Friday, January 22, 2021

Two Pedantic Problems with Representative Estes's Post

Dear Representative Estes,

Thanks for sharing your reasoning about your January 6 challenge to the Electoral College results, thus your challenge to the certification of President Biden's election. I am in complete sympathy with your statement that "all of us are appalled at the violence, destruction and loss of life that took place at the Capitol on January 6," and I heartily endorse your closing call for your readers to "join me in praying that our country has a renewed commitment to civil discourse." That is all very well said, and I appreciate your including it.

However, you also included a couple of statements that trouble me. Once is simply wrong, and the other misunderstands something that is implied by the first. So forgive me, but I feel a need to play the professor here for a moment. You wrote:

"The Founding Fathers did not want Congress to select the president. Nor did they want the judicial branch, or even governors to do so. That was the responsibility of the state legislatures."

Of course, this isn't correct; the people who wrote the U.S. Constitution stipulated that it was the members of the Electoral College chosen by the states that would select the president of the United States. Those electors are chosen in accordance with procedures established by the respective state laws which obtain in the different states, and since those laws are written by elected state representatives, I suppose you could argue that "state legislatures" are ultimately doing the selecting. But by jumping those steps, you set up the foundation for your action (specifically that "I, along with a majority of the Republican Party in the U.S. House of Representatives, raised objections in regards to what we believed was evidence that several states violated their own laws in administering the 2020 election as they pertained to the office of the president") in a way that side-steps an important truth.

That truth is that those state laws regarding the appointment of electors, just like the state laws regarding all electoral matters--voter registration, absentee ballots, etc.--are subject to constitutional challenge, such as any citizen (including yourself, Representative Estes) may bring. The rights laid out in the amendments to the Constitution have been extended and applied by the Supreme Court many times over the past 232 years to enable citizens to defend the principle self-government. And, of course, when citizens, or their elected representatives, bring forward such constitutional concerns, it is the place of judges in our system to make an adjudication as to the validity of the concerns so expressed.

What is the point of emphasizing this? Simply that when you allege that state legislatures "violated their own laws," what you are actually doing is alleging something constitutionally nefarious when elected representatives, or the election officials they appoint, adjust their statutory requirements (including deadlines and the like) regarding mail-in ballots, or ballot drop boxes, or more, during the pandemic. They did this not just to compensate for the change in voting patterns which the health concerns of the pandemic introduced, but also because if they didn't make such adjustments, they would be subject to exactly the sort of legal challenges which your own column vaguely refers to (though I note that, while you invoke the Constitution multiple times, you only ever call what the state legislatures or state election officials did "improper," not "illegal"). The whole point of these election laws is to support the exercise of constitutional voting rights by the people; when circumstances stand in the way of the exercise of those rights, officials of government are obliged to act. 

Now, if those actions themselves violate someone else's rights (as apparently former President Trump believed they did, since he insisted over and over that he'd won the election by a landslide, and had been robbed of his victory by electoral fraud), then they need to go to a judge and make their case. Which Trump's lawyers did, dozens of time, with a total of 46 out of 54 lawsuits being almost immediately dropped, dismissed, or ruled against for a complete lack of evidence (the rest are currently in the midst of the appeals process). Meaning, in short, that the system which we have determined, over and over and over again, that the claim that state legislatures had vacated their responsibility in regards to the means by which appointed electors make their selection is simply groundless. Rather, it was their view that election commissions, governors, state judges, or even committees of legislators themselves, in these several states, had acted responsibly in the determinations they made about statutory election requirements. In the eyes of the courts, there simply was no demonstrable constitutional harm done here. Which means that, strictly speaking, in accordance with how our constitutional system is supposed to work, your belief that, for example, "the Democratic majority of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania unilaterally violated the U.S. Constitution," is simply nonsensical, because the Supreme Court of the United State itself said so.

Of course, if you want to insist that your love of the U.S Constitution obliges you to disregard the judicial functions which that same constitutional system sets up, that's a political belief which you have every right, as a citizen, to advocate for, and you'd find me agreeing with you partly as well. (You and me, Representative Estes: down with the imperial judiciary, and down with the power of judicial review!) But note that I called that a "political belief," because that's what it is--a belief about what ought to have happened in our polity (which presumably is, in your case, at the minimum: "election officials shouldn't adjust statutory requirements for ballots in the name of supporting voting rights during a pandemic without a complete change in state law"--though maybe, to be frank, the political belief here is actually just: "Donald Trump should be president"). Which leads me to another concern I have with your column. You write:

"In America, we must be able to use the legal processes prescribed in the Constitution without fear of retribution by those who hold the levers of political power."

In your column you speak on a couple of occasions of the "legal and political processes" of government, and as a way of expressing a general point, that's fine. But if you're going to specifically refer to "the legal processes prescribed in the Constitution," then I have to remind you of everything in the previous five paragraphs: the actual "legal processes" which follow from applying the Constitution as written involve petitioning judges to consider potential constitutional violations, and they didn't find any (in fact, usually Trump's lawyers, knowing they had no evidence that met the standard of scrutiny and not wanting the get disbarred for lying to a judge, mostly averred that there wasn't any fraud at all). So you may want to rephrase this to speak of "political processes" alone, rather than legal ones.

Am I saying that when you and other House Republicans objected to certifying the Electoral College votes, that you were doing something illegal? Of course not; as a member of Congress, it was perfectly legal for you to vote however you wished. But the idea that you were legally obliged to so act, or that your actions followed any kind of legal necessity, is silly. You made a political stand, as is your right, but you had no legal rationale for doing so.

And remember, that making political stands--that is, standing up on behalf of a political belief--is a symbolic action. It's not necessarily just symbolic, of course: when one votes, or engages in a protest, or writes a column for a local newspaper like you did (or writes a blog post in response to it like I am), there are often real-world consequences in play: someone might get elected or not, someone might be arrested or not, someone might be persuaded or not. But even those real-world consequences exist in relation to the symbols and associations which surround them. You recognize this yourself; you associate your action with enabling "millions of Americans the ability to voice their opinion" and with honoring "my constituents and the Constitution." So let's think about the particular moment, and some of the other associations which were in play at that moment, when you stood up to be counted as challenging the legitimacy of electoral votes which dozens of courts (many of them filled with Republican judges) had found legitimate.

The Capitol Building, just hours before you voted, had been attacked by a mob determined to do what you did, only much more violently and directly: oppose the certification of President Joe Biden's Electoral College victory. Five people died as a result of that violent attack--the worst which the Capitol has experienced in over 200 years. There were people looking for the person who is in charge of the House you are a member of--Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi--with the apparent intention of kidnapping or killing her. Are you responsible for them? No! (Or at least, certainly not nearly as much as former President Trump, who fed them the delusional nonsense which led them to make the attack.) But in the final moment, I fear your actions fell symbolically on the same side of the rioters. After all, you were, at the very least, being motivated (or at least so you claim; I'm writing all this under the assumption that you were sincere in your column, and not just covering up the simple self-interest of keeping the Trumpist voters in the Kansas Republican Party on your side) by the same legally groundless political convictions about supposedly "improper" state electoral determination which Trump employed to fire up the mob in the first place. You may say that you were solely acting on behalf of Kansas Republicans who embraced Trump's dismissed claims about fraud, and you may genuinely believe that. But you can't wish away the symbolic weight which the House carried at that moment, in the wake of insurrectionary violence which was only a few steps logical steps removed from your political cause.

You could, I suppose, embrace this association, and simply insist that while the rioters were utterly wrong in their methods, they were not utterly wrong in their cause. I suspect you'd denounce that as a terribly unfair connection to make, and you'd probably be right. But is it an unreasonable connection to make? That, Representative Estes, I don't think is the case at all.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2020

As always, in alphabetical order, by title.

The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice From the Civil Rights Movement to Today is a fantastic book, though not nearly the history of the relationship between religious faith (or even, more specifically, just author Charles Marsh's own Protestant Christianity) and the civil rights movement which the cover seems to promise. It is, essentially, a work of Christian theology and devotion, using three examples from the early civil rights movement to sketch out the ideal of "the beloved community" which he centers as the primary motivating ideal of the best which that movement had to offer, and then looking at various other attempts at social reform and arguments about such from the perspective of that ideal. It is thus a fairly narrow book (the Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a democratic socialist, or a savvy political operator, makes no appearance here), lacking in the kind of political reflection which might help better situate the religious impulse towards justice in our more secular moment. But as a pastoral call to do the work of Jesus in reforming society, I can think of no other book I've read lately which can compare.

The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Injustice, by Frederik deBoer, is an odd book. Fundamentally, it's an impassioned attack on the ways in which the ideal of public education has been warped by capitalist imperatives, and the liberal elites whose mastery of those imperatives perpetuate that warping, even as they tell themselves and others that their goal is to make education more egalitarian. DeBoer's launches his attack through what he sees as that same meritocracy's refusal to address the cognitive science, behavioral genetics, and other research which has shown just how limited formal education is in the face of one's inherited abilities...which, to deBoer, is an obvious argument for getting rid of our vain hope for an educational system that will equally reward every on the basis of talents, and instead aiming to reconceive education in a way that doesn't depend upon measuring merit. Others, obviously, see any argument built upon the reality of our unequal inherited talents as exceptionally dangerous to the principle of equality. DeBoer's book doesn't address these challenegs as well as it should, but through its many claims, it at least puts the topic on the table, and for that readers should be grateful. (More thoughts on the book here.)

A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley, was published over a half-century ago, and was essentially forgoteten about, despite having been praised by some of the great literary figures of the day. His race obviously had a lot do with that, but also the author's refusal the play the role which it seemed that every right-thinking, progressive African-American writer at the time needed (and was expected) to follow. A Different Drummer tells a hard story, one that lyrically weaves a kind folk-tale of racial vengence and redemption into an otherwise very realistic story of the late 1950s south. The story is essentially a fantasy, and parts of it feels like an almost pastoral one--until an act of racist violence at the very end hammers home the anger which motivated the author. A short novel, but one that invokes a haunting, parallel America very well.

I'll put together in this entry both The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women, which I read first, and Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, which I read immediately after it. Mormons like myself have no doctrinal reason to become familiar with early Christianity, given that ours is a restorationist tradition which has, for much of its history anyway, placed pretty much every Christian thinker who came after those included in the canon of the New Testament in the category of "apostate." I've thankfully escaped that mindset, but it is nonetheless the case that until this year, I'd restricted my devotional religious reading to the Biblical canon, the Mormon scriptures, and various translations and commentaries upon them, nothing else. Looking for something different, I pulled some old collections of the Apostolic Fathers and other early Christian writings off my shelf, and found them kind of fascinating. Wondering what I should do next, I asked some friends about advice for getting into the early Church Fathers, and several said: whatever else you do, read the Desert Mothers and Fathers! And so I did, and between these two books, my appreciation of Christian monasticism, my own membership in the Christian community, and my own sense of myself as a sin-wracked Christian, will never be the same. Strange, powerful, and spriritually transformative stuff.

I'm not an authority on Terry Prachett's Discworld, and I can't say that those novels of his based in that fantasy world--though I've liked, or even loved, all of them--make me want to become a completist. Maybe it's his sense of humor, which generally makes me smile rather than laugh. I adored his Tiffany Aching novels (the conclusion of the series was one of my favorite novels in 2016), but for the most part the other Pratchett novels I've read--Small Gods, Guards! Guards!, or Night Watch--have entertained, not enveloped me. That's absolutely not the case with Going Postal, though. This wild ride of a book--a fantasy, a caper story, a romantic comedy, a commentary on the costs of industrialism, a satire on politics, and much more--hyped me up with every twist and turn; it completely got me all caught up in the world of Moist von Lipwig, and had me laughing all the way. I don't often fall in love with genre characters, but I can't wait to read more about this guy.

Nany Rosenblum's thoughtful Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America has been on my shelf for years, and given my interest in localism, urban politics, and political theory, it's embarrassing that I didn't read it until this year. Rosenblum's analysis of the dynamics of neighborliness, and the categories she came up to enable us to analyze those dynamics and makes judgments about to relate neighborliness to all the other formulations of citizenship, are all simply brilliant. It gave me a moral language for thinking the idea of a community that isn't really--the neighborhood as a place of "decent folk" who recognize and respect and reciprocate to one another, but who also "live and let live"; they don't generate through their shared, proximate existence the kind of civic virtues, much less communal affection, which so much writing on social capital depends invokes, but it helps me see that there are vitures there all the same. Definitely a new member of my own private canon of studies in urban political theory. (More thoughts about the book and its claims here.)

Socialism: Past and Future, by Michael Harrington, is another book I should have read years ago. Harrington's importance as a socialist thinker and organizer is obviously well known--how could I be a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America and not know that? But until I read this book--which he completed just before his death--I didn't know about Harrington's thoughtful, in some ways conventional but in other ways quite heterodox, takes on Marxism, party politics, the role of the state, the real meaning of "socialization," and ultimately the almost "republican" character of a truly democratized--and thus socialized--society. After reading this book, I'm even more willing to defend the DSA against those who see the organization as compromised with its association with the Democratic Party; the fact is, its founder fully understood that in a free country you're going to have a plurality of organization forms, operating on a plurality of levels, reaching out to and organizing overlapping groups of people in a plurality of ways, and that's just plain wise. Scholars of Marx himself or other major figures and trends in European socialism probably have plenty of reason to critize Harrington's synthesis of ideas, but I found it deeply persuasive, and even inspiring, all the same.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, is a tremendous read. It's easily the most powerful book on the Vietnam War experience I've ever read, but it's also much more than that. "Meta-fiction" doesn't stratch the surface; "postmodern" doesn't seem like the right fit, but maybe that describes the book as well as anything. Anyway, O'Brien, a Vietnam War veteran, is obviously telling his own story, but he's also inventing stories, and commenting on the invention of stories, and wondering about the ethics of inventing stories, both in terms of his own relationship to his art and, even more powerfully, in terms of how others who read and are moved by these stories relate to their own sanity. Please don't think that the result is a ponderous literary text; these are beautiful, sometimes funny and sometimes spooky, always brutal stories of Vietnam and war and death and youth and love and madness that cut to the bone--it's only afterward that you see the play in language and narration and intentionality (and if you don't see it, then O'Brien himself points it out to you). A great, great book.

Last year, before I began my current journey I mentioned above through early Christianity, I completed a re-read of The Book of Mormon, this time using a scholarly reproduction of the earliest available text. That read really opened my eyes to analytic and even theological possibilities within my own religious tradition that I'd long associated solely with the Bible (I wrote about some of my discoveries here). After I'd finished that read, I grabbed off my shelf Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide, a decade-old book whose arguments about reading The Book of Mormon from what I guess you could call a documentary perspective, looking at the book's own self-presentation regarding its assembly, have likely long since been absorbed by co-religionists of mine who are serious about these questions. So I'm late in getting a book read, once again? Well, that's nothing new. I really loved it, particularly the first two sections, as Grant Hardy skillfully, carefully, helps us figure out what the actual text of the Book of Mormon can tell us about the worldview and aims and opinions of Nephi and Mormon, which according to the book's own account are the two ancient prophets most centrally involved in its production and preservation over the centuries (the book's final section, on the prophet-editor Moroni, didn't strike as quite as interesting or persuasive). It's not a book that anyone who isn't willing to give the book's own claims seriously is likely to be able to get through without thinking its all just a massive work of fan-fiction, but for someone like myself, it was a great treat.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The 10 Best Movies I Watched in 2020

I seriously considered abandoning, or at least completely changing, this viewing list tradition of mine--between the pandemic, the general shift to streaming services, and the power of so much great television out there, shouldn't I just being thinking in terms of, say, "the 10 best things I watched on a screen in 2020"? Maybe. But in the end, despite The Queen's Gambit, Cobra Kai, and my delightful, months-long journey through every episode of the original series of Star Trek (plus the animated series, and the fan-made"Star Trek Continues" as well!), I decided to stick with just the 10 best self-contained cinematic productions I watched this year, wherever or however I watched them. As usual, this is stuff I watched this calendar year; the actual release dates are irrelevant. By title, in alphabetical order:

My movie-watching year was filled with documentaries, as this list reveals, but none really operated on me like films--as opposed to, say, straightforward cinematic documents, which is really all that even the most creative documentaries ever aspire to be--the way The Act of Killing did. It's very hard to sum up briefly what this audacious, offensive, utterly compelling film did, but basically: the movies creators, in profiling a handful of the now mostly elderly surviving perpetrators of a genocidal massacre of suspected communists (but mostly just thousands--possibly hundreds of thousands, possibly millions--of folks these self-identifying "gangsters" didn't like) in Indonesia 50 years ago, end up giving these mostly unrepentant villains the opportunity to dramatize their killings on film, and they jump at it, using all sorts of Hollywood genre tropes (Westerns, musicals, and yes, of course, gangster movies) along the way. Is this post-colonial exploitation? Is this a quasi-snuff film? So many unsettling questions. All I can say is, in their crude re-creations and celebrations--often bordering on comic self-parody--of their own past, the subjects of this documentary left a cinematic record that will haunt me for years.

I'm not a Spike Lee completist by any means, but I've seen enough of his movies to call Da 5 Bloods one of his very best, up there with Malcolm X or 25th Hour. Like both of those films--and really, like every Spike Lee movie I've ever seen--Da 5 Bloods--has an uncontrolled quality to it, with Lee playing around with all sorts of genre tropes and tonal shifts without the kind of discipline that, for example, the equally playful and bloody-minded Quentin Tarantino brings to his movies. But in place of that, Lee has a sense of moral purpose which the functionally amoral Tarantino pretty much entirely lacks. In this movie, making use of the wonderfully hoary tale of former soldiers going back to the battlefield to reclaim the remains of their fallen comrade (plus some handily buried gold!), Lee weaves a compelling war story into a film also about the place of the Vietnam War in the African-American experience, psychological trauma, Western imperialism, fathers and sons, and much more. Like the best filmmakers, even when you were certain of every betrayal, every landmine explosion, every tearful reunion, they all still appeared on the screen as brilliantly new. The best pure movie I saw all year.

Alex Honnold, the focus of Free Solo, a movie that captures in dizzing, sometimes terrifying detail his record-setting free solo (that is: no equipment, no partners, just his hands and limbs) climb of El Capitan, is basically a physical and psychological freak of nature, someone physically and mentally capable of impossible climbs and probably almost nothing else. Some have commented to me that Honnold's borderline inhuman character compromises the documentary's effectiveness; they prefer, for example, Dawn Wall, which records an arguably even greater physical feat of rock climbing by climbers like Tommy Caldwell (who appears in Free Solo as an advisor to Honnold) who have much more human and dramatic arcs to follow. Well, tastes differ. For my part, while the latter documentary impressed, the former simply scared me to death, in a good way, and I tip my hat to it, and to Honnold, for that.

Lady Bird was a total delight, and an unexpected one. I'd heard good things about it from friends and others, and after we watched Greta Gerwig's Little Women (which I liked a lot, but didn't love as much as I do the charming 1994 adaptation), we thought we'd give her earlier movie a try, even though the plot description didn't seem like much. What a revelation! There really isn't a single original moment in this film; it does exactly what you would expect a young woman's coming-of-age story to do, insofar as parents and friends and romance and sex and her own internal growth are concerned. All the John Hughes tropes are there. And yet, every single scene--thanks to the acting, the dialogue, and dozens of tiny but consequential plot choices--rang true. Once again: genre movie conventions endure because they work--or at least can be made to work when presented and acted out on film well, and in this wonderful tale, they do their job of entertaining and moving the audience (or at least me) with seamless skill.

I didn't know what to expect going into Last Black Man in San Francisco; it just seemed like such a striking idea for a movie: a young African-American man trying to reclaim--with great passion but without any legal cause--a beautiful old San Francisco house that he has tied up in his memory with his whole sense of family, identity, community, and direction in life. That's a lot of emotional complexity to get onto the screen, but the filmmakers pull it off, thanks to a lot of achingly beautiful cinematography, and a lot of subtle performances which enabled us viewers to see and hear a lot more than just what was said and shone. Not for everyone--it's a slow, painterly film--but absolutely worth the investment to see this quaint, quotidian story of a directionless but firely young person made gorgeous and large.

Matewan is a movie I should have watched years, decades, ago, but only got around to this year, as part of a film series I put together for a class I was teaching on radical politics (and which was, of course, completely upended by the pandemic). The respect which director John Sayles's movies hold is deserved; the man takes his time to produce intelligent, grounded stories that stand the test of time, and this nearly 35-year old film certainly does. Watching this story of mine owners in 1920s West Virginia suppressing unionization, first by attempting to turn white and black and immigrant laborers against each other, and later by direct violence, obviously plays upon different associations in our heads than it would have in 1987 when it was first released, but it's not some free-floating liberal signifier. This is a concrete tale, with the locals and the hillbillies and the hired detectives, the unexpected heroes and hidden villains and confused bystanders, all acting in entirely believable ways. A great cinematic invocation of some tragic, necessary history.

I'm not really sure how Me and Orson Welles ended up on my Netflix list; the description sounded somewhat interesting, I guess, but I knew basically nothing about it when it arrived, and thus I came to the movie without any expectations. Formally a kind of rom-com, it follows a young, callow, rich kid who--with a combination of real talent, artistic desperation, and what we would recognize today as elite privilege--manages to catch the eye of Orson Welles in 1937 New York City and land a role in his infamous Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar, and along the way has romantic adventures and learns about growing up. The casting is brilliantly smart, the dialogue wonderfully expressive, and the set design simply terrific--but for all that, 90 minutes into the movie I just thought I was watching something charmingly well-made, not great. Then director Richard Linklater recreates, as the film's narrative climax, some of the scenes of Welles's Caesar, of which there are only sketches and a few staged photographs as evidence of what it looked like. And it floored me. I know Julius Caesar pretty well, but man...the assassination of Caesar, and the murder of Cinna, gripped me as only the best live theater ever can. A good movie, but every theater fan needs to watch it just to see those wonderful, concluding scenes.

Parasite is everything everyone was saying it was last year: a shockingly blunt story of class conflict, an unsettling tale of shifting ethical burders, a showcase of brilliantly etched character moments, and a visually sumptuous depiction of wealth and poverty and the routines of life lived by those who inhabit both realms in South Korea today. Plus it's a mystery story, and a dark comedy, and almost a caper flick too. Bong Joon-ho's expertly recreated 1980s South Korea in Memories of Murder was one of my favorite films of 2013, and his sci-fi and horror flicks Snowpiercer and The Host have been great, off-beat productions as well. Going forward, he's definitely one to watch.

Paterson is definitely the oddest film on this list; quiet and subtle and plain, spending a couple of days accompanying a bus-driving, poetry-writing former Marine through his banal routines might seem like an almost experimental art film. The original poetry which flows across Paterson's mind and the screen is a beautiful device, and often provided a fascinating counter-point to the quotidian scenes they are super-imposed upon, but through prosaic encounters, daily ups and downs, and dramatic conflicts that end practically before they begin, it didn't seem to me to be adding up to anything significant. Then, at the movie's end, we are given a dramatic intervention by...what? One of the Twelve Muses? One of the Three Nephites? An angel? Who knows. All I can say is that, suddenly, Paterson's poetry matters--to him, to his world, to the movie itself--in a way it hadn't before, but also in a way that I wouldn't have appreciated if I hadn't watched all the quiet dailyness which had come before. A great accomplishment.

I stared this entry talking about how many documentary films I watched this year, and I end on the same note. Whatever combination of changes which streaming services, the wide availability of professional-level filmiing and editing technology, and just the zeitgeist of the moment has wrought upon us, one of the more pleasant results is that there is simply tons of pretty excellent movies out there documenting and recreating moments of our shared artistic and pop cultural history. No, such documentaries aren't aspiring to do anything as important as The Act of Killing or as thrilling as Free Solo, but dammit, learning all about the Funk Brothers in the wonderful Standing in the Shadows of Motown, or all about the making of the cult favorite Galaxy Quest in the actually moving Never Surrender was simply awesome, and anyone who says otherwise was either never a geek or is lying to you. Of all of the dozens of such musical and movie and cultural documents I watched this year, my award for the best has to go to What We Left Behind, a simply terrific and deeply loving tribute to--as well as an incisive exploration of--the strangest stepchild of the Star Trek family, Deep Space Nine. I don't deny my bias; DS9 is one of those few television shows that I can honestly say changed my life, or at least changed the way I thought about my relationship to art and story-telling and fandom and whatever fandom may choose to care about (and, given that DS9, during its seven-year run, took on a huge range of topics, that range of care-via-fandom was often huge!). In What We Left Behind many of those topics are addressed, sometimes with praise, sometimes with regret, and always with honesty. Plus, some of the conceits of the documentary are just delicious fun, like getting the old writers together to hash out an entirely hypothetical (OR IS IT?) reboot of the show, 20 years on, or having the irreplaceable Nathan Robinson, channeling Garak, his mysterious spy character from the show, show up every once in a while to provide snarky meta-commentary on the documentary itself. A wonderful work of cinema? Obviously not. But one of the best two hours I spent watching something all year? Oh yeah, absolutely.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Some Possibly Helpful Thoughts on Localism, Populism, and Proximity During a Pandemic

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

The departure of Donald Trump from the White House [crosses fingers] will assuredly not mean the departure of Trumpism from American life. The collection of grifters, paranoiacs, and devout (and, I think, devoutly misinformed) Christians who embraced Trump as the salvation of our broken liberal capitalist state may or may not stick with the man himself (or rather with the narcissistic tweetstorms that will no doubt continuously flow from his mansion in Florida), but the populist discontent which he channeled, the sense of technological alienation, socio-economic frustration, and constitutional disregard many justifiably feel in relation to our ever-increasingly unequal, undemocratic, and elite-driven country--that, I'm certain, we're stuck with. That can been as a threat requiring constant condemnation--or maybe, instead, we can dig into this discontent, find its constructive elements, relocate them, and use them to build a different, more local and less easily abused political foundation.

Of course, figuring out how to disentangle Trump from ideas embraced by, at the very least, hundreds of thousands of voters, is no simple matter. Populism--which, borrowing from The Oxford Handbook of Populism, I'll define minimally as "an ideology that posits a struggle between the will of the common people and a conspiring elite," and thus is, among other things, "a normative response to perceived crises of democratic legitimacy--is an alluring idol, the promise (one which many consider democratically dangerous) of making political connections with the imagined masses who feel alienated from or resentful towards those who wield social power within the dysfunctional mass democracies of today. I say "imagined" masses not because I reject the possibility of such alienation and resentment operating on a nation-wide scale; rather, I call it imagined because the populist articulations we see around us, whether expressed as a positive or a negative, are almost inevitably couched in a statist, collective context--and the pioneering work of Benedict Anderson decades ago has made it impossible, I think, for serious people to speak casually of national communities and their political expressions through states without recognizing their fundamentally "imaginary" quality, as things constructed through acts of affective identification and imagination.

Scholars who recognize this imaginary element in the politics of the contemporary democratic nation-state are often quick to suggest alternative stories which the inhabitants of such states could, or should, tell themselves, so as to short-circuit the lure of populist stories that, in the view of many of them, invariably cast the fight between the “common people” and the “conspiring elite” in dangerously ethnic or exclusionary terms. Their goal is to find a way to cast the affective identification and imagination at work in liberal capitalist states into the civic realm: hence, “civic nationalism” or “constitutional patriontism.” This effort, while it has had great influence in the scholarship on national identity over the past 30 years, has seemed less than wholly convincing as populist narratives have revived over the same period. Rogers Smith, while sharing the fear of these scholars regarding the threat to liberal democracy which populist narratives present, suggests that any political story which fundamentally rests on “pledging allegiance to an abstract creed” is doomed to struggle.

Instead, Smith argues that those stories which will lastingly engage the affective imagination of a people are the ones which focus on “a shared endeavor that participants can see as expressive of their identities and interests as well as their ideas.” This is not a denial of the constitutive role which acts of political imagination will invariably involve, but it suggests that such affective expressions need not be either “mechanistic” (which suggest unchanging laws or identities) or “teleological organicist” (which suggest an inevitable evolution towards a destiny or end-state); a people can also see itself constituted through “contextual accounts” which derive themselves from mapping “how the interactions of different units in [society] foster change in those units and in the society as a whole.”

Given Smith’s appreciation of the constitutive function which a story about the contextual interactions of different parts of aspects of a social group can serve for the group itself--an appreciation he deepens even further when he associates the best kind of national stories with “reticulation”: that is, they will “weave networks” that “transform jumbles of differences into more orderly and attractive arrangements that generally have more utility and durability”--it is unfortunate that he never seriously considers any group besides the nation state. After all, his talk of contextual accounts of a jumble of different subgroups and distinct social units being woven into a network which constitutes an appreciation of the whole has an obvious analog in a very important, though clearly not national, form of imagined community: the city. Consider the applicability of Smith’s considerations to Jane Jacob’s justly famous description of the “sidewalk ballet” of a thriving city in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: 

Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance--not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations. 

That Smith does not recognize this obvious parallel is perhaps a matter of convenience; while he allows that our globalized and interconnected world allows for a cacophony of potential political stories, he sees “narratives of nation-states” as possessing a “simplicity, clarity, and authority” which “proponents of rival senses of political identity often can manage only with great difficulty.” Or it is possible that he sees that convenience as reflecting something natural and inevitable. William Galston, relying in part on the political theorist Pierre Manent, makes this point multiple times in his own recent attack on populist narratives; it is essential, he writes, to make a civic case for the pluralist and democratic nation-state, because only a government that is incorporated by national bodies can have the scale of representation to make genuinely “legitimate decisions about laws and rules,” and only a national body can incorporate enough resources to generate the sort of wealth that can reward the very human characteristic of “ceaseless effort and ingenuity in the service of material improvement.” Democracy at our present moment, according to this argument, requires a liberal capitalist nation-state, and since such states create elites, and elites can be depicted as threatening the common people by populist demagogues, the great task of theorists of democracy, in Galston’s and Smith’s minds at least, is to call for the sorts of stories and public policies that will prevent the populist narratives which are parasitic upon such states from gaining any political ground.

My concern, at this point, should be obvious: if the fundamental problem with populism--and the efforts which some theorists go to either counter or re-orient its appeal as a constitutive narrative of affective imagination--is the complicated fact of its appeal to the feelings of powerlessness and longings for popular control which exist in the contemporary nation-state, then what about focusing on the constitutive, people-building power of other, less statist scales of belonging? Of course, so long as our national governing bodies wield sovereign power, and our major media organs remain committed to casting every debate into terms of what effect said debate will have on the use or abuse of state power, any such alternative will face many practical obstacles. But those obstacles may not be insurmountable.

One particular way in which localism has taken on theoretical forms which potentially carry with them real possibilities for constituting a sense of popular identity is the family of ideas which are sometimes referred to as the “new municipalism” or “radical municipalism.” Heavily indebted to the “libertarian municipalism” of Murray Bookchin, but expressed in light of a more locally interconnected understanding of participatory democracy than his did, it is an attempt to think more seriously about what a politically empowered egalitarian commons would look like in a localized urban context. That such models can be productively imagined and politically built upon in relatively rural contexts is an understanding as old as Thomas Jefferson’s proposed ward system or Alexis de Tocqueville’s idealization of the egalitarian town meetings of 19th-century America. The parallels between those associational forms and those spoken of by the Populists of late 19th-century America are strong--but considering how poorly the Populists fared in America's urban centers, that would only seem to further suggest the incompatibility between populist formations and the urban life most American citizens live.

Yet perhaps the distinguishing feature that municipalist narratives could offer, one which borders on the populist articulation of a defense of the common people and yet does not get hung up on inevitably statist definitions of citizenship and claims to a sovereign people--definitions which, in the 19th century, became entangled with an anti-urbanism and an anti-immigrant ethnic sentiment, echoes of which continue to Trump’s so-called “populism” today--is their rigorous focus on the most basic phenomenological fact of urban life: bodies in proximity to each other (which is exactly the same central reality to Jacob’s sidewalk ballet). As Bertie Russell observed:

[The] municipalist movements have found themselves building on a unique potential of the urban--proximity. In its simplest forms, we can understand the quality of proximity the observation that...the local level is the place the space where shifts and changes can truly be transformative in terms of impacting people’s lives....[Their] initiatives are harnessing the potential of the urban scale through adopting a politics of proximity, the concrete bringing together of bodies (rather than of citizens, who already come with a [state-defined] territory) in the activation of municipalist political processes that have the capacity to produce new political subjectivities....[We] should understand the politics of proximity as attending to those forces that pull us together, as opposed to those forces that push us apart. Whilst contemporary urbanization is characterized by the ever-increasing massification of bodies...this same urbanization is driven by dynamics that pull us ever further apart. Perhaps it is precisely because of this contradiction that the municipality has been adopted as a key site through which a politics of proximity can be pursued. 

While the theoreticians of municipalism have thus far, to my knowledge, not thought to connect populist stories about constitutive identification (or their more civic equivalents) with the urban “subjectivities” that they see as emerging through the politicalization of the proximate bringing together and shifting and changing of human bodies, the parallels are, I think, obvious. The focus on the needs of human bodies, on organizing to maintain their proximate patterns of movement and change, or resisting those socio-economic forces which pull people apart, inducing alienation in the place of togetherness--that all can fit within a populist framework. Remember that Smith argued that the best stories of identification must incorporate some degree of “reticulation,” some respect for the pluralistic “patterns among the elements that constitute a larger whole.” In rural or suburban environments, it may correctly be the fact that the distance between bodies requires a narrative of affective and imaginary identification on a national scale, since locally there isn’t sufficient shifting and changing to prevent the craving for such stories to land upon exclusive, ethnic ones. But in cities? The requisite reticulation which the constituting story needs to making human plurality into a part of one’s imagined community, rather than an obstacle to it, will be as obvious as the foot traffic on the sidewalk outside one’s front door (or at least potentially could be, anyway).

Margaret Kohn's work on the "urban commonwealth" provides a specific example of putting this kind of imagined subjectivity--a non-statist, urban sense of the common people united against those who would alienate and privatize them from one another--to direct political work. Kohn refers to the theoretical construct she explores as “solidarism,” but at one point in her analysis the populist parallel is made explicit. Using the urban uprisings of a decade ago--Occupy Wall Street being the best known in the United States, but with parallels all around the world--as her model, she suggests that life in cities today is increasingly teaching more and more people to rethink how they see themselves as bodies which occupy public, democratically articulated spaces. In association with that particular urban education, Kohn postulates a greater awareness of how it is that those spaces, and the means by which they are "common" to those who live and move and change within them–speaking here of the roads and parks and playgrounds and markets through which healthy urban activity is expressed--are separated from them, thus making them, presumably, something that people can feel no politically identifying affection for.

Enabling this awareness are the operations of, in Kohn’s words, "two very different understandings of the term 'public.'" The first she calls the "sovereigntist model, which identifies the public with the state," and the second the "populist model, which sees the public as a force which emerges outside of state institutions in order to challenge policies and publicize issues that do not make it onto the government’s agenda.” Predictably, the sovereigntist model requires a regulative state in order for the urbanites to find identification through their actions in their spaces: “A public space is one that is owned, authorized, or regulated by the state.” Whereas the populist model defends the contentious interaction of persons, with their always shifting associations, as a necessary component of persuasion; it justifies “the public as a force that emerges outside of state institutions in order to challenge policies and publicize issues that do not make it onto the government’s agenda.” In short, Kohn is pointing to a kind of populist imaginary which comes from the same space as the subjectivities which radical municipalism invokes: finding oneself constituted as a community through the practice of “extralegal” action, putting bodies into public space “as a way of ensuring that the law does not protect the interests of the elite at the expense of the common people."

Obviously, talk of the people being able to exercise political force in regards to public places "outside of state institutions" is terrifying to those who consider state-enforced property rights to be sacrosanct. Such urban and local populist formulations do not necessarily take a clear position on the place of private property (Kohn herself doesn't, recognizing that the idea of "social rights" or the "right to the city" are far from fully developed), but again, the key point is not contesting every particular argument being made as part of this intellectual shift. Rather, the point is taking up the discontent which issues in the whole drive to politically express oneself through in connection with one's collectively self-articulated people and place, and explore the possibilities of the shift itself.

It is my belief--and, with a little creative re-interpretation, perhaps a belief which aligns with the theoretical work done by the theorists and activists mentioned here--that populism, the popular engagement of people against elites, can be made relevant to political formulations outside of national imaginaries. And if the rhetoric of populism really can be theoretically articulated as a local and urban matter, then perhaps exclusive national narratives, whatever their effectiveness, could also be understood as invoking a language which is parasitic upon the embodied place where populist feeling mostly actually resides. To be certain, it is ridiculously unlikely that a conceptual exploration like this one could be persuasive enough to be even just a small part of making incoherent any further Trumpist and state-dependent abuse of the valid populist sentiments out there. But given how likely it is that our national pre-occupations will allow bad actors like our soon-to-be-former president to continue to turn legitimate frustrations with the elite disregard of our  proximate (and, for most of us, urban) places in nationalist, exclusivist directions, any rhetorical and intellectual resistance, however small, is worth doing.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Why The Cult of Smart is a Book for Every Parent in 2020 (Whether Anarcho-Socialist or Not)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

This past summer a book was published, with little fanfare, that made what was, in retrospect, an argument that millions of middle-class, public-schooling parents everywhere--my wife and I included--desperately needed to hear. The argument was, in essence: don't worry about your kids and the inconsistent online education they are likely receiving thanks to the pandemic; just remember that while teachers matter a great deal, and the information which teachers have to impart to our children matters as well, the actual structure of the "schooling" received by students really doesn't matter much at all, or at least not in the way most successful members of our society have come to believe.

That's an unfair and reductive description of Frederik deBoer's fine (if somewhat overlong and scattered) The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice, but it's not fundamentally inaccurate. The primary target of deBoer's book is the American educational meritocracy and those who, because they benefit most from it, are among the last to see its harms, and thus who most frequently push hard against both common sense and scientific data in their efforts to keep it working. But in surveying all that aforementioned data, and explaining how it reveals the very small role that certain types of formal education--however expensive or expert--ultimately play in expanding minds and developing talents, deBoer's attack on meritocratic elites also serves as a consolation to parents and caregivers worried about what their children, and students all across America, may be missing out on. As he writes at the end of his chapter on school quality--following paragraphs of delightfully vicious swipes at Harvard, Yale, and the Gates Foundation--even when we synthesize data from "more than a hundred studies over a 15-year period" looking at the "benefits of...afterschool programs, behavioral interventions, computer-assisted teaching, and more," the results are undeniable: "most things didn't work." He concludes that "[t]his is not an argument that school does not matter" (he notes, for example, the limited yet real impact that small group tutoring can have); rather, "it is instead a question of how school matters" (pp. 120-121). Hence the succor that can be found in The Cult of Smart: if online learning often seems to consist, at least in part, of far too many poorly delivered, incoherently received make-work assignments--and as a college professor myself, I assure you: I am entirely familiar with the pressures which have led struggling instructors around the world to arrive at these far from engaging assignments!--then rest easy; if you're still taking the time to help your kids out around the dinner table, then you're already doing the thing that matters most to their education anyway.

It is unfortunate that "doing homework at the dinner table" is so commonly--however inaccurately--coded as "conservative"; I promise you (again, speaking from personal experience) that left-leaning parents make use of such family schooling traditions just as much of right-leaning ones do. Still, perhaps that coding was inevitable. All through last year, it was solely conservative media outlets which gave deBoer's book any attention; reviews of the book--all of which praised different parts of his argument, if not the whole thing--appeared in National Review, the Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, and the Washington Examiner. It's possible that deBoer--a self-described revolutionary socialist, and a writer who has an equal reputation for thoughtfulness and contrariness--takes some pleasure from being ignored or misunderstood by his own ideological compatriots, but missing his provocative claims is a loss for the American left. It's also possible that, on some deep, inarticulate level, these conservative outlets thought deBoer's book was worth engaging with because the reviewers recognized in it some parallel with Ivan Illich's anarchist classic Deschooling Society, which they learned about from some hippies that sneaked into a home-schooling conference they attended once. In all likelihood, though, none of the above applies; rather, the more likely answer is that the media outlets which took the book seriously were those who like running features that challenge, as they see it, the aims of public education, and the media outlets which dislike challenging the those premises didn't. (In the interests of full disclosure, let it be known that earlier versions of this review were submitted by me to Dissent, Jacobin, and The Nation, all without success--which may be a reflection of the quality of my writing, but I suspect there is more to it than that.

The one extensive exception to this (and boy, is it ever extensive) came from Nathan J. Robinson of the very left-leaning Current Affairs, who wrote a massive, purposefully exhausting response to The Cult of Smart, claiming in essence that it is correct both that the right has looked positively upon the book and that the left has ignored it, since deBoer's arguments, according to Robinson, embrace the same racist assumptions which Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray infamously wove into their arguments over a quarter-century ago in The Bell Curve, only repurposing their old genetic judgments about the heritability of intelligence for anti-meritocratic ends. Robinson’s overlong effort to bury his earlier, pre-publication enthusiasm for deBoer’s book is, I think, almost entirely mistaken. The Cult of Smart, despite its flaws, does have something distinct to contribute to the development of a socialist vision of education--and, in that such a vision exists in opposition to that which is presumed by our liberal meritocratic bureaucracies, to a localist, even anarchist, vision of education as well. While it is fair to push back against some of the ideas which deBoer’s consideration of cognitive science leads him to, his is absolutely a left (maybe left conservative?) argument, and not a repackaging of Herrnstein and Murray. The challenges which cognitive psychology and neuroscience have already posed to numerous fields--education in particular--will not go away any time soon; leftists and anarchists and localists of all stripes, so long as they accept that education is a public good, need an appropriate framework to develop the sorts of answers to those challenges which will advance their ideals. DeBoer’s book, whatever its limitations, is an excellent place to start doing so, granting it a value far beyond simply reminding parents like my wife and I not to worry too much about what their daughters may have missed out on as their teachers struggled to make physical education, forensics, and culinary arts classes work online.

DeBoer’s primary two-part thesis is simple. First, he asserts that the role which genetic differences play in any given person’s cognitive ability and academic inclinations, while not determinative in any final sense--as deBoer writes in his introduction, “the relationship between genes and behavioral traits is neither perfect nor fixed; environment does matter, to a varying degree, and there are interventions that can ameliorate some of the impact of genes” (p. 23), a caveat which Robinson seems to have missed entirely--ought to accepted as a matter of policy. But second, he notes that as much as we may causally acknowledge the ordinary reality of these differences, the “cult of smart” prevents us from fully accepting these differences for what they are. Instead, we find ourselves institutionally driven to maximize access to the meritocracy of contemporary life, telling ourselves that education--assuming the opportunity for such can somehow, someday, finally be fully guaranteed to all--will be the great equalizer. But as any educator who looks at the data honestly can tell you, that is always, at best, a partial truth. What deBoer sees, not unreasonably, as the denial of this fact simply infuriates him: “The Cult of Smart, for the people who excel within it, is more than a political platform or a vision of success. It is a totalizing ideology that colors everything they buy, say, and do” (p. 32).

All of the debates about educational outcomes which deBoer introduces in the early chapters are controversial, and his approach to them is often uneven. Still, deBoer’s slaying of various cows sacred to the education establishment in America is kind of a delight. It’s hard to deny that progressive efforts to make schools both more effective and more egalitarian have often relied upon data which only masks how much the results of America’s unequally funded education system often simply entrench income inequality. Similarly, it is clear that many articulations of equality of opportunity implicitly posit students as “blank slates,” ready to compete, which only increases the pressures on both students and teachers to come up with evidence to prove to legislators and donors the supposedly transformative outcomes of learning. As much as more than few philosophical liberals--of both progressive and conservative varieties--may be loath to admit it, our reluctance to be honest about differences in natural academic talent (in contrast to our uncomplicated acceptance of most differences in natural athletic or artistic talent, which are generally seen as obvious) does seem to be a contributor to our constant expensive experiments with school quality, test scores, teacher accountability, and more, giving us along the way such arguable misfires as No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and various other “ed-tech boondoggles,” in deBoer’s wonderful phrase.

It is the book's middle which gets to the meat of the argument, however: the “heritability of academic ability,” and consequently the very real possibility that “the range of the possible in the classroom is dramatically smaller than conventionally assumed....[with a] large portion of the variation in academic outcomes...remain[ing] permanently out of the hands of schools and teachers” (p. 121). Robinson sees this claim as a criminal reduction of the always unknown potential lurking in the relationship between students and their environment, or even students and their past selves. But even if deBoer’s examples aren’t always as careful as they could be, his presentation of the science around them is succinct and clear. His efficient summary of numerous studies in behavioral genetics, as well as critiques of those studies, leads to the carefully stated conclusion that “the impact of genetic ancestry on human behavioral traits seems indisputable” (p. 137). Despite his penchant for picking fights, deBoer is uncharacteristically sympathetic to the challenge which this information puts to those who have fought so long for what they generally accepted as the true "ideal" of public education (simplistically put, that literally any student can achieve literally anything they put their mind to) but neither does that understanding cause him to pull back:

It’s understandable...that many progressive people have decided to wash their hands of the topic of genetics and intelligence altogether. Understandable, but disturbing. Disturbing because by avoiding these subjects, good people have essentially ceded the conversation to bad....I believe that we can engage in the fight against bigotry in all forms while acknowledging the overwhelming evidence that intelligence, like all cognitive traits, is significantly influenced by genetic parentage. In fact, we need to do to so....[W]e need to separate a belief in claims about individual genetic difference from claims about group genetic differences. Through grappling with the data, we can craft better arguments against those who would misuse it to advance their racist and sexist agendas. Or we can ignore the data, dismiss the subject entirely, cede the field to the worst people imaginable, and suffer the consequences (pp. 140-141).

What, in deBoer’s view, are those better arguments? Central to them is a recognition of how the meritocracy, and its roots in a libertarian reading of the equality of opportunity, should have no place is any actually democratic public school system. DeBoer makes good use of John Rawls’s concept of the “veil of ignorance” as a tool for intellectually justifying the creation of a social contract--and, for that matter, a public school system--where we shape circumstances without any cognizance of our natural assets, abilities, or intelligence. As a socialist, though, he goes beyond Rawls’s assumption that a redistributive principle can ameliorate the differences which will nonetheless result from the purely opportunistic (and thus invariably luck-influenced) choices in our resulting lives, and instead suggests that our insights into cognitive differences should point us away from the glorification of equality of opportunity entirely. In the educational sphere especially, “opportunity” is often tied to specific academic measurements, which different people with different genetic traits, insofar as deBoer's argument points, can probably never realistically give full and equal consent to. Consequently, the aim of education should instead be to accommodate the widest possible range of dispositions among students. The goal should be empowerment and plurality, rather than equality and uniformity.

That many educators already know this, and have leaned hard in its direction in the midst of the pandemic-related disruptions experienced in many of the (perhaps sometimes too restrictive) patterns which govern much public school teaching, is important to emphasize. And it is something parents like myself have needed to hold onto as well: the idea that the ability of kids is variable, as is the number of paths open to them, and that such variability will not be much changed by however much schooling itself changes (or, sometimes, simply fails). While any number of civic goods or socializing experiences might be more tied to one particular form of public education or another, whatever empowering academic potential which schooling itself has almost certainly is not. 

These realizations and experiences do not on their own, however, amount to an alternative--a leftist, localist, or anarcho-socialist alternative--to deBoer's "equality of opportunity" canard. While I think deBoer is correct that it is a misunderstanding of classic Marxist thought to enshrine “equality” as a central socialist goal, he doesn’t do enough in the book’s final chapters to really develop what alternatives to it would involve. This is unfortunate. DeBoer’s exploration of diverse reforms (including the intriguing suggestion that compulsory schooling end and children be allowed to drop out of school after age 12--something which more that a few parents dealing with pandemic-related school closings probably think they've already experienced!), as part of his drive to undermine the Cult of Smart and “save us from our smart-kids-take-all economy” (p. 227), are thoughtful but hardly systematic. By failing to more consistently consider the character of a truly socialist and pluralistic education model, and instead engaging in yet another attack on charter schools (as well as a passing swipe at the anti-communism of Michael Harrington and the Democratic Socialists of America), deBoer doesn’t provide a theoretical structure to support his conclusion: that the aim to “achieve [academic] equality of any meaningful kind is to deny our nature,” while using education to recognize that “we have fundamentally different abilities and talents...is the first step in [our] liberation” (p. 239).

Here, deBoer's arguments can be fruitfully compared with a similarly radical attack on our educational meritocracy from two decades ago, one which lacks deBoer's insight into cognitive research (and his accidental pandemic relevance!), but which shares his radical passions. In 2000, Michael W. Apple, a well-known Marxist educator and scholar, published Educating the “Right” Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality (a second edition came out in 2006). It was a furious broadside against what he called “conservative modernization,” which philosophically was a misnomer, since what he was attacking was the neoliberal meritocracy, not anything actually conservative, properly speaking. But whatever the best label for the interest groups and educational entrepreneurs and reformers who crowded around the Bush I and Clinton administrations, Apple saw them all as blaming the lack of educational accomplishment in American public education on the supposedly stifling uniformity and secularity of the schools themselves. Their proposed solutions, as he saw them, involved undermining both teachers unions and the traditional (and, from our perspective today, distinctly non-high-tech) standards-enforcing bureaucracies which those unions had complicated opinions about, and replacing both with various market-based and localizable educational options (charter schools, public school vouchers, religious schools, home schooling, etc.) which would use cultural and economic competition (serviced by centralized corporate interests, to be sure) to generate excellence.

Needless to say, Apple found all of this appalling. But he also recognized that the ideas contained within this movement connected with the hopes and fears of many parents. To counter that connection, a new and "truly public school ideal" needed to adopt “a somewhat more populist set of impulses,” including “tactical alliances” with distinct religious, linguistic, and cultural groups, such as might be best served by properly constructed--that is, genuinely community-based, as opposed to corporately astroturfed--charter schools, or whatever else might best enable educators to respect “the cultures, histories, and experiences of these students and their parents and local communities.” The point being that, in confronting what he saw as a profound threat to the democratic possibilities of public education in America, Apple's socialist suggestions made room for difference and proceeded to think about how to make available to all something that needed to be shaped differently for all. (Educating the “Right” Way, pp. 100, 224-226, 228-229).

Apple's arguments are two-decades old, but the concepts they reflect--like the mature thought of Michael Harrington's anti-bureaucratic decentralist socialism, in fact--are relevant to the arguments which deBoer engages. Harrington, like many other socialist theorists, came to acknowledge that a truly democratic socialization of the economy--and, it seems reasonable to assume, of public education as well--would be the exact opposite of the totalizing meritocracy which we have today and which deBoer rightly condemns. Instead, it would partake of something almost republican in the civic sense: that is, distinct and at least partly autarkic communities of learning, work, leisure, and political participation. DeBoer touches on one aspect of this idea briefly, when he insightfully points out that the progressive reliance upon decreasing social mobility in America to attack income inequality is actually an implicit licensing of the disruption and meritocratic sorting--in other words, the “mobility”--which generates so much inequality in the first place (p. 156). But his insight that mobility (moving to find the best school district! competing to hire the best teachers!) is at best orthogonal, if not in some ways actually in opposition, to a genuinely egalitarian educational environment, is never connected to the larger theoretical question of a model that sustains people in all their various different creations of the good life in the places they are. Given deBoer’s rejection of any form of the charter school idea which Apple saw as potentially a component in a populist front against supposedly-free-but-actually-corporatized educational “reforms” (assuming that such charters could be designed around a difficult balance of non-discrimination and real local pluralism, rather than around fake promises of efficient, competition-driven results), it would at least have been good to see deBoer present other alternatives for building a truly differentiated public schooling movement--like the formal enlistment of home schooling, or attaching educational institutions to local guilds of apprenticeships, perhaps. (Something for those 12-year-olds who, having learned the basics of reading and writing, dropped out!)

I don't want to condemn deBoer’s book for failing to flesh out all its own theoretical parameters and implications. The Cult of Smart is deeply entrenched in most modern systems of public education around the world, and the increasingly clear reality of cognitive and genetic differences between different human beings poses not just a practical challenge to educators committed to giving everyone an idealistically equal opportunity to prove their merit, but also a painfully sharp one to some liberals whose membership in the Cult makes them want to deny this reality entirely, since it threatens the usual justifications of the meritocracy which gave them the positions they enjoy. By forcing his readers to recognize the Cult for what it is, and why neuroscience and behavioral genetics should be opportunities for critics of the meritocracy--whether from a socialist or a localist or yet some other ideological direction--to make the case for an education that empowers rather than one which vainly strives to homogenize, deBoer has performed an important service. And, not incidentally, as 2020 draws to a close, he has given parents and caregivers obsessing over what their students may be missing out on something different to worry about. As an educator myself, I want to do the best I can in terms of teaching my students. But it's helpful, as I close the books on the fall 2020 semester, to be reminded, as this book does implicitly, of something that every teacher and parent ought to remember as well: that basically, more often than not, the kids, in all their variety and abilities and interests, are, and likely always will be, pretty much all right.

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

What Happens When Parties Can No Longer Be Managed Moderately?

[This is a somewhat expanded version of a piece that appeared in the Wichita Eagle over the weekend; I received an e-mail on Sunday which causes me to think more about what I mean by "moderation," and this is the result.] 

A few weeks after the dust settled from the 2020 elections here in Kansas, I was giving an online presentation on the election results to the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. Many of the virtual participants had good questions, but the most common one was some variation on a question that has been a constant here in Kansas, and elsewhere, for decades now: “Whatever happened to moderate Republicans?” It's a good question, thought obviously not a new one.

That the parties--both following and, not frequently, shaping the voters which support them--have become more polarized over the past generation is well-supported. I think the only people who can honestly say today, as I think could be at least plausibly claimed in the 1990s, that there is "no real difference between the two major parties," are people deeply committed to revolutionary or reactionary causes--everyone else clearly understands that, in both marginal and major ways, elections have consequences. And it follows, therefore, that when you see party positions become less variable and flexible, and more tightly wound around ideological poles distant from each other, that's going to have consequences for governance. It is those consequences--and specifically, in Republican-heavy Kansas, the consequences of the state Republican party having become inhospitable for the moderates and liberals who once found shelter within it--which had my good-government-concerned interlocutors most worried.

Kansas's strongly Republican (and, yes, "conservative," but actually, for reasons of history, it's even more a matter of party than ideology) majority has been in place for many decades. But for a good number of those decades the state Republican party was a fairly crude instrument, one that contained diverse factions, but those factions could be played off one another, allowing for a degree of elite management. I use "management" there purposefully, because that is--for many observers of elections and the processes by which parties serve as the machines which transform, through representative elections, voter preferences into actual legislative and executive action, anyway--exactly what is presumably demanded: managers who, through the judicious orchestration of the mechanics by which voters and candidates produce majorities which can pass bills and enforce laws, do their best to make certain that those majorities are in respectable, balanced, or above all "moderate" ways.

More often than not, those who found themselves in the role of managers were various moderate and liberal Republicans, politicians and donors and strategists who worked hard to connect with--and, by so doing, cultivate--a particular kind of Republican voter. This isn't anything unique; this type of Republican--mostly suburban, mostly college-educated, and mostly committed to the success of their local public schools and other civic organizations--was the backbone of state Republican parties for decades all across the country. These voters (and in Kansas, you found them overwhelmingly in the suburban and exurban communities which surrounded Kansas's cities, and hence the largest numbers of them were found in northwestern Kansas, in and around Kansas city) faithfully supported the GOP, but they also often protected and rewarded those who dissented from any strictly conservative or libertarian ideological line. The result was a consistent majority party that nonetheless remained somewhat flexible, with many elected representatives who tended to move left or right as the times warranted.

Ed Flentje was a long-time Wichita State University professor, a scholar and a gentleman whose place as a regular column writer for Kansas newspapers I had the honor to take over. One of his great themes over the years was to trumpet this historical happenstance in the history of Kansas's political parties as one of the primary virtues of politics in the Sunflower State. We are a state with a decided (more than 2-to-1) Republican majority among voters, thus providing stability and predictability. At the same time, this Republican majority was divided enough between moderates and conservatives that a crucial number of its elected representatives could, from one issue to the next, ally with the minority Democrats or with the more conservative part of the Republican majority in the legislature, thus allowing the party to adapt, innovate, and pursue good government policies, even progressive ones on occasion. This is, Flentje strongly implies, the best of both wolds: consistent Republican party leadership, but a Republican party that regularly had moderates like Dick Bond and Bill Graves and Jean Schodorf leading the way. So thorough was the managing power of this party faction over the decades that the representatives elected by strongly conservative voters--whom, in the wake of the Summer of Mercy and the movement of Wichita, Kansas's largest city, to the right, probably constituted the majority of Kansas Republicans--were themselves seen as the small, trouble-making faction: "Republican rebels" who messed with the state party's commitment to be "the party of government," as Burdett Loomis, another long-time observer of Kansas politics, once put it.

In the introduction to a recent collection of his newspaper writings, Flentje remains confident that the patterns he often defended still hold. The collection includes ten years of columns which follow the path of Sam Brownback as he thoroughly remade the Kansas Republican party, driving out moderates in political primaries throughout his first term as government, and embarking on a fiscal revolution that had terrible consequences for our state. Though the “Brownback Revolution” took the Kansas Republican party, and thus the state government, in what he recognizes as an immoderately right-ward direction for a time, he sees that as a historical aberration, and believes the moderate Republican faction--who were essential to Governor Laura Kelly’s election in 2018--will continue to provide balance. He says this, while noting at the same time that he writes as one who is almost certainly a "RINO" (Republican In Name Only) in the eyes of many of his fellow Kansas Republicans, and also noting that moderates need to do their job as managers of the center of the party better ("grassroots politics will require tending" is his observation). Nonetheless, his commitment to the value of elite party management, of working to promote and fund campaigns and narratives which will put moderate Republicans in a deal-making, compromise-finding position, remains firm.

I don't dispute the value of Flentje's determination, given the convoluted ways that we have historically gotten our nation-wide, representative, two-party system we have. The United States was filled with various informal state-based party arrangements which functioned in mostly moderate ways--even though that regularly involved the exclusion of small segments of the local electorate--throughout the 20th century. But those arrangements may no longer hold. The 2020 election delivered a Republican majority to the Kansas House almost exactly the same as the one which existed when Sam Brownback was first elected governor a decade ago, and that similarly defiant, un-moderate, Trump-centric campaigns led to Republican wins in Congress and state legislatures across the nation, perhaps it is the rather election of Kelly two-years ago, an election made possible by Republican crossing over to vote a Democrat, that will someday be seen as an aberration here in Kansas from the new, 21st-century style of party politics.

What is that style? It is, most of all, a nationalized one. Regional variations that once characterized American politics are dying out. Flentje and others long presumed that state parties were capable of local adaptation, and continued to believe so--as recently as 2014, despite the changes which the Tea Party had by then spent carrying out (some would say "hollowing out") with the national Republican party, Flentje still suggested that Kansas Democrats take a page from the playbook of Democratic Kansas Governor Bob Docking and explicitly rebuke the national party, signing off on the winning strategy of tying his re-election in 1972 to Richard Nixon's. This year, Kansas Democratic senate candidate Barbara Bollier's similar strategy, which included explicitly highlighting voters who intended to vote for her and President Trump, obviously didn't work nearly so well.

The nationalization of American politics has many sources. There is growing congressional dysfunction, the result of campaign finance rules and the way in which ideologically committed interest groups have captured political primaries, which has allowed (or even encouraged) presidents, our only nationally elected figure, to claim, as a matter of necessity, more and more executive power. There is the growing homogeneity and finance-centered character of the America's service economy, with powerful corporations, increasingly distanced from the variable work of actual production (since natural resources from which things can be produced naturally vary around the globe), imposing a kind of accidental uniformity of interests which makes ideology much more appealing way of eliciting voters' attention than traditional political log-rolling. But today, in particular, I think of my old friend Damon Linker's recent--and excellent--two-part essay on how media technologies are turning the tools by which party elites once kept populist extremes at bay against those same managers. His conclusion to the first part is striking:

[This is] what social media does: It allows for the constructing of identities and the cultivation of resentments in a virtual space among likeminded people separated by vast distances in the physical world. Instead of [James] Madison's highly differentiated republic of discrete communities with their own regional, factional interests--or the kind of slow-motion grassroots organizing we saw in the real world during the mid-20th century--we have new forms of rapid-fire, technologically facilitated solidarity among tens of millions of Americans separated by hundreds or thousands of miles but united by a sense of shared grievance and a commitment to lashing out against its sources, real and imagined.

In short, in a centralizing world of instantaneous communication, ideological slights and crusades, whether real or perceived, can amass a movement overnight--and apparently many voters, fearful of being represented by their ideological opponents (or so their news feeds depict them), follow along. Party leaders and donors are, predictably, sensitive to this, start operating on the basis of it, and perhaps are even happy to do so. Why would that be? Obviously, people whose political preferences cannot be easily packaged in a particular ideological construct are frustrated: their swing-vote tendencies are making them less and less important, particularly in states like Kansas, where one-party dominance is mostly unquestioned. But it's not unreasonable to suppose that a good many people in those areas of local dominance have long chafed at the management they've experienced, and wanted real contestation to take its place. The fact that the breaking of this state-specific Republican status quo was primarily due to national, to say nothing to global, movements and technologies is a frustrating irony for believers in participatory and local democracy like myself. Still, unlike some, I can't pretend that I see the eclipse of the cult of anti-populist moderation as entirely bad thing. Bad for Kansas state policies, its taxes and programs and civil society? Absolutely! But bad for Kansas's democratic health? There, I think I mostly agree with Ezra Klein, who draws upon research showing the degree of ideological and historical randomness out of which the label "moderate" emerges, and concludes that frequently the moderate label is "little more than a tool the establishment uses to set limits on the range of acceptable debate." In this jerry-rigged national political system we call our constitutional order, the conviction that there is something fundamentally wrong or illegitimate with ideologically unified and disciplined parties--if that is, in fact, the direction we're going--seems a step too far, to me.

Of course, 2020 was just one election. Who knows how the Republican party will evolve once Trump, whose constant Twitter declarations overwhelmed potential intra-party factions, is out of the White House? There's no good reason to believe that we'll see a complete return to some idealized 20th-century American "normal," but it may that at least a couple surviving moderate Republicans up in the northwest corner of Kansas may find themselves not quite so pressured to either abandon or conform to their party. Still, that's a slim possibility at best. More likely, we here in Kansas may need to start assuming that nationalized, polarized, and deeply divided parties are all we have for turning voter preferences into successful public policies.

That isn’t necessarily impossible; parliamentary democracies, with their “loyal opposition” and “shadow governments,” do it all the time. But that, obviously, involves a great deal of structural adaptation, the sort of thing that would have to emerge over time as parties confront more directly their paralyzed reality, and slowly shake off the deeply ingrained belief that "one more election" could make the difference in squelching their intra-party opponents. How to create such governing forms in Republican-heavy Kansas, however, where deal-making moderates were so central to the whole idea of good government for so long, is far from clear. So I guess I'd just conclude with this, speaking hypothetically here to those who asked me where the moderate Republicans had gone. Let's say times have changed, technology has changed, funding has changed, and that for all those reasons the times wherein moderate voters would regularly send a sufficient number of dissenters and adapters to Topeka under the Republican party, such as would necessitate compromise, are at an end. Figuring out how to enable our state government to work as it once did without that party crutch has to be job number one.