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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Harry Potter Predictions

(Update, Monday, April 02, 2007: see here for thoughts about the cover art for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)

Basically, this all came to me in rush last November, while we crawled westbound through the hellish construction traffic on 1-80/90 just south of Lake Michigan on our way home from visiting Melissa's parents for Thanksgiving. We'd seen Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at the beginning of our vacation, which led me to spend the rest of the holiday break rereading the fourth book (to confirm my memory of various things), which then led to rereading the fifth, and then the sixth, which I'd argued about at great length the previous summer. And so there I was, driving the minivan slowly through two-lane traffic, surrounded by huge trucks, Alison screaming, about 5 miles (and 45 minutes) to go until the next exit, and suddenly, whoosh!--I had the basic plot of book seven in my head. By the time we finally escaped the bad traffic, I was well beyond guessing what seemed likely to happen in the concluding volume of the Harry Potter saga; I was practically writing fanfic. Since then, I've tried to write it all down a couple of times, and I've changed my mind about a few things, but for the most part I've left it alone. But now, since some have demanded it, here it is, in all its geeky glory. With any luck, we'll find out how wrong I am next July.

First, a few long predictions that describe what I think some of the basic set-ups and themes of Book 7 will be; then, some shorter, more specific predictions. And no, I have no guess as to what the title of the book will be.

1. Harry returns to Hogwarts as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.

J.K. Rowling has said that she's written her last Quidditch match, so clearly our protagonist--who states at the end of HBP that he's through with Hogwarts anyway--is not going to come back to Hogwarts as an ordinary student. But the whole series has been built around Harry's years at Hogwarts (that's even a subtitle for the books); and moreover, can we really believe that Hermione won't return to finish her education? (And that Ron will follow her?) This would make it difficult for their pledge to stick with Harry wherever he goes in pursuit of the Horcruxes to be fulfilled. Rowling's solution will set all this straight: Harry will go back to Hogwarts, but as a teacher. He has to! No matter how successful the erstwhile members of the Order of the Phoenix (see below) are at keeping the whole story from coming out, the truth of the matter is that the wizarding world will see Hogwarts as a place where a famed Head can be killed by one of his own teachers. There will be enormous pressure to simply close the school, from the Board of Governors and from some of faculty as well, to say nothing of all the parents who will keep their children away. What could possibly keep it going? Why, the "Chosen One," of course. If it was widely known that the "boy who lived," the young and brilliant wizard Harry Potter, now all grown up and ready to teach and defend Hogwarts' students, was going to be on hand, I suspect Hogwarts will be kept open by wide proclamation. This will keep Harry, Ron, and Hermione together, continue the legacy of Dumbledore's Army, allow us to see Harry developing other aspects of his personality (interacting with other teachers as peers, for one; facing down internal challenges from Slytherin House, for another), enable Harry to have access to information that is only going to be available through and around Hogwarts anyway (again, see below), and not least, inject a little bit of light-heartedness (Harry learning how to deal with new students and grading papers) into what is bound to be a pretty dark book.

But is Harry going to come up with this idea on his own? I don't think so.

2. Percy Weasley's redemption.

No, I don't imagine that Percy is going to change overnight; not only would that make little sense, but I really don't think Rowling is interested in doing that much with his character either. But somehow, I just think there's something more to be done with him, and getting Harry to Hogwarts just might be it. Think about it this way: from the beginning, Percy has had an entirely different perspective on both magic and magical accomplishment than both his family and Albus Dumbledore. In the first book, he's calling Dumbledore crazy--a genius, but crazy. Everything he has said or written since has confirmed that opinion. But he's never disliked Hogwarts; on the contrary, he adores Hogwarts, as that was his first step into the wider wizarding world. He won't want it shut down. And it's going to occur to him that, if convincing Harry to become a Hogwarts teacher will keep it open...well, there'd be some advantages to that. We're going to see Harry in the first part of Book 7 going through a serious re-evaluation of Dumbledore--not of his affection or admiration of Dumbledore, but of his opinion of him (once more, see below). Percy will be able to approach Harry on those terms: not necessarily as a tool of the Ministry of Magic, but as someone whose suspicions of Dumbledore's methods have been at least partially born out, someone who nonetheless loves Hogwarts and wants what's best for it. Pitching this route to Harry will go along with Rowling's plan to get Harry to recognize that Dumbledore's death will be understood differently by different people: that maybe Percy and Rufus Scrimgeour, while not entirely to be trusted, have a reason for seeing things the way they do. Harry will be persuaded by Percy's suggestion (which will be given early in the book; perhaps at the wedding of Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour?), and the result will be softening between Harry, the Weasley family, and their son. Which will be good, because the clear lines distinguishing those who are, like Harry, a "Dumbledore man," and those who are not, are going to get confused.

3. The Order of the Phoenix breaks up.

The more that I think about this, the more I believe that is an obvious one to predict. Simply put, some members of the Order of the Phoenix--Hagrid, probably Arthur and Molley Weasley, perhaps Nymphadora Tonks and Remus Lupin--are going to be absolutely certain that, whatever Dumbledore had planned with or known about Snape, his death at Snape's hand is no reason not to continue to trust his basic plans for fighting Voldemort. But others--Kingsley Shacklebolt, Alastor Moody, maybe even Minerva McGonagall--are going to have their doubts. Why didn't Dumbledore ever fully explain why he trusted Snape? Why was he so impish and secretive and solitary? Maybe his generous attitude towards even his enemies wasn't the best policy? Maybe he was just a little bit, well, out of touch? And so you're going to see the Order fall apart; Grimmauld Place will be left to Harry, and even the good guys will find themselves doubting their path. The breaking up of Harry's most immediate adult support system will, along with the aforementioned choice that I believe Percy will present him with, force him to grow and change, to recognize and respect--as an adult must--the numerous shades of grey even amongst those on the good side on any conflict. In fact, I suspect that Harry's struggles will themselves contribute to this break up, because--even while he is affected and challenged by the various interpretations of the events around Dumbledore's death which the members of the Order of the Phoenix come to--he still won't share with them his Horcrux quest, keeping that to himself as a duty that, perhaps, we will come to see as his fate to accomplish, since Dumbledore, for whatever reason, simply could not do it. Again, more growing up, more learning how hard it is to figure out how to do the right things for the right reason. (Rowling has said we will learn a great deal more about Voldemort in the final book; I suspect one of the things we will learn, at the same time Harry learns it, is all about Dumbledore's and the original Order's efforts to defeat Voldemort during the First War, and about Dumbledore's successes and failures as a leader in that war, failures that Harry will need to learn from.)

Okay, now some more particular bits.

4. Harry visits Godric's Hollow, learns that Peter Pettigrew was there the night his parents were killed, and more.

It has to have been Peter who went with Voldemort to kill James and Lily; unless I misunderstand how being a "Secret-Keeper" works (as demonstrated in the beginning of OotP), then Peter could not have simply told Voldemort the whereabouts he had been entrusted with--he would have had to physically direct Voldemort to the Potters' hideout. So Peter was there, and he heard what happened; he was the one who presumably moved Voldemort's shattered body out of the wreckage (thinking he was dead? probably...), as well as grabbing James's wand and invisibility cloak. Perhaps he thought to hide himself from everyone who was going to come after him now that the Dark Lord was out of the picture? I think we'll learn that he ran to Snape, whom he thought would be in despair over the apparent death of the Dark Lord, but who instead went into a rage at hearing of Lily's death, took the cloak from him gave it to Dumbledore, along with all the news that Peter would have given him; this is how Dumbledore came to now what was actually said that night before the murder of James and Lilly. Peter flees for his life, and we know what becomes of him.

How will Harry learn all this? I don't know. Best guess is that he talks to a neighbor, an elderly man or woman delighted to meet the son of the poor couple who lived in Godric's Hollow so long ago, and who remembers the comings and goings around the house that Halloween night. He or she will also be able to tell Harry something about his mother's genealogy and her eye color (and Harry's too), though what all that will mean, I have no guess.

5. Harry breaks into Azkaban.

Why? Because Mundungus Fletcher is in there; Rowling told us at the end HBP that he'd been locked up because of a botched robbery. Harry is going to figure out what most of Potter fandom has already guessed--that the locket found in Grimmauld Place that could not be opened was the locket containing a Horcrux which Regulus Black, who turned against Lord Voldemort once he realized what the Dark Lord had planned, stole before the Death Eaters could track him down and kill him. How Harry will figure this out I don't know, but once he figures it out, he'll have only one option: talk to Mundungus, and find out what he knows. But the Ministry of Magic is hardly going to allow Harry to go into Azkaban, especially when he won't tell them what information he's trying to find. So he'll have to break in (with help--Ron and Hermione, certainly, maybe Luna Lovegood and Neville Longbottom too) and go get him, which means that Rowling will finally be able to give her readers an inside look of the infamous prison. With any luck, this will turn out to be a major battle in the book (and I hope that partially because I think it could look fantastic in the eventual film!). Perhaps there will be others involved in the break-in as well, with different agendas...remember that Lucius Malfoy is in Azkaban too, and there are people who may want to get at him, his son not being the last in line there.

6. Harry confronts Alberforth Dumbledore.

Who knows that the bartender at the Hog's Head is Albus Dumbledore's brother, Alberforth? My guess is, almost no one--the teachers who were involved in the Order of the Phoenix, presumably, and perhaps a couple of others. Harry will find out when Mundungus tells him after they break him out of Azkaban, and confesses that he sold the locket back to Alberforth. Back? Yes--because Alberforth was with Regulus Black when Black stole the Horcrux-cursed locket in the first place. Look at the trap which Rowling gave us in the cave where the Horcrux was hidden; no one could have managed to take the locket without help, as Dumbledore needed Harry's. So, somehow Regulus convinced Alberforth to go with him; Alberforth helped him through the ordeal, they placed the fake locket there together, and made their escape. Did they fall out later? Was Alberforth present when Regulus was killed, and became so frightened for his life that he withdrew from the Order, and kept to himself thereafter? Beats me. But I believe it will be Alberforth that will give Harry the two essential bits of information that the plot will turn upon (though Harry's secret visit to the Headmistress's office--you know he's going to manage at least one such visit, perhaps with Fawkes's help--in order to talk to Dumbledore's portrait will be vital as well). First, Alberforth will be able to hazard a guess as to where the remaining Horcruxes are. (Why? Because Regulus told him? Maybe Regulus managed to snoop around, do some research, discover some secrets--maybe there is more to Regulus and his relationship with his brother Sirius that remains to be revealed? Kreacher is the only one who can say...) Second--and this will be the big reveal--he'll know the real truth about Snape.

7. The real truth about Snape.

He loved Lily from afar, watching her excel from across the room in Potions, but he hated her too, for being popular and decent and a Mudblood like himself, and thus he hated himself for loving her. He was a confused and wretched young man, and chose to become ever more hateful and self-pitying for that reason. He signed up with Voldemort. But he was both appalled by and contemptuous of what the Dark Lord was planning. He overheard the prophecy, all of it. But he only told Voldemort part of it. Why? Part of him must have been able to anticipate Dumbledore's hastily hatched plan, a plan to drive Voldemort into marking as his chosen enemy the boy who Dumbledore knew would have--unlike Neville for some mysterious reason--the power or lineage or luck to someday bring the Dark Lord down. But part of Snape must have also just been delighted at the prospect of James dead and Lilly miserable (a person like him probably could never imagine that a mother would sacrifice her life for a mere baby). The accounts that Dumbledore has given Harry about the night Snape overheard Sybill Trelawney's prophecy, and Snape's subsequent behavior, have not been entirely true: it will be revealed that while Snape did pass information about Voldemort to Dumbledore and the Order, he was always playing both sides, seeing himself as equally justified in treating both as enemies. When Voldemort returned, so did Snape's wretchedness, his hatred of Dumbledore for obliging him to use his unique talents in such a miserable way, and his equal hatred of Voldemort, for having killed his beloved Lily. Placed in an impossible situation by the events at the end of HBP, he murdered a man who trusted him to follow through on his promises and fled; by so doing, he continued his balancing act, only by extracting the maximum pain possible on all while doing so. (No, I am NOT changing my opinion that Snape is a bad guy. Snape is a bad guy, and Dumbledore is dead, and that's that. But I've been helped to realize that Snape is, in fact, a deeply conflicted and self-loathing bad guy, a tragic bad guy, a bad guy who sees himself as a martyr to both sides, forced to play a role everywhere he turns, a bad guy who, when he saw a "solution" to the crisis on the tower that would allow him to commit a little murder along the way, did not shy away.)

Okay, now a few housecleaning bits.

8. Who will be who at Hogwarts?

McGonagall is now the Headmistress of Hogwarts; who will be the new assistant head? To everyone's surprise, Minerva will choose Horace Slughorn. He will also be appointed Head of Slytherin House, and will find himself faced with a far more demanding task than he faced last time he held that post: dealing with students and parents who, as the stories of Snape and Draco Malfoy become known, will be viciously divided between denial, shame, and a desire for outright revolt. I think we'll find that Slughorn has far more decency and strength in him than he might even suspect. And along the way, Rowling will be able to finally give us a glimpse of Slytherin from the inside-out (Harry's being a teacher at Hogwarts will make this possible too). It's been too easy for Slytherins to always show up in the books simply as heavies, villains, buffoons, or all three; in Slughorn, Rowling has for the first time given us a vaguely admirable Slytherin character, and I suspect that she'll make use of it.

Someone will also have to take Minerva's place as Transfiguration teacher and Head of Gryffindor House. For the latter, by huge popular acclaim, she will choose Hagrid. For the former, by similarly huge acclaim on the part of at least half of Hogwarts's population, she will choose Viktor Krum (who already demonstrated enormous talent in transfiguration magic way back in GoF). What house will Krum be associated with? My guess is, again, Slytherin. Not only has that been foretold given the whole style of Krum's education at Durmstrang, but it'll make the ensuing fireworks as Ron, Hermione, and Harry negotiate student-teacher-lover-friend relationships all the more interesting, as well as providing an important aid to Slughorn as he attempts to overhaul Slytherin House before the final battle with Voldemort (which I am convinced will take place at Hogwarts--heck, maybe we'll even see the Chamber of Secrets opened again!).

9. Who is going to die?

As the Player puts it in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, it's going to be a slaughterhouse. I predict eight corpses, all told:

Mr. or Mrs. Granger. This is the one which reveal just how bloody-minded J.K. Rowling can be. Why would the Death Eaters target Hermione's parents? Easy--because they can. Harry has lost everyone close to him, save his Hogwarts friends; death will no longer trouble him. The Weasleys are too well protected. But to kill (or perhaps just drive insane through the Cruciatus Curse) one of Hermione's parents...well, this is not the sort thing our scholarship girl is well-prepared for. It'll devastate her, make her blame herself, and thus doubt herself, and end up being of little help to Harry, at least for a time. Take out Hermione by going after her family, her vulnerable spot, and you remove one of Harry's greatest supports, and possibly remove Ron as well (what if he's forced to choose between sticking with Harry and being with Hermione when she needs him?).

Luna Lovegood. C'mon, you know it's going to happen, no matter how much we don't want it to. Is there any character that Rowling has given us to who is more at peace with the prospect of dying, who is less likely to be too afraid to sacrifice herself should that moment come? I don't think so. For years, I thought Neville was a marked man, but now I think otherwise; it will be Luna who, at some crisis moment in the book, will see clearly what has to be done and will do it, fully aware of the cost to herself. For a Ravenclaw, she is decidedly non-rational, which means she won't go down trying to think her way through whatever impossible situation she and her friends may find themselves in; she'll just embrace it. And moreover, I think Harry will realize this, and will have to at some point make a choice that turns on Luna's fearlessness. Neville, in his heart of hearts, may never forgive Harry for this, even if he does understand why it will have been necessary, and even why Luna was capable of choosing to die freely.

Lucius Malfoy. And you know what...I think Draco will be the one to do the deed. Not because he's on Harry's side, but because his dad will have put Lord Voldemort before his own family, and Draco has absorbed his father's lessons and pride too well: never let someone else take charge. Draco would happily follow Voldemort, but he will not stand for being played by him, for being his servant. Having been forced into playing Voldemort's hired killer once, he won't do it again. No, if Draco unintentionally helps out Harry by dealing with the Death Eaters, including his dad, it will because it serves his agenda, not our hero's.

Peter Pettigrew. In this case, Dumbledore will be proved completely correct: when the moment comes, Peter will not be able to witness a repeat of what he observed 17 years earlier, especially not in the case of the boy who saved his life. Peter will save Harry's life, perhaps while giving him the key to a remaining--or the final--Horcrux, or perhaps even in the final battle with Voldemort. And he'll pay for that act with his own.

Severus Snape. Hating Voldemort, hating Harry, and most of all hating himself, Snape will spin webs, lie and deceive, work towards the destruction of everyone and feed his own self-loathing, with everything he says and does. In the end, it'll catch up to him: everyone will know the truth, and his every plan will be revealed, probably including some that extend all the way back to the moment he first heard the prophecy of Voldemort's doom that day at the Hog's Head. What will be left, then, but for Snape to take his own life? He'll bring some cavern ceiling down on himself, probably taking out some of Harry's enemies or destroying the last Horcrux along the way, and cursing both Harry and himself while doing so. Snape's end will be, I think, the penultimate point of Book 7; after it, what could be left but the final showdown? The suicide of Snape, and Harry's exposure to such a deadly mix of yearning and spite, will be the greatest lesson he learns from all his years at Hogwarts; he will never love or forgive Snape, but he will come to understand him, and that will be enough.

Minerva McGonagall. If I'm right, and the final battle takes place at Hogwarts, then its Headmistress will fight to the end, and pay a deadly price for it. Before she goes down, I hope Rowling shows us what a true master of transfiguration can do.

Lord Voldemort. Um, yeah, he's going to die. Good will triumph and all that.

10. And in the end?

Lupin and Tonks will marry, as will Bill and Fleur. I suspect there will be a scene in Book 7 where Bill comes to terms with his lycanthropy, not overcoming it entirely but definitely keeping it in check, and Lupin will be key here. Perhaps Fenrir Greyback will try to pull Bill over to the "dark side," maybe even by pretending to offer himself as an occasion for Bill to let his wolfish bloodlust take over, but Lupin will get him to choose restraint, even if that means Fenrir gets away. Anyway, these two couples are going to stay together and stay close.

Fred and George, meanwhile, will become a couple of the richest wizards in Britain, eventually opening up branches of their joke shop all around the world.

Draco Malfoy will not change his spots, but neither will he be dragged down like many other Slytherins and pure-bloods when Voldemort is finally destroyed. He'll inherit the full Malfoy estate, maybe disown his own mother or at least keep her on a short leash, spread money around like it grows on trees (since he'll have even more once he marries into the equally wealthy, pure-blood Parkinson clan), successfully hide his "youthful indiscretions" and his hatred of Harry Potter and all he will have accomplished, and find himself ending up one of the most admired and feared men in the wizarding world: in the eyes of the public, he'll be considered one of those intimidating, "old-school" aristocrats (no one will say "pure blood" any more, but everyone will know what you mean) who didn't go bad. He won't ever sully himself with politics, but I expect to see him pulling a lot of strings behind the scenes in the end. If it wasn't for all the practical jokes the Weasley twins keep pulling on him (and which he can never prove their responsibility for), his life would be pretty good.

Horace Slughorn will become the new Headmaster of Hogwarts, and will be credited with having managed to unite the school, bringing Slytherin House back into the fold with the other three houses, at the moment of the school's greatest crisis. His favorable reputation will cover up for a lot of his subsequent abuses of his position, but overall he won't be considered a bad Head, especially since, once Rufus Scrimgeour retires, Slughorn will find a near-perfect personality match in the newest Minister of Magic, who also will happen to be the youngest Minister in history--Percy Weasley.

Neville Longbottom will go on to become the Herbology teacher at Hogwarts. He'll be beloved by his students and praised by his peers, though he'll never take the lead in anything. On the contrary, we'll see him puttering along as the years go by, a confirmed old bachelor, cheering lustily for Gryffindor at Quidditch matches, forgetting names and being something of a lovable stick-in-the-mud, always waiting for the end of the day, when he can return to his quarters, put on a kettle of tea, sit down in his chair, and enjoy another evening of talk with his very best friend in all the world--the ghost of Luna Lovegood. (Perhaps she will have taken the Grey Lady's place as the Ravenclaw House ghost.)

For Hermione and Ron, the future holds naught but love, marriage, children, accomplishment, praise, honors, domesticity, travel, and peace, despite the lurking presence of Malfoy out there. I think it is inevitable that Book 7 will introduce a real change in how the wizarding world views and interacts with Muggles and other races; Dumbledore implied such several times. Hermione, no doubt, will take the lead in articulating this new, more open and humble wizarding society, through her books and lectures and workshops and activism. Ron will mind the kids, teach chess lessons, and be perfectly happy.

Ginny will leave Britain in sadness and look for a new life elsewhere, perhaps in America, perhaps even changing her name. A sequel series, eventually? We can only hope.

And Harry? Well...I only listed seven of my eight predicted deaths up above, didn't I? Remember what happened to Frodo at the end of the Lord of the Rings? There you go.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Internments, Then and (One Hopes Not) Now

Yesterday, Friends University was visited by a traveling exhibit on German Americans (both residents and citizens) who were harassed, detained, and frequently interned in various camps and prisons by the U.S. government during World War II. Did you know that had happened? I didn't. And if it wasn't for the amazing dedication and hard work of Michael Luick-Thrams, the executive director of Traces, the organization he put together to gather and share the stories of those who suffered internment more than 60 years ago, I still wouldn't know about it.

Fortunately, not only did the arrival of Michael's labor of love (because he sure isn't making money off this tour) give me the chance to learn a few things, but it also allowed me--because I was asked to speak at a panel discussion the evening of the exhibit's visit--to put together some of my thoughts about the Military Commissions Act, which the president signed into law on Tuesday. I've actually spent a good part of the last three weeks reading up on and arguing about this bill; back when the bill passed, I posted a rant at my co-religionists in Congress who voted for the bill, accusing them of failing to remember our history as a minority faith that should know very well the consequences of facing a hostile government without legal recourse or defense. I was taken to task for that rant, and was subsequently drawn into some heated e-mail discussions about the bill. So, in a sense, last night I got to make my own position clear, to myself and whomever else cared to listen.

Are there parallels between what the Military Commissions Act allows, and what was allowed to happen to German-American citizens and German residents of America from 1941 until the end of the war (and, in a few cases, as late as 1948)? Yes--not many parallels, and not strong parallels, but there are some there nonetheless. It's important to understand--as I did not really understand until my crash course in this little-known part of our history began a couple of days ago--that the internment of Japanese-American citizens and legal Japanese residents during WWII is entirely the wrong model to look at when trying to think about the war on terror today. (Something that Michelle Malkin's atrocious book completely misunderstands, as many justifiably harsh reviews of her book have pointed out.) With the Japanese internment, you have a paper trail that extends all the way up to the president, with President Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066 in February, 1942. You have whole regions of the U.S., particularly the west coast, designated "military areas" from which people with "foreign enemy ancestry" could be excluded. This was not a matter of criminal or conspiracy charges being leveled against particular persons; this was a collective, top-down, straightforward relocation program, that swept up somewhere between 110,000 and 120,000 citizens and residents of Japanese dissent. All the suspicions and motivations behind the relocation were on clear display, and many were specifically documented as soon after the order as 1944, when the Supreme Court issued a reluctant 6-3 decision in support of the government's actions in Korematsu v. U.S. (I say reluctant because the majority refused to call the president's actions correct; only constitutional, with a lot of handwringing over the inevitable injustices and confusions of war). That a relocation scheme of this size and scope was even possible testifies of the numerous racial and economic motivations behind it, as well as the demographic logic which made it possible: General DeWitt's famous "A Jap's a Jap" dismissal of claims that some of those being relocated were patriotic citizens; the white agricultural interests in central California that were anxious to pick up farms owned by Japanese-Americans at rock-bottom prices; the simple fact that Hawaii, while placed under martial law, never engaged in a program of Japanese relocation, because targeting an ethnic group which constituted over 30% of the state's total population (in contrast to the mainland, where Japanese communities were small and rarely integrated into surrounding society) would have resulted in the collapse of the state's economy. No, what happened to the Japanese residents of the western U.S. (and occasionally elsewhere as well) during WWII was an essentially unique situation; it can provide few warnings and even less guidance today.

What happened to German-Americans and legal German residents was different. By that time, Germans constituted the largest non-Anglo ethnic group in the U.S.; while there were still numerous predominantly German communities in the 1930s and 40s, particularly in the upper Midwest and Plains states, their distinctiveness was far less than it had been only a generation earlier, during the anti-German hysteria of World War I. As a result, the "relocation" of Germans was an entirely different ball game. For one thing, the number of people affected was far fewer; perhaps 10,000 to 11,000 ethnic Germans disappeared to camps and prisons scattered across the country. Moreover, there was apparently little rhyme or reason to who was targeted. Being a German-American citizen with an Anglicized name might make a difference in how various authorities (whether from the army's Military Intelligence Division, or the F.B.I., or the Office of Naval Intelligence, or special agencies of the Department of Justice, etc., all of whom had spent years compiling lists of possibly suspicious aliens and citizens) might react to a random order or accusation--then again, maybe it wouldn't. There was no executive order, no clear authorization, no public debate in Congress, for the internment of these people: just a desperate desire to act, a series of presidential proclamations immediately after Pearl Harbor which revived the Alien Enemy Act of 1798 (as codified in 1918) which required those identified as "enemy aliens" to register with the government, and then, here and there, for this reason or that, various local authorities who decided that occasional acts of secret internment, forced conscription, or even deportation, was needed for the war effort and to intimidate any possible German-American fifth columnists out there in the heartland.

And I do mean "heartland": one of the reasons Michael brought his display to Friends University is that one of the few accounts he has recorded from a living adult internment survivor, as opposed to someone who was a child at the time, comes from Mathias Borniger, a resident of Wichita and a former photographer at Friends:

Mathias Borniger, a photographer who made templates of plane parts for Boeing, was arrested in the middle of the night a day after Peal Harbor was bombed, December 7, 1941--about a week before he was scheduled to become an American citizen. "I had some friends in Wichita who were not my friends; they didn't like me too much. They reported me, and said I was a photographer and had a camera strapped to my leg and would go down to Boeing and take pictures of new planes and sent those pictures to Hitler, and a bunch of other nonsense. They said I knew a lot of things about chemicals as a photographer--that I might poison the water supply of Wichita. It was so grotesque and so ridiculous it's not even funny anymore." He was handcuffed in front of his pregnant wife, who divorced him while he was interned, saying she did not want to be married to a spy. [The actual story is even rougher than this: after giving birth to twin girls, Borniger's wife, Betty Jo Borniger, desperate to escape the taint of an "enemy alien" German husband who had disappeared from their neighborhood in the middle of the night, obtained her divorce and then abandoned her newborn children and disappeared herself; the twins both died.]...Borniger was sent from Camp McCoy to Stringtown, an internment camp in Oklahoma, never being allowed to contact anyone outside the camps. After a family lawyer was finally able to vouch for Mathias's loyalty [for which there was plenty of support; in fact, while Mathias was being interned, his brother--who had immigrated from Germany at the same time as him--served with distinction in the U.S. Army], he was released in the fall of 1943....Unsure of who had accused him, he cut off ties with nearly all his acquaintances. "A few came up to me and said, 'Hi, Matt; I'm so glad you're back.' And they wanted to shake my hands; I kept my hands in my pockets and said 'I don't even know you,' and just walked away."

Mathias's story hardly captures the worst of this haphazard program; our government also worked with--and sometimes pressured--Latin American governments to round up and ship to the U.S. over 4,000 ethnic Germans (some of whom were wealthy landowners, whose property thus fell into the hands of other, more America-friendly elites) as suspected Nazi sympathizers, and then occasionally made use of those individuals, along with a few of the 11,000 or so German-American civilian detainees, in making prisoner-of-war exchanges with Germany. (And almost unbelievably, some of those caught up in these "exchanges" were Jews.) Still, you might say, well, the fortunes of war and all that. The stripping of habeas corpus rights, the detention without trial of suspected populations, some of whom are surely innocent--that's the way it'll always be, right? Better safe than sorry, correct? Maybe so.

However, there is an important difference between the slow accumulations of decisions and fears and suspicions that made possible the German-American internment program, and the accumulation of decisions and fears and suspicions that is taking place today. That difference is, very simply, that our war with Germany was a war with a state, one that could be defeated, meaning the war could end. Whereas, under the terms of the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) granted to President Bush--in which he is "authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons"--we have the makings of a war on terrorism that could go on for a very long time.

Why does that matter insofar as the Military Commissions Act is concerned? Because as time goes by decisions accumulate, compound one another, and sometimes end up pushing in directions no one originally anticipated. (Reading different accounts of German-American internment makes it clear, to me at least, that the actions of the government were often inconsistent, reacting to immediate bureaucratic pressures or personal agendas than any clear policy.) In my original rant against the Military Commissions Act, besides attacking it for the semantic distinctions it sets up over the interpretation of Geneva Convention prohibitions against torture, for its casual treatment (even apparent contempt for) of habeas rights, and so forth, I also alleged that all this would apply to citizens as well, even citizens who are only accused of having "materially supported" an "enemy combatant," even if having done so unknowingly. Under pressure from some lawyer friends of mine, I had to acknowledge that the "would" in that sentence is far too strong. Is substituting a "could" in its place a possibility? That's the question. A straightforward reading of the law says both "yes" and "no." It is clear that those whom the law allows the president to name "unlawful enemy combatants" can include citizens; there is no other definition of the term operative on the federal level which would exclude that possibility. At the same time, the MCA's procedures--which is where detainments come in--are defined in the relevant section of the law as limited to "alien unlawful enemy combatants." I certainly hope those who attacked my initial reading of the law are correct in insisting that this restriction would be pretty hard for any Solicitor General to argue around. And yet...in both Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and Padilla v. Hanft, the executive branch has been determined to have the authority to detain citizens pursuant to the AUMF as enemy combatants. It is therefore not wholly unreasonable, I think, to suspect that precedents exist for an aggressive--or genuinely concerned, or politically fearful, or all three--chief executive to, given time and cause, make the leap and argue that, a fortiori, the means exist under the expanded definition provided by the MCA to broadly enact the sort of policies which, 60 years ago, affected citizens and aliens alike. And even if that is not the case, and we can be certain that whatever the upshot of the MCA, it won't ever fully affect regular citizens like me and, perhaps, you...well, Mathias Borniger's experience makes it clear that, for some other people, that distinction could turn on the most arbitrary of conditions, such as a mere matter of days.

Nobody likes to think about this. And, having already done my bit as a scold and ranter, I'm not interested in putting forward an exceptionally hysterical case here. (Michael, unfortunately I think, puts statements like "Internment: it could happen to YOU!" on a lot of his material, which doesn't, I suspect, help his case.) But just in reviewing all this again, and in thinking about these stories that as of a couple of days ago I had no knowledge of, and putting it all together here and now, I get angry and worried and depressed once more. Ultimately, even if everything I (and more than a few legal scholars, I should add) fear about the MCA and so forth is proved groundless, there remains the bald political fact that, as Scott Horton writes, invoking Carl Schmitt, the "entire thrust [of this administration's war on terrorism has involved] a massive channeling of power from the legislature and the courts to the Executive." It is that kind of concentration of power, particularly a concentration which is opaque and not subject to public review, that makes all sorts of abuses, perhaps including especially those which are in the end just ill-thought-out, ugly and unjustified overreactions to real problems, possible. Certainly this was the case with the internments of WWII. Of course the prospect of putting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on open trial is daunting, and of course I have respect for those JAG officers (one of whom is my cousin) who may end up being responsible for deciding who gets a military tribunal and who doesn't and under what conditions. There are a lot of hard decisions which terrorism confronts us with. But as important as hashing out those arguments is the need for--as Tim Burke put it while engaging in just such a hard and drawn-out argument--"drawing some lines in the sand." The law President Bush signed yesterday is an overreaction, and a dangerous one. Thanks to Michael's hard work through Traces in collecting and sharing these stories, perhaps many more will start asking questions that will lead them to conclude the same.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Can a Populist Shop at Wal-Mart?

I've been meaning to write a post with this title for a pretty long time. We lived in Arkansas for three years, from 2002 to 2005, and during that time we did probably 80% of our grocery shopping at Wal-Mart. There was a Kroger in town, but we rarely went there, as we couldn't feed ourselves and three kids on our budget at their prices. (Things have improved a little since then.) The city of Jonesboro was surrounded by farms, but they were almost without exception huge cotton, rice, and soybean operations; homegrown vegetables or fruits were hard to come by on the eastern, Mississippi Delta-side of the state. As for locally produced fresh meat, there was little of it. And so, we shopped at Wal-Mart--it had low prices, and it had what we needed. And, of course, they were everywhere: it was Arkansas, after all. (Melissa used to joke that shopping at Wal-Mart was justified because we actually lived in the state where the Sam Walton's corporation is based, and so we were supporting the tax base...though actually Wal-Mart doesn't exactly shower a lot of money around anywhere besides their little corner of the state around Bentonville.)

So anyway, why am I writing this piece now? Because Rod "Crunchy Con" Dreher put together for the Dallas Morning News a package of Wal-Mart editorials a couple of weeks back, and they touched all the bases. First there was Stephen Bainbridge's take, which directs the whole debate over Wal-Mart, wages, market centralization, community impact, and so forth, towards what he thinks is most important: the question over what Wal-Mart's real relationship to the free market is. His conclusion is that "Wal-Mart [is] not...a rugged free-market capitalist [operation], but [is] a leading recipient of corporate welfare." Which isn't exactly a new point, but one that warrants emphasis nonetheless: if you don't like some of the broader consequences of the arrival of a Wal-Mart in your vacinity, then it's good to know that those consequences are mostly made possible by economic development subsidies--subsidies that, one hopes at least, can be debated and even voted down democratically, thus giving communities some collective power to counter the Wal-Mart hegemon.

But Bainbridge's argument reflects his perspective on most things economic: he thinks deviations from the free operation of the market, while sometimes justifiable, are items of concern simply on their own. And that automatically grants a kind of normative authority to the operations of the marketplace that I don't agree with. I see another question here: not how or to what degree Wal-Mart benefits or abuses the marketplace, but how we are to think about what happens in the marketplace in the first place. Obviously, lots of people shop at Wal-Mart; we did, for three years straight. Is the fact that they (and we still today, sometimes) shop there itself an argument that Wal-Mart, whatever its other sins from either a Republican or Democratic take on what a market-based economy ought to look like (with folks like Bainbridge calling it "a creature of big government" and others like Barbara Ehrenreich attacking it for its low wages and union-busting), is providing the people with a genuine good? Or can something be popular and still not, well, populist?

George F. Will, in his contribution, clearly takes the first option. After detailing at length the low prices, economic productivity, and job creation which Wal-Mart's business strategy has made possible, he concludes by claiming that the criticism of Wal-Mart by liberal pundits and politicians is all about elitism:

Liberals think their campaign against Wal-Mart is a way of introducing the subject of class into America's political argument, and they are more correct than they understand. Their campaign is liberalism as condescension. It is a philosophic repugnance toward markets because consumer sovereignty results in the masses making messes. Liberals, aghast, see the choices Americans make with their dollars and their ballots, and they announce--yes, announce--that Americans are sorely in need of more supervision by...liberals. Before they went on their bender of indignation about Wal-Mart (customers per week: 127 million), liberals had drummed McDonald's (customers per week: 175 million) out of civilized society because it is making us fat, or something. So, what next? Which preferences of ordinary Americans will liberals, in their role as national scolds, next disapprove? Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet?

Will used to be capable of writing thoughtful meditations on conservatism and what it means to "conserve" arguably elite values in an atmosphere of liberal freedom (including, you guessed it, consumer freedom); now, he's mostly a hack, though admittedly one who can still write well. But even this isn't a particularly good effort. There's a couple of snarks packed into that conclusion of his that are just begging to be smacked down. Liberals (foolishly?) drive McDonald's "out of civilized society" (I had no idea we'd been so successful...) because it makes Americans fat, "or something"? With Fast Food Nation a bestseller (and a pretty good, if somewhat confused, book too), Supersize Me a hit film, and everyone and their dog (including Republican presidential hopeful Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas) realizing that obesity is a major health problem in the U.S. and that fast food is a major contributor to the problem, Will here is relying on an attack that even Rush Limbaugh would consider a Golden Oldie. But even cutting Will that much slack won't do; in actuality, making the above argument also pretty much undermines his conservative bona fides entirely, as Caleb Stegall makes clear:

Arguments from preference for, say, complete sexual freedom, unlimited abortion license and illicit drug use have never been very convincing to conservatives. Instead of asking what conditions most Americans prefer, postwar conservatives have traditionally asked the more important question: What conditions will make common Americans free--free not just to pursue their baser appetites, but to fashion an independent and virtuous life?

Now, I suppose Will could argue that base eating habits aren't an obstacle to developing civic virtue, and maybe he'd even have a point (G.K. Chesterton was fat, after all!). But of course, this is an argument about Wal-Mart, and Will has just defended it on the basis of base popular preference; hardly a conservative perspective. So much for him. But, unfortunately, not so much for his argument. Because if you're a populist and a communitarian--as I am, for the most part--then taking seriously the preferences of a community is not incompatible with my claimed worldview; it is, on the contrary, close to the heart of it. So, the question is (finally) asked: should populists like Wal-Mart? Should they shop there?

I am forever having to deal with people who are convinced that populism is majoritarianism, pure and simple. Any and every demogogue who promises to attack an elite (any elite) and deliver some good (any good) to the majority of the people (which people? it rarely matters) is called a "populist," which of course just drags the label through the mud. Hugo Chavez, Ross Perot, Huey Long: all these power-hungry types get thrown into the same pot, the contents of which then get stirred around and splashed all over those of us trying to articulate a populist political revival. And to a degree we have to take it, because an authentic populism probably always will have a touch (or maybe more than a touch) of "do what the plain people tell you to do" rhetoric about it. Christopher Lasch, who came around to calling himself a populist in the end, argued that one had to accept (not uncritically, but not without some sympathy either) that a kind of "working-class authoritarianism"--as Seymour Martin Lipset defined it--is bound to be associated with any attempt to develop a responsibly and morally majoritarian society. (I tried to argue this point in a long post on Ralph Nader and John Paul II--yes, I put them together--way back here.) But the emphasis there is on a politics that is "reponsibly" and "morally" majoritarian: that is, a politics that is trying to deliver moral reponsibility into the hands of as many people as possible. Obviously, this does not mean always doing whatever the polls say; it's not even necessarily always anti-elitist (assuming those elites emerge out of communities whose residents can genuinely see themselves in their representatives and leaders, and address them as members and equals within the community). Its only real measurement is in the democratic empowerment of the people; their ability as citizens to socially and culturally and economically define and manage their polity. And, not to put too fine a point on it, the presence of an economic behometh like Wal-Mart removes much productive responsibility from peoples' lives. It streamlines and minimizes economic life within a community to such a degree that locals can no longer exercise as much collective control over what kind of life they want to live. Giving the people back greater and greater choices in terms of consumables is admittedly valuable, especially when you're dealing with a situation (like in America today) where the rich get richer and set a pace (a social and cultural as well as economic pace) that the poor and the midle-class can barely keep up with. Wal-Mart wouldn't have taken off in the first place if it hadn't put in place production and delivery chains that could get a lot of previously unavailable consumer goods to poor and isolated Southern and Midwestern towns. Still, the trade off--from local authority to consumer freedom--isn't worth it. Caleb explains:

One of the primary conditions of freedom is a widespread distribution of capital, both economic and cultural. This accounts for conservatives' long-standing skepticism and mistrust of centralized and concentrated enclaves of money and power with their tendencies toward societal management at every level. The oppressive effect of the management elites is essentially the same whether those elites sit in the board room, the judicial chamber, the legislative halls or the Oval Office. [Hence,] the sheer size and power of Wal-Mart ought to make any conservative wince. A private entity the size of the U.S. military with the economic clout of the Federal Reserve is no friend to liberty.

What is this "liberty" Caleb is talking about? Liberals of a certain stripe might consider it "positive liberty," in the sense praised by T.H. Green and attacked by Isaiah Berlin; the freedom to do something, the liberty that comes through empowerment and a communitarian, organic vision of society. Clearly the parallels between Caleb's argument and those theoretical constructs are there, and worth pursuing. But a better parallel might be the "ordered liberty" that was accepted as an ideal by thinkers as different as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (and arguably Hannah Arendt): a citizen achieves freedom by situating him or herself within, and working to maintain, ordered arenas of free action wherein he or she can take productive responsibility for themselves and their situation. Freedom means shaping your own choices, not merely being able to make choices, however many options there may be out there.

Caleb follows up his above comment by writing:

In contemporary America, this presumption toward freedom may no longer be valid, as Mr. Will makes clear. The lower middle classes and nearly everyone else, for that matter, really do love Wal-Mart and are quite happy to sell their American birthright of independence and self-sufficiency for a bowl of processed--but cheap!--soup. This is the challenge facing the new populists of the right: how to advocate and promote the free and sturdy democratic qualities of the common man--qualities that made America great--when the common man has apparently turned his back on those virtues?

My answer to the question in the title of this post arises from my instinctual response to Caleb here: that the "populists on the right" he mentions have the best kind of conservative notions, but perhaps not the best grasp of what it means to conserve something. I'll be the first to agree that civic virtue ain't what it needs to be in America today. But I would also suggest that--even allowing for all I said above about the trade-off from self-sufficient liberty to consumer sovereignty--the sources of order and authority that make virtuous choices possible don't always have to be the same. Simply put, there really are some good reasons we are more mobile and less rooted today, and there really are some good things that have come from it; and not just liberal goods, but truly communitarian ones as well. Not all populists can see this--and, of course, one doesn't want to settle for a facile and Pollyannish reading of our situation today...but nonethless perhaps the left conservative approach might make some headway towards drawing out virtue at the present moment in a way some other populisms cannot.

In a world where comparative advantage and global trade and urbanization and specialization have done their work, a world where the ability to live a wholly self-sufficient life has been rendered often incompatible with the demands of information-based economies, a world where farms are shrinking and unions are on the run and guilds are almost wholly a thing of the past, something like a Wal-Mart is probably necessary if we are not to condemn a good portion of any given population (such as those outside of metropolitan centers or who lack sufficient incomes, or both) to deprivation. So sure, you can shop at Wal-Mart (in truth, it's not like Kroger operates on manifestly different principles either). But our responsibility at the present moment--besides our obvious and primary one to doing what's best for our families and communities--is to figure out ways to limit the Wal-Marts of the world, discipline them and fit them into a new "order" wherein citizens can find themselves to be more than consumers. This might sound like simply an appeal to the sort of liberal egalitarian regulations which Bainbridge's column suggested as legitimate. The populist response to Wal-Mart (and the WTO, and Clear Channel, and...) which I'm imagining will involve some of that, surely. But it'll also have to involve something more, something that will have to involve a rethinking (though not necessarily a complete change) of our estimation of the nation-state and of progressive movements within them.

But now I'm hearkening towards those long promised posts of mine on populism and progressivism again. I'm sure I'll get to them eventually. Hopefully they'll be shorter than this one.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Michaels and Others on Culture, Language, and Equality

Well, it appears that The Valve's wonderful book event on Walter Benn Michaels's The Trouble with Diversity is coming to an end. It's been terrific reading through all the various posts and comments; John, Scott & Co. deserve major kudos for putting it all together.

Three of the posts particularly struck me as dealing with some of the difficult issues buried deep within Michaels's book: John Holbo's typically (and wonderfully) overstuffed reflections on what culture can mean to liberals and conservatives; John Emerson's thoughts on the meaning of culture in modern "multiculturalism," and Scott Eric Kaufman's insights into cultural and linguistic diversity (which were inspired by this Unfogged post, which was in turn inspired by this essay by Michaels in the New York Times, thus bringing us full circle). Michaels's basic claim is that, by focusing on racial, ethnic, cultural, gender and other forms of diversity, liberals have lost the ability to talk about equality. His stronger claim is that a focus on such forms of difference actually prevents serious discussion about economic equality. Consequently, he feels that modern, identity- and culture-sensitive liberals have made their own progressive goals harder to achieve; that they have played into conservatives' hands in all their diversity-mongering over the past several decades. The primary problem which both of these claims face, however, is that if we are to figure out if it is true that an emphasis on cultural diversity interferes with the agenda for economic equality, we first need to what of "cultural diversity" Michaels's is talking about. Because there is more than one such kind, and not all of them have the same relationship to the economy.

John started off my own thoughts on Michaels by pointing out that there is "a certain sense, historically and--up to a point--philosophically" with arguing that "culture" can actually much more easily turn into a conservative device than an egalitarian one. I think that is quite correct, though it takes some effort to get clear on why that is. Real, deep, aristocratic, "right" conservatives do value diversity in a way that liberals do not. Not because they treat all diverse groups equally; on the contrary, this older conservatism has always affirmed that some groups are simply better than others--the natural aristocracy and all that, stretching back to Plato and forward to Burke. However, implicated in that hierarchicalinegalitarianan belief, is nonetheless a truly respectful acknowledgement of the multiplicity of organically, historically, culturally realized communities out there, and of how those communities define the individuals which reside within them in important ways. Liberalism, being a philosophical individualism, is not prepared to grant identity that kind of rootedness--or if it does grant it, doesn't fully respect its consequences, and wishes watch over and moderate them. (Will Kymlicka's "liberal culturalism," Susan Moller Okin's interpretation of the "right of exit," etc.)

John points out that thinkers like Lionel Trilling (or Alexis de Tocqueville, in a slightly different vein) feared that if democracy were ever fully and totally triumphant, it would result in a banal liberal individualism, in which we all become Millian self-determiners, and as a result, truly elite or effortful cultural distinctions (the sort that take whole communities and generations to pull off) would be lost. Again, I think this is correct; the great success of liberalism worried the Trillings and Tocquevilles of the world because they had a spot of this (necessarily aristocratic?) conservatism in them, and they worried about a world where all individuals can just make themselves and remake themselves over and over in the same old mediocre Millian ways, without regard to the cultural tasks one "belongs" to. And frankly, their concern is a valid one. But here a problem emerges for conservative rhetoric. Millian "remaking" has become, in the post-industrial, knowledge-worker capitalist world of today, primarily a function of dollars, and if identity and culture can be bought, and you can buy exactly as much as your own creativity and smarts allow you, then the conservative tradition has evolved into a dilemma--the new "aristocrats," the wealthy knowledge-workers, are exactly the people most capable of freeing themselves as individuals from culture and community, and running off and making their own brand new, idiosyncratic, unique, mega-church, private-school supporting, gated exurban communities, just as all good Millians should. And, of course, many liberals join them in this, driving Michaels's belief that many of those liberals don't see how they're buying into the system, all while convincing themselves that they're "really" pushing for egalitarianism via affirmative action, etc.

This is one of the reasons you have figures like Christopher Lasch or other "left conservatives" arguing against liberals because they don't see the importance of community, and also against those who call themselves conservatives because, in today's world, employing rhetoric which invokes (but rarely actually argues for) order and aristocracy and levels in society only ends up empowering a class of people that have no actual interest in and only the weakest understandings of community. Michaels expresses no sympathy whatsoever for community or identity or race, yet he is arguably picking up on a little bit of this left traditionalist frustration nonetheless. Modern glocapitalismptialism makes generating affective concern about stuff like race or culture, according to him, cheap. It's easy to do; it's just a commodity, and that means it plays into the hands of those who can profit from and sell such commodities. What Michaels is really seeking is that era when class and class alone grounded one's consciousness of one's community. He's looking for economic solidarity, which is another kind of community; he doesn't think you can really have equality or social justice, that you can really end poverty, without it. To the extent that Michaels argues that these liberal egalitarian goals haven't been reached at least in part because conservatives have helped liberals lose their economic and class focus, he's not entirely wrong; it's obviously correct that many of today's conservatives have co-opted diversity as an individualistic (and profit-making) end in itself, and thus have turned conservative language and thought towards anything but historically "conservative" ends. But is the problem here really the whole matter of culture and community and identity--that, with the emergence of modern individualism and capitalism, they can never be anything more than random amenities, and that a concern for them only adds even more weight to the burdens of economic competition and division? Perhaps not; for on the other hand, one could argue that the problem is that the liberals whom Michaels attacks are not really wrong to think about identity politics, but have unfortunately allowed themselves to focus on only part of what makes a cultural identity--the easily bought-and-sold part, the part that doesn't actually do anything one way or another for encouraging socio-economic recognition and equality, as opposed to the part which Tocqueville and Trilling (and Burke too, for that matter) had their eyes on, a part which, I would, is very much part of our socio-economic world.

This brought me to Emerson's post, which argued thoughtfully about two different uses of "culture":

The social-science meaning of "culture" is something like "All human traits and social structures which are learned and not strictly innate." In general non-innate traits are assumed to be variable from one society to the next, giving us multiple cultures. But the traditional meaning of culture was "high culture," the various things that make someone into a finer sort of person. Good manners, a taste for classical music, and so on. Multi-culturalism seems to use the first definition, but it's contaminated by second definition...The problem is that "high culture" (as Veblen shows) was defined by optional choices in luxury consumption, and when the non-elite non-western cultures were upgraded, they were...upgraded as consumption choices [my emphasis]. So culture was defined in terms of cuisine, and fabrics and dress, and music and dance, and poetry, and myth, and so on. We become multicultural by consuming non-western or non-white luxury products. And in fact, multiculturalism often does seem to be a kind of consumerism and noblesse oblige...This is all a manifestation of the characteristic division of American (or capitalist) life into work (production) and play (consumption). Work is necessary and real, and play (culture) is optional and not real. This is fake multi-culturalism. Hindu culture, for example, isn't just a lot of nice stuff you can buy. It's arranged marriage, purdah, the caste system, untouchability , food taboos, the rajahs (before the British arrived), and so on. Nobody really wants to adopt the serious structural aspects of Hindu culture. On serious structural issues, we all want to continue to be Americans.

I wouldn't use all of Emerson's terminology, but the fact is he's saying something very important here: that multicultural concerns are problematic for those liberals also concerned about economic equality to the extent that their multicultural concerns implicate them in a system which rewards those who can afford to live and bring with them the "acceptable" bits of a culture. Everyone modern, diversity concerned liberal wants a little bit of Hinduism in their life (bring on the dal chowder and the cucumber raita!), but not as practiced by the poor Hindus in India who still embrace all the "serious structural aspects of Hindu culture."

My feeling, perhaps predictably, is that it is only in seeking to address the economic status of Hindus within those structures, in seeking to make such communities self-sufficient and sustainable and decent, can we truly move towards equality. The great failure of many liberals who fetishize economic solidarity and populism as the solution to the "culture wars" (and here I'm thinking primarily of Thomas Frank) is that they do not appreciate how much the great populist and egalitarian movements toward social and economic equality in American history where themselves forthright about, and supportive of, the cultural "structures" benefitedhe people they benefitted lived. But that's an argument I've made extensively many times. (And please note: I am not saying that the above is sufficient for an egalitarian politics, only that it is probably necessary to it; criticizing certain liberal presumptions in pursuit of equality is hardly the same as saying that liberal practices and priorities are irrelevant to it.) What needs to be further said here is whether or not there's any way to get at those structures today without, on the one hand, playing into the hands of commodifiers who take conservative insights and reduce them to money relations that only make egalitarianism harder, or on the other hand, joining up with the old right and making where one culturally belongs the only question which matters (a proposition which is 1) seriously disputed by the real-world consequences of many modern liberal freedoms, and 2) so likely to be aristocratic that an egalitarian like Michaels is perhaps justified in condemning the whole thing).

I think there is one way, and that is through language, which was Scott's topic. A concern for linguistic diversity does not, of course, even come close to covering all the varieties of community and identity claims out; most obviously, the struggles over race and ethnicity and gender and religion which have over the past few decades often obsessed those (mostly academic) liberals whom Michaels complains about were carried out, with very few exceptions, in English. So targeting language as a structural source of diversity which really does have something to do with empowering and equalizing people neither completely undermines Michaels's point nor takes care of all the hard issues that would challenge his claims. Nonetheless, taking seriously language as a central component of a truly legitimate politics of identity and recognition would go a long way towards clarifying the debate.

Michaels himself does not appear any more patient with this take on diversity than any other. As he wrote in the New York Times:

[W]hy would it be a tragedy if English disappeared? Why is it a tragedy if Tlingit disappears? Although we can all agree it's a bad thing to try to get people to stop using their language, it's hard to see why it's a bad thing if their language disappears. Why? Because the very thing that made it a mistake for the missionaries to try to stop people from speaking Native American languages (it's not as if English was better) makes it a mistake to care whether people continue to speak Native American languages (it's not as if English is worse). We can see the point clearly by pretending for a second that English really is starting to vanish. Suppose our children start speaking a little Spanish, our grandchildren become bilingual and our great-grandchildren speak only Spanish. Since we can't speak Spanish, we can't talk to them. But if that's a problem, it won't last for long, and once it is solved, there will be no problem left. Just as the language we speak does everything we need it to do, the language they speak will do everything they need it to do...Our language is the one we speak, not the one our ancestors spoke.

Michaels presumption here is pretty straightforward: language is about communication, and so long as you're communicating, whatever your immediate literary or cultural or regional references, you can still express yourself as a person with a particular self-understanding. Thus, for Michaels the problem of language merely calls forth a liberal focus on the individual's interests and preferences. Forcing someone to learn a language or abandon one is wrong, because it can do violence to their self-understanding...but language death? The abandonment of a minority dialect for a metropolitan tongue? That may result in a person being unable to speak with their great-grandparents, but their self-constructed self is still the same. And so, Michaels argues elsewhere, ideally we should aim for a universal language, so we can get all these essentialist and culturalist obstacles out of the way and get back to working on economic opportunity and equality instead of comforting the poor in their restricted linguistic circles.

Well, you can probably guess, the dispute I have with the above begins with the idea of a "self-constructed self." There ain't no such animal. But that's not a difficult point to convince people of; the difficult part comes in how you explain everything else you accept as going into the construction of the self, and what kind of normative force you attach to it. For the purposes of this post, I'll simply footnote the long and (I think) persuasive argument about language and hermeneutical self-realization (begin here, then go here, then on to here), and assert that taking linguistic rights and diversity seriously brings culture into the discussion in such a way that does not communities, with collective needs. This is not an argument either for or against any particular language scheme as a route towards egalitarianism; there are good arguments (made by theorists like Thomas Pogge) that the empowerment and equalization of Hispanics in the U.S. depends upon emphasizing their education in and adoption of the English linguistic identity of the polity they have migrated to, and there are good arguments (made by scholars like Stephen May) which argue the opposite. Either way, language, far from being irrelevant to formingimpoverishedthat will get those in impoverihed ethnic or cultural communities into same class as their economic superiors, is actually one of the very best ways to think about class divisions in our multicultural world. (Philippe Van Parjis's work is a good starting point here; you can find essays by him and all the above scholars in this book here.)

By saying that language is more than a neutral tool of communication, to say that it matters in a cultural and also a normative sense, obviously means that one cannot--or at least should not--casually embrace Michaels's attitude above, in which he wants us to forget about how people speak and instead focus on how they earn and spend; it means that, actually, earning and spending and class consciousness generally, to the extent that they involve some sort of solidarity, will also have to involve the deep structures that the expressive capacities of language make manifest. True, depending on what sort of political arrangements are worked out, egalitarians may still end up tearing their hair out at the prospect of time in school and the voting booth and the union hall being "wasted" on constant squabbles over translation and linguistic maintenance. Two points. First, if egalitarians care about anything, presumably they care about the equal treatment of persons, and if ignoring language resulted in a lack of sensitivity to how it is that a "person" fully understands him or herself, then I'm not sure why one's preferred "egalitarianism" need be liberal--or indeed, even democratic!--at all. Second, perhaps not that much time will be wasted after all. As one commenter mentioned in the Unfogged post I linked to above, there is a difference between language and culture, as our concerns about hegemony indicate. There are good reasons to respect a community's defense of its specific identity, but those identies can and often are collectively aligned in important ways with dominant languages, with the result that "they [those who adopt a metropolitan language] in turn can contribute their cultural background, disseminate it in the widely understood new language, thus contributing further to the tongue's 'conversation' and making it all the more appealing." Perhaps the classic example here is how the Irish identity and sensibility came to be communicated through English--a process that came about through violence, to be sure, but with a result that both benefited the English-speaking world and strengthened and extended the presence of Irish culture within it, a point that need's to remembered by anyone who views linguistic assimilation as always colonialist and therefore tragic.

A language may be about more than communication, and I'm enough a Herderian (and even a Whorfian, or at least a sympthetic reader of some of the biological and neurological evidence which Scott cites) to readily accept that something essential is always lost in translation, and that such losses are always bad...but to use that fact to block the empowerment of a people through their own instrumental choices and options would be equally bad. Languages grow and change and adapt and even die out. Taking them seriously does not mean placing their preservation above any and all egalitarian concerns; it simply means that, in a liberal order which Michaels sees as addicted to diversity, language, as the field within which the natural and historical sources of a diverse peoples' identities are realized, provides an opportunity for egalitarians to acknowledge the conservative insight into culture while avoiding facile definitions of "culture" as something "high" or elite or consumable, all of which arguably lead one away from socio-economic equality. On the contrary, as I suggest above, language can even, in some circumstances (in particular when one is dealing with migrant or immigrant or indigenous persons), be a necessary part of any consciousness of equality at all.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Gimme Shelter

Yesterday was a beautiful Harvest Moon, and hence the beginning of Sukkot, the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, or Feast of Booths. I've written before about the meaning which the Jewish holidays have for me, and this one is no exception. No, I don't build a sukkah for the family, but I do find this holiday as good a time as any to think about the blessing of shelter, of having a place one can call "home" while sojourning through the world. For serious Jews, it's actually a rather joyous holiday; unlike holy days like Passover, which points those who observe it back to the bitterness and redemption of the past, as well as committing them to the future, Sukkot is in some ways very much like America's Thanksgiving Day, another celebration of the harvest: it refers to the past--to the Jews who wandered in the desert, dwelling in tents, depending upon God--so as to emphasize the blessings and bounties and many reasons to celebrate they enjoy today.

We have many blessings and bounties and reasons to celebrate today ourselves, but I can't say my thoughts about about shelter have been particularly joyous of late. Mostly because finding shelter is a pain.

Oh, we're not living in a box; we're renting a nice apartment here in Wichita, and have no complaints with it. No, the problem is that we are, at long last, finally looking to buy a home, and we really don't know how to go about it. Which is fairly embarrassing: I'm 37 years old, practically my whole family is at least partially involved in real estate, and yet the prospect of buying a house--even the prospect of figuring out what you need to know in order to buy a house--is as intimidating as hell. I know what you're thinking: "That's why you get a realtor!" Well, have a realtor, and he's a good guy (though he can't seem to take seriously our desire to live close enough to Friends University so I can ride my bike and thus we can avoid buying a second car). But there was a great home in our neighborhood which became available just the last week, and we jumped at it...but they didn't want to work with a realtor; they wanted everything to be settled just between our two families (well, and the bank, and the titling company, and...). We tried every way we could think of to work something out that would allow us to make an offer on the house while also bringing along someone as a buyer's agent at least, just so that we didn't accidentally sign away my retirement fund or our oldest child or something (don't laugh: you don't know how bad I am with details), and it just fell apart. Depression ensued. We've been at this--looking at dozens of homes, talking with lenders, checking out MLS listings, going over our needs and desires with our realtor again and again--for two solid months now. Of course, I don't know what to expect; maybe that's a reasonable amount of time to spend looking for a home in a city like Wichita? Or are our demands unreasonable, simply incompatible with our price range? Everyone we ask, of course, has a different story, a different answer. So the weekend comes and there's this other possibility...but it would require us to completely redo the kitchen when we purchased the home, and it's possible the trees in the front yard are dying. At this point, a sukkah is looking good.

I remember when Laura McKenna was going through this whole process--which school districts do you think you can work with? just how far are you willing to live from neighbors/job/family? how much work are you willing to put into your home long term? how long do you expect to live there anyway?--and so I know nothing in the above paragraph is a unique or original concern. Buying a home is tough, especially the first time around. And we've got a lot of help that most other first-time home-buyers don't have, that's for certain. But then, we're also so far along with our family: four kids, with the oldest about to enter middle school. And I guess we make things harder for ourselves with all our "crunchy" and "slacker" attitudes. All we want is a nice four-bedroom suburban home along a quiet street with sidewalks from which the kids can walk to school and I can bike to work, one with mature enough trees that I can build a treehouse for the girls. Oh, and we want to live in it for 20 years, or at least until most of the kids are gone. Is that too much to ask? (Yes, it probably is, especially on our budget. Even in Wichita.)

Oh well. Life goes on. Today, having shook off some of the grumpiness of the last few days, I'm feeling better, confident that something will come along...eventually. (Who knows? Maybe, especially if we can find a contractor who is willing to build us a kitchen that doesn't aspire to be a whole-hog, Martha-Stewart special, this next house may be the one.) It's just a matter of looking carefully and rethinking as necessary and, most importantly, waiting until that day comes to pass. I suppose the whole reason we have holidays, breaks in the calendar, events to remember, feasts to celebrate, is to make it easier to keep with the daily routine, to stick with the important tasks that you really do desire but have a hard time seeing the end point of. A shelter from the daily-ness of open houses and lender forms. A sukkah that we can take a nap in, say a prayer in, remember gratefully how much better thing are today than they used to be, and so find the strength to get up and call your realtor once more.