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Thursday, September 30, 2004

Now That Was a Surprise

I actually enjoyed watching the debate. I hate these things, normally. I hate the way they are controlled and negotiated; I hate the time constraints, the inability to follow-up on questions which demand follow-ups, the converse obsession with cramming in irrelevant asides for the sake of getting every possible sound bite out of every possible second. (How I wish that someday these things could be run like a real debate, and structured by people who really know something about rhetoric and argument!) As it is, I almost never watch them. But I had to watch this one, because I needed to know if I could feel anything positive about the fact that my vote will likely be for Kerry.

See, I'm primarily an expressive voter; while I can make instrumental calculations about the potential outcome of voting for this person in this district or this state at this time as well as anyone, for the most part I prefer to think of voting in terms situating and expressing myself in relation to other people, to causes and movements and principles. The point, in such cases, isn't necessarily to move or join the powers-that-be (though that can obviously also be a result); the point, rather, is to hear and be heard, or at least have the knowledge of having done such. Hence my (oft-defended, and not regretted) votes for Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000--not a man who I thought could be elected president, or even a man who I wanted to be elected president (he would have been terrible at the job), but a man who expressed something about globalization and trade and corporate power that I wasn't hearing from anyone else. This time around things are different; I'm living in (possibly) a swing state, and terrorism and war simply weren't on anyone's radar four or eight years ago. So I'm thinking more instrumentally than before. But that doesn't mean I don't want to find something positive in Kerry, something a vote for him can express. As I wrote back then: "One of the reasons I greatly fear that...Kerry will be annihilated is that there is little or no expressivity behind his impending nomination at all; his support is built primary out of a metaparanoia about how "other" voters [will act]." Instrumentality--or in other words, "winning"--can't be an end in itself, at least not in a world where the public life is meaningful.

It'd be ridiculous to say that this evening's debate gave "meaning" to Kerry's campaign, much less this whole depressing election. Still, in the midst of all the back and forth and fake grins and tense answers, as the minutes went by and Melissa and I watched and listened, I felt like I could really discern--and I got the impression from the way Bush and Kerry were reacting to the questions and each other that they felt other people were discerning as well--a genuine, substantive moral argument between these two men. It emerged vaguely, from somewhere within the nexus of personal style and talking points; it came out in the exchange over Iran ("We did engage the mullahs"; "No, the Europeans did") and North Korea ("You can't just talk one-on-one with Kim Jong Il"; "Maybe you can't but I can"), and at other points as well. Bush has invested a tremendous amount of his own self-understanding, not to mention his choices as president, in the solitude and "toughness" of being president--hard choices, got to be on the offensive, I know how these people think, etc., etc. He is a deeply, deeply self-reliant man. (Except he would say he relies on God, which doesn't undermine my point; in Bush's evangelical worldview, God is in his self, making him whole, supporting his difficult work. It's a legitimate theological perspective, if one that, I think at least, misunderstands the real operation of grace.) Kerry, by contrast, simply cannot understand why the president feels this way. He isn't embarrassed by the fact he's changed his mind, finessed the truth, shifted perspective, turned one set of tasks into another, seen and exploited connections, made simple things complex, shared burdens (and blame). He thinks that is what being in the world means; it's a kind of rough realism, actually. Whereas Bush, like most idealists of one stripe or another, sees himself as being rather along in the world. Just him (and God, and some close friends), and a whole lot of work to be done.

All in all, a revealing and meaningful evening, at least for me. I'm a chastened idealist, who is still trying to work out where and how and to what extent my thinking about Iraq went wrong. The idea of standing alone before God, or some principle or law or standard (human rights, democracy, religious truth, etc.), and knowing that one must act (or intervene, as is more usually the case for people in the situation of most readers of this blog), resonates with me. My Lutheran streak, perhaps: Hier stehe ich; Ich kann nicht anders? Maybe. But Bush's solitude is not for me, because it is, unfortunately, a careless solitude, one in which toughness is substituted competence. Matthew Ygelsias's instant assessment of Bush's primary claim this evening is on the money: "Sending a message is one thing. Killing Osama bin Laden is another. Sending a message is one thing. Retaking Falluja is another. Sending a message is one thing. Halting genocide in Darfur is another. Sending a message is one thing. Preventing a hostile Iran from going nuclear is another. Sending a message is one thing. Warding off the looming Iraqi Civil War is another."

Who won? Everyone else will ask that question, so there's no point in avoiding it. Bush didn't blow up, though occasionally I thought he was close to cracking. Kerry was less boring and less pompous and more succinct than I've ever heard him. Bush partisans will say Kerry just lectured; Kerry partisans will say Bush looked like a fool. My bet: the consensus view will be a grudging acknowledgement, even by most Republicans, that it wasn't Bush's best night, that he did look a little tired, and that Kerry did manage to fluster him a bit. But that's all; there will be crowing, but not much. Onward to November.

Upcoming Developments

I haven't written for a while, partly because every time I sit down and try to put into words this topic that's been raging around inside my head for weeks, I find something else in the blogosphere that I need to link to and think about and incorporate into my argument before I publish it. So my imagined post has just grown and grown, and I've had to break it up into multiple parts. I'm still not sure how many, but I've got to get it out soon, or else it'll never see the light of day.

What is it? Something of a manifesto, I suppose, though perhaps far too reflective to warrant such a label. All summer, just about everyone has been talking about Thomas Frank's book, What's the Matter with Kansas? It's a fascinating argument which Frank makes: so very right about many things, but so very wrong about the most important ones. To me, his book reveals something much larger than a simple electoral concern (or travesty, if you prefer); the disconnect between the conservative voting habits of culturally motivated lower- and working-class white voters in the American midwest and south and their (presumably more important) actual economic interests is a lot more interesting than a simplistic tale of elite capitalist Republicans manipulating fearful, redneck rubes. On the contrary, Frank helps get us close to the crossroads where (populist) culture and (progressive) class-concerns collide. But he refuses to look seriously at that crossroads, why it's there and what the costs of trying to transcend it or just dispose of it might be. In that sense, I have the same problem with Kansas that I had with John Judis and Ruy Teixeira's The Emerging Democratic Majority: a book that does so much to uncover the hard political demographic complications of culture and class in America today, but all in the name of just urging Democrats in the direction of a rather condescending bit of platform building. There is something that needs to be said here, something on behalf of the divide which these authors expose that doesn't turn it into a simple problem to be solved. I don't think these authors, in short, pay their topic the respect it deserves. (While I don't share either of their equally apocalyptic perspectives on the possible consequences of, and necessary responses to, this divide, I think both Timothy Burke and Scott Martens are at least aware of the depth of what's happening.) Whether I can actually manage to say what I think needs to be said, I don't know. But anyway, hopefully by this weekend or next week, I'll be able to start rolling my thoughts out. Expect excursions on the Democratic and Republican parties, socialism and populism, free trade and globalization, Christianity and Wal-Mart. Just what you've always come here to read, right?

In the meantime, be aware that I've installed a hack (borrowed from this good gentleman) that should make the comments function much more user-friendly. Also, keep an eye on what happens over at Laura's place. She's going to be talking about family and work-related issues all next week, and it appears that several high-powered academics and policy wonks are going to be following the conversation there closely. So if you have anything to say on those topics, plan on joining in the discussion; it's sure to be a rewarding one.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Rosh Hashanah

Today was one of those mornings where Alison was up early (around 5:00am) and wouldn’t go back to sleep, and so after feeding her Melissa went back to bed, and I put Alison in a stroller and went for a walk around the Arkansas State campus. It was dark out still, but warm: a pleasant early, late-summer morning. I could see the start pretty well for this part of Arkansas. Some whippoorwills were calling from the trees, but mostly it was just crickets and other ambient insect noise; other than that, silence. I was alone on the roads and walkways around campus, save for the delivery trunks arriving and the occasional night shift janitorial crew returning to their cars. As much as I'd like to have had a half-hour more sleep, it was a nice walk.

One of my oldest and strangest habits is my tendency to attempt to control and apportion my life and duties in a calendrical way: that is, I'm always searching for significant dates or events that I can use as an excuse to declare (to myself) a "fresh start" in whatever is occupying me at the time, or conversely declare something I've been struggling with "over," thus allowing myself to more easily rationalize and accept whatever incomplete, half-assed status things currently stand at, and forget about it. I've been doing this for years, and sometimes it’s bordered on an obsession--I've ripped pages out of my journal ("I'm starting over!"); deleted and set up again all my computer settings, just so traces of the "old arrangement" could be hidden away or self-consciously denied; rushed through assignments and responsibilities so they wouldn’t "cross over" into the "new deal" which I've convinced myself was going to begin the very next day; and so forth. Of course, I've also been bothered and embarrassed by this compulsive rebooting the whole time, and have engaged in all sorts of internal tricks to help me get over it (which has included both fretting about it on my old blog, and--in part--setting up this new one). In any case, knowing this about myself makes me, on some level or another, suspicious of the way in which I tend to turn holidays into dates of personal importance. But at the same time, I'm crazy about holidays, and don’t want my own hang-ups to get in the way of recognizing their essential importance.

Melissa and I incorporate just about any holiday we can plausibly conceive of a connection to into our family life. Traditional Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas, of course, but also various religious festivals connected to cultures and places with which we have some affinity: St. Andrew’s Day and St. Lucia's Day during the holiday season, for example. Then there are outright national, civic holidays: Independence Day, of course, but also Reunification Day (seeing as how our lifestyle gets in the way of celebrating Oktoberfest to its fullest) and Ch'usok, given our connection to both Germany and Korea. And we celebrate Rosh Hashanah. We don’t doing anything special--talk to the kids a little bit about the history and experience of the Jews, and eat some of Melissa's excellent challah bread for an evening meal after sundown--and I won’t pretend that we’re somehow plugging into something deeply authentic by putting it on our own personal (Mormon, American) calendars. Indeed, the closest personal connection I can claim to that tribe is my brother-in-law's wife, who was raised in a part-Jewish home. (They celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, for whatever that’s worth.) But I'm glad we do it anyway, and not just because it gives me the ability to take a nice early morning walk and, justifiably or not, lend the beginning of the day a certain (admittedly somewhat arbitrary, but nonetheless meaningful) significance.

Holidays are a way of putting ourselves in time, marking ourselves in relation to things that came before and things yet to come, people long dead and people yet to be born. Much communitarian thinking may, perhaps, be rightfully derided for being more a matter of philosophical anthropology than political theory, for failing to give any concreteness to the socially and morally necessary imperative to belong, but reflecting on holidays is one such area of inquiry where that accusation is, I think, clearly unwarranted. The calendric sense of recognition and orientation (not to mention the opportunity for association and celebration) afforded by holidays represents an affective binding at least as important, if not more so, than that associated with more explicitly shared beliefs, boundaries, or civic habits. (Charles Taylor has very thoughtfully focused on the role of holidays and rituals in the evolution our modern religious sensibility and "social imaginary"; Amitai Etzioni has led the way in more straightforwardly examining the sociological importance of the "ways we celebrate".) True, few Americans today live a sufficiently pious or agricultural life for liturgical or seasonal holidays to much normative force; believe me, we’ve packed up the kids and gone to see a movie on Christmas, just like the rest of you. But the eclipse of a holiday’s traditional restrictive authority doesn’t mean it's ability to help us "authorize" a particular moment, or turn, or feeling, or resolution in our lives has been lost. On the contrary, it's still there. All we need to do is invest the effort to get into its rhythm, rather than letting the commodification and banalization which so many holidays have fallen victim to (President's Day, anyone?) excuse us from examining their significance.

I'm not Jewish. But I know that for millions of people, carrying with them a history of thousands of years, last night at sundown a New Year began. The fact that for many of those millions that history doesn't matter much isn’t an argument that it can no longer be meaningful, in however small and simple a way, to anyone. As I walked around campus this morning, pushing a smiling, quiet baby (why is she always so much better behaved outside the house?!?), I breathed in some of the humid air (Ivan-influenced rain is no doubt on the way), and felt it was a good start to a brand new day. My old habit of calendrical self-arrangement manifesting itself again? Yes, probably, partly. But also something else: it was a feeling I knew that right at that moment was being shared by others, perhaps many others, wherever they may be. And if feeling something in common with others, whether near or far, isn't meaningful, then I don’t know what is.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Jacob's Break

Jacob T. Levy, whom I only just a week and a half ago finally met, is taking a sabbatical from blogging. And he's doing it for the very best of reasons: he has some year-long, pre-tenure review projects that he wants to focus on, and keeping up with the rest of Volokhs isn't, in his judgment, the best way to do it. He's probably right. Heaven knows I still haven't figured out how best to meld my desire to have an internet presence with all my other interests and responsibilities; my break this past summer was supposed to give me a chance to work it out, but I'm far from sure that all (or any) of the changes I've made are going to take. In any case, I'm going to miss Jacob's perspective and comments. I'm sure I'm not the only blogger and reader of blogs that will probably find less and less reason to keep up with The Volokh Conspiracy if Jacob's not going to be there; not that I don't respect the hell out of Eugene and Co., but their interests and opinions generally don't engage me the way Jacob's take on things always did. Indeed, his (one hopes truly temporary, but you never know) departure from the blogosphere is a real loss; there aren't a whole of lot of truly serious political theorists and philosophers currently blogging*, and it was Jacob's example of mixing the scholarly and the topical in the context of his--and my--particular discipline (a mixing that he thoughtfully and influentially discussed a long, long time ago) which, more than that any other single blogger, made the blogosphere seem like an attractive and interesting place to me. So thanks Jacob; I hope we'll see your signature around in blog comments here and there as the months go by.

*This isn't really a fair claim; it's not like I've taken a survey. Just off the top of my head, Crooked Timber has Chris Bertram and Harry Brighouse, and John Holbo often wanders into political philosophy territory also. (CT has Micah Schwartzman as well, though law school keeps him too busy to blog.) Then there's Chris Brooke and Norm Geras. There are others I'm missing, of course. But I'll still maintain Jacob's was a particularly valuable voice when it came to applying the insights of theory to political matters; we'll be poorer without it.

Monday, September 06, 2004

I See Bloggers

Like Laura said, this APSA conference was, among other things, a chance to put a lot of faces and voices with names. The panel on "The Power and Politics of Blogs" was about as well attended as any APSA panel could ever expect to be--there were probably close to 100 people in the room--and there were more than a few heavyweights present. (Andrew Sullivan wasn't there, unfortunately. I say unfortunate, because Wonkette was, and that could have been one hell of a bitch-slap fight.)

There were a few bloggers whom I had the chance to meet and speak with some. What do they look and sound like, you ask?

Laura McKenna? Think Kate Pierson of the B-52s, only with a more reasonable hairdo and better dressed, wearing a pair of those retro-cool glasses that Andrea Martin's Edith Prickley always wore. Crooked Timber's Harry Brighouse? A dapper, slender guy, forever carrying two heavy knapsacks and dressed in a well-worn suit that gave him just the right hint of Alfie-era Michael Caine casual. Harry's CT companion Henry Farrell? A giant! (Seriously, he practically had to crouch to avoid banging his head against the ceiling when he was presenting his paper.) A towering figure of erudition, with (I note enviously) perfect Richard Gere hair. The Volokh Conspiracy's Jacob T. Levy? A small man with the finest speaking voice I've ever had the pleasure to listen to at APSA, with diction as sharp as his suit and a tone equal to that of an Oxford don or an Old Testament prophet, as appropriate (not one of the fire-and-brimstone ones; one of the more reflective and poetic ones, like Ezra).

There were numerous others that I saw or heard or met briefly: Daniel Drezner, Chris Lawrence, Eszter Hargittai, Alfredo Perez (of Political Theory Daily Review), Steven Clemons, and many more. Every last one of them came off just as engaging, elegant, attractive, charismatic, intelligent and friendly as you might imagine.

(Me? I'm a misanthropic peg-legged hunchback with running sores.)

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Off to APSA

The original idea behind my break in blogging was to get a lot of research and writing finished this summer. That didn't turn out the way it planned, and along the way a lot of other things changed as well. But at the very least, I got a few things done, and found myself thinking differently about a lot of my life as well.

For now, I'm off to the American Political Science Association's annual meeting, this year in Chicago. I'm presenting a couple of papers, the drafts of which you can read here and here (note: both are PDF documents). I'll be talking about cross-cultural discourse, human rights, Confucianism, Puritanism, models of community, globalization, liberalism, ontology, and much more.

I like conferences; they jazz me up, get me enthused about the discipline and who is doing what and how I can contribute. I realize that many long-time academics get entirely burned out on the conference-going scene, but for me, the rejuvenating effect remains as strong as it was when I attended my first professional conference as a graduate student. I hope that doesn't change anytime soon.

Plus, an added bonus: a crazy, near all-blogger panel, on the "Power and Politics of Blogs." Finally, my chance to get Henry Farrell's autograph.

A State Education

Classes began here at Arkansas State last week. My oldest daughter began her third grade year at Hillcrest Elementary the Thursday previously. Her teacher is Mrs. Vanpelt, and as it turns out, one of her children is taking Introduction to American Government from me this semester. It's a cozy community, here in Jonesboro. Mrs. Vanpelt told her class that she doesn't hand out homework on Wednesdays, because that's Bible study night for so many of her pupils. Similarly, here at ASU, the Baptist Collegiate Ministry was the very first organization I saw with flyers up announcing activities, beating the local fraternities and other clubs by several days. You have to like a place and a local population that knows what it's all about.

I'm an agent of the state here, as my daughter is in the hands of one. There are many who look down on that choice, for many good reasons. As the years have gone by, my siblings and their families have become more and more non-traditional in their approach to education; most of them are outright dissenters from the public school system, and home school their children. My mother actually planted the seeds of this dissent, having long complained about how I was treated at school (justifiably, I think; I was a miserable kid), and not long after I graduated from high school taking the plunge and pulling my remaining brothers and sisters out. It didn't stick; Mom tried numerous different home schooling programs and experiments, and my younger siblings drifted in and out of the school system. At the time, my home state of Washington had pretty loose laws regarding home schooling, so this wasn't hard to pull off (things have since changed). It's hard to measure what the consequences of this scramble find alternatives to public schooling were, except that it must of been received well by most of them, because so far out of the seven Fox children who have children of their own of school age, only one puts them in the public schools--me. Everyone else makes use of home schooling, private schools, or some mix thereof. As for college, the sense that children should receive an education that primarily prepares them to earn high test scores, get into top-notch universities, and generally go forward in their highly-structured social-advancement oriented lives, is thankfully absent from my siblings' families, as far as I can tell. So in many, many ways, Melissa's and my choices, and my occupation, sets our family very much apart. But they let us attend family reunions anyway.

For the most part, they haven't become dissenters from the contemporary schooling regime and its expectations because they think they can improve upon it, or because they want to be part of the conservative religious counter-culture (which Harry Brighouse eloquently reflected upon a long time ago), or any such specific complaint. (Though given that they all are pretty consistent social conservatives, that possibility can't be discounted.) They all agree that schools aren't what they used to be, though like Timothy Burke they probably can't come up with a definitive accounting of that change. Basically, like my Mom, I think they just want to have their kids around them more, being more involved in their children's lives, have greater capacity to establish the bounds their children operate within, thus paradoxically allowing their children to live with, in some ways, in even less structure and more freedom. I'm completely sympathetic to that attitude, and so is Melissa, which begs the question as to why we aren't turning away from relying on and/or making use of the state in educating our kids as well. Part of it is, of course, simply a matter of time and temperament. But I think that even if we could organize our lives in such a way as to home school our children, we wouldn't. Why not?

Part of it is where we live. With the exception of my older sister, all of my siblings with kids live in relatively large metropolitan areas (Portland, OR; Salt Lake City, UT; Las Vegas); even my sister, who still lives in Spokane where my parents do, is confronted with a far larger and different school system than our admittedly parochial one here in Arkansas. This is not to say that if Melissa and I moved our family to a larger city that our thinking would automatically change; it's only that at the present moment, we don't feel as though the public school system, that the state educational regime, is such a monolith that one must either embrace it or reject it wholly. For us, it's not impossible to meet with teachers, attend school meetings, volunteer and be part of the whole general project in education--not to say it's necessarily impossible anywhere, but it definitely isn't impossible here. Not when simply by living in one's community you already share so much space with one another. (Melissa and I used to bump into Megan's kindergarten teacher and chat with her all the time at Wal-Mart. Yes, everyone shops at Wal-Mart here, but that's a different post.) It makes for a mixed approach, a shading of possibilities and perspectives on education, that frankly we've both come to appreciate very much.

Of course, one could theoretically have all this and more if one simply privatized education completely, so where does that leave our justification? Sharing room with another one, as the case may be. I like the idea of the state being a (partial) agent of education; insofar as the state is the reflection of the collective interest we all have in promoting and sharing certain civic goods with one another, especially the poor and marginalized, then it is an agency worth supporting. Not unthinkingly: the controversies surrounding the best way to administer and make accountable the performance of this responsibility are huge and likely never-ending. (Melissa and I are partial to various charter-school and school-choice innovations, which would preserve the collective civic investment in education but open up and diversify both its curricula and the available modes of participation, though obviously the case for such reforms is far from conclusive.) Jonathan Alter, back in 1995, wrote an essay titled "Cop-Out on Class," which thoughtfully compared the abandonment of the public school ideal with other class-derived gulfs in our society, such as the gap between those who serve in the military and those who don't. He wrote (and he was targeting private schools, but the basic concept applies across the board):

Children should not have to sacrifice their education to their parents' principles. If the public schools in our area fail--either generally or for out particular children--we'll be gone. But in the meantime we should stay awhile a fight....The single biggest reason for the decline of American public education is that so many capable and committed parents have opted out. That in itself is a bad lesson for their children.

I don't mean to criticize my siblings, because it's not at all hard to imagine myself in their shoes--and someday Melissa and I may well be. But for now, in the midst of a variety of sometimes conflicting needs, hopes, capabilities and desires, Megan's state education seems to be serving her and our family well. I hope it will remain so. Every system will have its weak points, its hang-ups, its own little advantages and quirks and limitations and opportunities, and Arkansas has plenty. None that overcome the basic legitimacy and worthiness of the project though. And to that degree, our assessment isn't too different from the assessment made by practically everyone who takes advantage of the public schools, which I suppose is exactly the (egalitarian) point.

As for after Megan completes her schooling...who knows? Perhaps by then, social and cultural and class divisions in American society will have become so entrenched that wholly separate educational and vocation ruts will have permanently worn into our civic fabric, so much so that someone who attends Jonesboro High School will be all but legally forbidden from even contemplating attending an elite institution, those having been long since reserved for the lucky genetically-proven few graduates of the finest pre-schools and prep schools of the nation. Perhaps, when that time comes, I'll see no other option left except to join the revolution. For the moment, fortunately, I don't see any reason to prize such a future for my kids over any number of comparable ones. I mean, if all else fails, she could attend Arkansas State, join all her middle- and lower-class classmates in receiving a solid education courtesy of the admittedly somewhat restricted and unimaginative but nonetheless responsive state, and go on from there. She could even take Introduction to American Government from me. I bet she'd get a good grade.