for the an originalist interpretation," which--as they point out--is an article of faith amongst most political conservatives in America (pp. 109-112). In regards to the second, nearly three-fourths of American Mormons maintain that "[i]t is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family," far outscoring the next most conservative Republican-voting religious group in America, evangelical Protestants, of whom less than 40 percent agreed with above statement. The authors, observing some movement in American Mormon attitudes towards mothers who work outside the home (today, only a little more than half agree that mothers harm their children by taking a job, down from 70 percent 30 years ago), rather tartly observe that "we would expect Mormon attitudes towards working mothers in 2020 to be roughly the same as what the rest of the population thought in the 1980s" (pp. 114-115). In short, according to the data presented in this book, it seems to me that while such hot-button topics as abortion and same-sex marriage have clearly played at least some role in shaping American Mormonism's distinct--though not quite uniform: LDS beliefs in regards to immigration present a small but important exception--conservatism, the implication is that what is most firmly and decisively communicated within the Mormon political tabernacle is the the uniqueness of America's culture and history, and--presumably--the vital place which a kind of 1950s heterosexual domesticity has come to play in that culture and history.

How this set of teachings will endure and/or change over the next couple of generations, and what that will mean for American Mormon voting habits and perceptions, is an underlying theme in the final section of the book. However much those who self-identify as Mormons in America continue to exhibit etho-religious voting habits, the trends which has broken down those old categories show no sign of letting up. With every step towards the legal equalization of men and women, blacks and white, gays and straights, ideological sortings along philosophically liberal lines will continue to replace ethnic, cultural, and religious communal associations. The politically relevant questions will continually return to taxes vs. welfare, property rights vs. egalitarianism, social libertarianism vs. civil rights, leaving those who orient their political worldview around a supposedly God-blessed nation-state or family unit somewhat outside of the conversation. Campbell, Green, and Monson are all quantitative political scientists, not political historians or theorists, and so the deeper ramifications of some of their data are not something they choose to focus on. Still, in discussing Mormons on the level of presidential politics, some of the above-mentioned realities, and the partisan skewing and suspicions they result in, poke through. They point out that the "strong intrareligious bonds of the sacred tabernacle mean fewer inter-religious bridges," and thus "Mormons are viewed with greater suspicion than members of most other religious traditions" (p. 184). After exhaustively reviewing he different strategies which all the major Mormon candidates for president (George Romney, 1968; Morris Udall, 1976; Orrin Hatch, 2000; Jon Huntsman, 2012; and Mitt Romney, 2008 and 2012), the authors conclude that while "in the heyday of ethno-religious alliances, denominations and parties were intertwined," today the fact that "it is entirely rational for a voter who leans Democratic to oppose a Mormon candidate, in the absence of any other information...should give Mormons pause" (p. 251). In short, American Mormons are, for a variety of reasons--some broadly experienced, but some rather unique--playing a political game which stands at least somewhat opposed to the liberal order in which the game is set. And that may make us "peculiar" in an entirely unexpected way.

In the end, Campbell, Green, and Monson suggest that Mormons in America have pursued various broad strategies to fit their ethno-religious distinction into America's ever-changing, pluralistic political culture. Borrowing here from the pioneering work of Armand Mauss, they list these strategies as separation (the pioneer Utah period), assimilation (the first half of the 20th century), and finally engagement (with the prefer to Mauss's "retrenchment," because they see the rising partisanship of American Mormonism as reflecting a sense of "carefully selected" points of conflict with the wider society). They wonder, finally, if Mormon engagement is being replaced by alignment, with Mormons at last being "fully welcomed into the coalition of religious conservatives." Were this to happen, they suggest it would "require partisanship to seep into the religious aspects of Mormonism" to an even greater degree than it already has (pp. 259-261). They are leery of this outcome, because of what they see as the threat it would pose to religious tolerance in America overall. My worries about that approach are as great as theirs, but different in their philosophical premise: I am dubious of the supposed Golden Age of religious tolerance which took the place of the ethno-religious political cleavages of the past, but am bothered at the prospect of yet another Christian vision allowing itself to become dominated by a the political ethos of modernity, in which salvation too often comes to be seen as dependent upon inculcating into individuals the importance of securing a place of security in the state and the marketplace. The communitarian roots of the Mormon religious vision is occasionally referenced by the authors of Seeking the Promised Land, but it clearly does not motivate their study, because it doesn't motivate anything like a significant number of actually practicing American Mormons--whose "promised land" is presented, probably entirely accurately, as being "in the world, not of the world--but also accepted by the world" (p. 253). Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, kind of sad. I'm very grateful for this book; it's wonderful to have such a detailed and rich portrait of where my religious tribe stands. It is somewhat depressing, though, to reach the end and realized how limited the map which most of us have drawn for ourselves seems to be.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Life on Mars"

A haunting cover of the David Bowie classic by Joe Jackson.

Friday, November 14, 2014

My Five Favorite Stephen King Stories

Stephen King is visiting Wichita, KS, today, and thanks to my wife's employment at Watermark Books, we're going to have front row seats. Since it's Friday, and this will be an event of unusual significance for our fine mid-sized city (Melissa has worked at the bookstore for three years, and has been part of arranging visits for many authors, but she says she's never experienced anything even remotely equal to the local hysteria she's experienced over customers trying to snag tickets to hear King speak), and since I still don't feel quite up to working out my feelings about either last week's elections or my trip to China which immediately followed, well, what else is blogging for than to put out lists? Herewith, my top five Stephen King creations. As Douglas Adams's Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints Division always said, Share and enjoy:

5) Pet Sematary. I was introduced to this novel by a member of my high school debate team when I was a sophomore; she was reading the book in the van as we traveled to a debate tournament, and in the hotel that evening she called the room all the guys on the team were staying in: "Can I come in there? Everyone else is asleep here and I'm scared to death!" So we let her in; she obsessively finished the final chapters of the book, ignoring us as we pestered her with questions, and then curled up in a chair and wouldn't let us turn out the lights as we all eventually fell asleep. I think I read it about a year after that, and yes: definitely the most flat-out freaky and terrifying long work of fiction I've ever read.

4) The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. A beautiful, always unsettling but never truly frightening novella (unless you're a parent of little girls, of course!), this little-remembered work of King's--the story of a 9-year-old girl and baseball fan who becomes lost in the Maine woods--shows his skill with natural landscapes, and finding in them creeping resonances and psychological depths. A great little book.

3) Different Seasons. I'm cheating here, because there are four distinct stories in this collection, but they were all published together, and frankly each of these novellas is genuinely masterful. And interestingly, none of them are horror. "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" is a wonderful thriller, "Apt Pupil" is compelling study of psychological and sexual evil, "The Body" is a funny and tragic coming-of-age story, and "The Breathing Method"--which is my favorite of the four, though the least remember by most of King's fans, I think--is simply a classic weird tale, creepily formal in its telling of very bizarre (though also very human) story, with a denouement that I think is one of the most beautiful and haunting of any story I've read. This is King the writer at his very best.

2) "Gramma". This short story pretty much scared me to death when I first read it. It's really the perfect combination of just-barely-adolescent suburban male bravado--a little boy trying to be brave, resenting those older than him, confused by and fearful of things he's heard or thinks he's heard, and manfully attempting to deny that any of them are real--and demonic horror. It hit all my weak points: guilt over my arguments with family members, resentment about the responsibilities I had to take on as I was growing up, and most importantly, an inability to squelch my suspicion that just maybe a hidden world of witches and black magic and Cthulhuian evil was right there, in the dark corner of the old bedroom, watching me. Nearly 30 years on from when I probably first read, just calling up the memory gives me the shivers. I have read and loved (and often been terrified by) many of King's short stories--"Lawnmower Man," "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe," "Survivor Type," "Children of the Corn," etc.--but this one is the one I remember best.

1) The Stand. Look, I'm nowhere near a King completist. He's written over 50 novels for heaven's sake, and more short stories than I can count. I've never read a word of his supposed magnum opus, the eight-volume Dark Tower series, and there are dozens of other novels and stories of his that I have only the barest familiarity with, if I'm even aware of them at all. But all that said, on my honor as a reader, I just can't imagine that he ever could have created something with greater majesty, terror, and (weirdly enough) hope than this novel. I first read it--the whole freaking thing!--as a college student back in the 90s in its "Complete and Uncut Edition," which I've actually come to have mixed feelings about; it's a better novel in that form than the shortened (but still superb!) version which he'd published more than a decade earlier, but he'd made the mistake of trying to update some of references, making the story less of the paranoid, post-Vietnam, post-sexual revolution, religious apocalypse which, at it heart, it screams to be. This book really is King taking some of the worst, most confusing, most fearful times America--or, at least, the America of college-educated, mostly secular, middle-class white men like him--has ever gone through, and transforming them into an epic fantasy of horror and redemption. Every once in a while I hear people talk about--to use the old, hackneyed phrase--the "Great American Novel," and they'll  talk about Melville's Moby-Dick (as a 19th century candidate), or Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (20th century), or Franzen's Freedom (21st century): no one ever mentions The Stand. But honestly, it stands equal or higher than them all. It's that good. And if I have a chance to say anything to the man this evening, I'll just have to get in line along with tens of thousands of others, and thank him for this, as well as so much more.