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Friday, March 28, 2008

Not a Friday PSTSS, Just a Song That Got Stuck in My Head a Couple of Days Ago, Which Has Prompted a Burning Question That I Need Answered

Were Floyd and Janice a couple? I mean, in Muppet world, were they together? Was that the storyline? I'm thinking they were, but I can't find any hard evidence.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday PSTSS: "Booker"

Harry Connick, Jr.'s 1994 album, She, was a departure for him; up until then, he'd been the new Frank Sinatra, a sexy big band crooner, tailor-made for the new romantics of the When Harry Met Sally crowd. This album was a return to his New Orleans roots (and not his last return, as things turned out); it's a stew of jazz, rock and roll, blues and funk, with many fine songs. This Good Friday however, I'm drawn to the final, most sober track on the album, "Booker." The lyrics were written by New Orleans lyricist and musician Ramsey McLean, and nominally Connick is turning McLean's words into a very personal tribute to one of his own teachers, the New Orleans piano legend James Booker, with Connick playing every instrument on the recording, often borrowing from Booker's style. Yet there's something more going on there, something spooky, something spiritual. It is a song about death, about endings; the otherwise nameless "Booker" of the lyrics is damned, dying, in prison--or is he? In any case, he cannot escape his fate, though those who would succor and heal and free him are all readily at hand. There is no let up from the sense of something terrible and unavoidable closing in. Most of the words are spoken rather than sung, backed up usually by only a single drum and some monotonous piano chords, and even when, following the second stanza, the tune explodes into a wild boogie-woogie rhythm, something haunting still lurks: the piano drives (hammers?) forward harshly, ever faster, almost hysterically, like someone dancing madly (on their grave?), ending with a glissando into a minor key that brings us back to the lyrics feeling shaken, not exhilarated. And then the crushing drum beat begins again, this time backed by a softly wailing bass line, and we are carried (like a body?) through the final stanza to the end.

I've not the slightest idea if any of this would make sense to McLean or Connick, and I certainly have no idea what their religious feelings about this song or anything else may be. But this particular Friday, I wonder if anyone can grow up in New Orleans and not have some deep sense of sin, pain, regret, and other broken things.

Have a blessed Easter, everyone.

And the warden said,
"He won't need a cell:
he has the key.
There's no harsher sentence--
the man's doing life
in the first degree."

Some people seek to set blame.
Some just accept their part.
And now you know why Booker
of a broken heart.

And the priest said,
"I can take confession:
but not the sin.
The church is a shelter--
not the faith, son,
that's within."

Some people pray for fortune and fame.
Some just play a part.
And now you know why Booker
of a broken heart.

And the doctor said,
"I can see you're hurt
just by looking at you.
Pain we can help,
but for hurt?
There's nothing we can do."

Some people pick up the pieces.
Some just leave them apart.
And now you know why Booker...
now you know why Booker...
now you know why Booker...
of a broken heart.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Speech

Almost 24 hours behind the rampaging blog commentary, let me attempt a few random thoughts on the simply spectacular speech which Senator Obama gave on race in America--and the various racial complaints and issues haunting his campaign--in Philadelphia yesterday.

1. Who liked it, among bloggers? Timothy Burke, Henry Farrell, Rod Dreher, Ross Douthat, Pithlord, John Buass, and no doubt hundreds more. And deservedly so--as I said, the speech, as a piece of rhetoric, is spectacular. And rhetoric matters; rhetoric is one of the tools (arguably, in our media-dominated representative democracy, the most important tool) by which those in politics distill and present to the public at large that slice of public opinion they are trying to enlist for their candidacy and motivate for their chosen causes. Style matters--it's not the only thing that matters, but it definitely matters a great deal. So look at it, solely in terms of its rhetorical style: look at what he lays out in that speech. He has something to say about multiculturalism, angry white males, religious segregation, white flight, busing, downsizing, the civil rights movement, absent fathers, the collapse of the black family, lousy schools, economic alienation, poverty, urban decay, slavery, the inner city, black-on-black crime, the Founding Fathers, etc. And he says it all in a mature, thoughtful, complicated way, denouncing, firmly and in great detail, the numerous hateful and inflammatory statements by Revered Jeremiah Wright (which was the nominal purpose of this speech), but never wholly rejecting him as a pastor and a father figure, nor distancing himself from the church community Wright has built, nor denouncing the contradictions and justifiable anger that make up Wright's perspective--and not just his, but also that of the black community of America as a whole. What an audacious thing to do, and what a breadth of spirit it represents! This is no mere "can't we all get along?" plea; this is an argument about why we all, white and black, so often turn towards exclusiveness and bitterness when faced with racial conflicts and compromises--why it's so easy for many of us to treat our problems as reflecting a "static" reality, rather than acknowledging that time and people and countries keep moving, and that what is needed is not to continue to attend to hurts and distractions (my single favorite line from the whole speech: "But if we do [retreat to these postures], I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction, and then another one, and then another one, and nothing will change"), but to give each others' grievances and frustrations some recognition, and that by recognizing them--not in the sense of allowing that every debt or failure does or does not legally deserve some recompense or reward, but in simply allowing them some legitimacy, some context of respect--we can see the way attending collectively to common problems helps us get beyond them. Ultimately, this was a speech about the hopefulness and dignity--and the necessary foundations too--of the democratic process, of the need to see policy debates as themselves only tools, only secondary arguments, about the best way to achieve the real purpose of self-government: creating a community of people who have the freedom, opportunity, and collective capacity to exercise real responsibility for and sovereignty over their own futures, over becoming the sort citizens and having the sort of families they aspire to be and to have.

2. So, that's it--no great policy innovations or recommendations? Well, given all that I just said, it's seems obviously properly is, "no." The fact is, he's a pretty conventional modern American liberal policy-wise, when all is said and done; his plans for what happens after we "get beyond" our repetitive poses over race and social division that Republicans and Democrats both make use of--assuming we ever do--are pretty standard liberal Democratic plans, regarding urban renewal, education, health care, the environment, and more. As Ross correctly notes, Obama is not reaching out to voters who are basically conservative (again, in its confused modern American state--as I've argued, Obama's affiliation with TUCC's theological resistance to "middleclassness" reflects a certain kind of properly conservative thinking); rather, he is trying to enlist doubtful independents into giving his candidacy, with all its transformational and aspiration rhetoric, a chance.

3. Ah, but who are those independent voters? That's the real political question here, if we can descend from the realm of rhetoric and ideas to that of electoral success for the moment. Well, if we're talking about the mostly secular, mostly educated white independents out there, Obama needn't worry; the "creative classes" have been tending Democratic for ever since the 1990s. The crucial question is the white working class, whom Rod thinks the Rev. Wright controversy has cost Obama their vote entirely. He may be right, though I suspect that it isn't Wright himself or his words that are the essential problem; rather, the real divide appears when one considers Obama's liberalism and his class, for which--in the minds of many working-class and rural white voters, at least--the radicalism of some of Wright's statements are just a symptom. Obama is, in many ways, an almost Burkean moderate, but we have an enormous disconnect in our political understandings in this country (a disconnect that I tend to believe, as I've said many times before, has been created most fundamentally by religious disagreements, which are at their base for most voters not disagreements about doctrine but about authority and individuality and morality and community), one that prevents a large number of working class and rural citizens--perhaps even a reliable majority of those citizens--from being able to recognize any kind of moderation and traditionalism and even "family values" when they appear on the left. Now maybe the fact that Obama did not completely throw Rev. Wright, with his "God damn America" rhetoric, completely overboard in this speech signals proves these citizens are right. Perhaps all this speech proves is Obama's bone-deep membership in that elite class of Americans who just don't get the whole traditionalist point, people who--as the conservative blogger Withywindle puts it--confuse "understanding" a "complex" reality with the need to express some allegiance to the basic morals of that reality, people who strive to complicate and transcend hard questions, rather than make the choice to accept or reject them. Could be. It's indisputable that Obama and his family are members of that elite class, and so maybe that means that, for too many reasons to count, Obama wouldn't be able to reach out to them, perhaps not even as well as Bill Clinton did, and so maybe this speech is just icing on their cake. But I'd like to give this speech a little more credit than that; I'd like to hold open the possibility that, as a contribution to a larger argument over ideas (one that, as Obama himself acknowledges, is hardly going to be wrapped up "in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy--particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own"), maybe Obama's rhetoric here may open a few more people up--including opening a few more religiously conservative, lower- and middle-class white voters up, voters whose grievances he goes out of his way to speak respectfully of in this speech--to the "conservative" elements of this message coming from the left. That may not win him Pennsylvania...but then, to his credit, I don't think this speech was about winning Pennsylvania, anyway.

4. One last thing--I'm familiar with some of Reverend Wright's sermons, having listened to more than a few of them from various sources over the years; two of my colleagues here at Friends U., in fact, have attended and taken student groups to TUCC when they've visited Chicago on several occasions. And let me just say this: leave aside all the arguably justifiable anger and the class-based suspicions for the moment, if you can; if you're a serious and conservative Christian, give the full range of TUCC's message a try. To be sure, it is a heavily race-conscious church...but then, so were Martin Luther King's revival meetings. If you can accept and get past that, you'll find that it is far more doctrinal, evangelical and Biblically-grounded than you might expect. Obama may be a member of the elite, but frankly, anyone who has been willing to listen to those messages of repentance and salvation for 20 years, and whose been willing to build his marriage and fatherhood through such a church, deserves a lot more credit from the religious among us than he's gotten so far.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Five Years (A Blog Biography, of Sorts)

Five years ago today, I started blogging. Herewith, some thoughts.

Back in 2003, I was a visiting assistant professor of political science at Arkansas State University, and I hadn't lost hope that what lay ahead of me was a world of research, publishing, and intellectual accomplishment. I looked to the blogosphere primarily as a way to extend and refine my academic and intellectual persona; hence the ridiculously pretentious title for my original blog. Community-building wasn't really on my mind, or else I would have chosen something pronounceable in English.

I'd been reading certain blogs--particularly Andrew Sullivan--pretty obsessively ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11; they--the "liberal hawks" crowd--had the news and the arguments, and they shaped much of my thinking during those years (as you can tell by just looking at my earliest posts: Tony Blair, liberal interventionism, the Anglosphere, Islamic fundamentalism, blah, blah, blah, etc.). But they weren't my main inspiration; that was Jacob T. Levy, a political theorist that at that time I'd never met, but I'd run across his name often enough online to have some familiarity with him, his interests, and his career. He started blogging in earnest in September of 2002, and I thought to myself, "hmm--I can do that." It took me six months to get around to it, but still, if anyone is my blogfather, it's him. (I wonder how many other political and philosophical bloggers could say the same?) We've since become occasional correspondents and political-conference-friends, which I consider to be great honor, especially since I think if there's any academic out there of my generation capable of someday writing themselves into the history of political philosophy, it's Jacob.

I made some friends and enemies in those early days. Well, not really enemies, but damn, I was jealous of Micah Schwartzman--another young political theorist, not so much different than me (just smarter, no doubt), and certainly no further ahead of me in the blogging game (he started the same week I did, in fact)...but, he had the intelligence to design a blog with a readily pronounceable name, plus the energy to link to and comment frequently upon the writings of other political theorists. Before I could even blink, he'd been snapped up by one of the first (and, I think at least, still the greatest) big-league academic/intellectual blogs, Crooked Timber. Hey, man, what about me?!?, was my unspoken whine. I mean, by that time, both Matthew Ygelsias and CT co-founder Chris Bertram (at his old blog) had acknowledged my presence; didn't that count for anything? Oh, well--that's show business for you. As you can guess, the idea of being recognized as part of an online intellectual community very quickly became important to me.

Oh, yes--friends. When I first discovered Laura McKenna, she was still pseudo-anonymously blogging as "Laura" at the original version of 11D. I loved her writing, the way her personality came through and enriched her sharp political and personal confessions and commentary. She was the first blogger I read regularly who really mixed up the public and the private in a way I liked, and she influenced my own blogging a great deal. She was also the first reader I had in those early years who I had a sense of actually being interested in me, as a blogging personality; that was a huge ego boost. Neither of us read each other today as regularly as we once did, I think, but I'll always be grateful to her. To a slightly lesser extent (but with no decrease in appreciation), the same debt holds for Timothy Burke, John Holbo and Belle Waring, and the late, great Invisible Adjunct. (Holy crap, Mary, your archives are gone! I had to link to some Boston Globe article about you instead. Sorry.)

For a very brief moment during my first year, I thought I'd made the big time: A Fistful of Euros asked me to guest-blog. I have no idea why: I'm not European, don't live in Europe, and am certainly no expert on European affairs. I think it must have been my numerous exchanges with one of their then-regular participants, Scott Martens, a fine interlocutor who has since departed the blogosphere (you stick around for five years, you unfortunately see a lot of that; rarely do you see someone who has departed blogging come back, Jacob Levy being a blessed exception). I managed a couple of posts on the Cyprus issue (remember that, everyone?) and then could no longer deny my lack of qualifications for the blog and bowed out. I still read it and think on it fondly, though, if only because I suspect my time there was what sent regular reader Doug Muir my way.

Other blog associates came later: Hugo Schwyzer, Harry Brighouse and Henry Farrell of CT, David Watkins of Lawyers, Guns and Money, and Peter Levine all stand out as writers whom I discovered as the months turned into years, and along the way became thoughtful, inspiring, and challenging intellectual correspondents and friends. (Hugo and Peter, in particular, offered kind support and assistance to me when, about three years after I began blogging, I confronted the possibility that I'd completely blown my chance to grab the academic career ring, and needed to go back to the drawing board and begin again. Which, thankfully, I did, sort of.) In time--especially as I began to focus over the past couple of years on the issue of just what kind of weird Christian populist/socialist/counter-cultural conservative I might be--others came into the conversation: Ross Douthat, Rod Dreher, Lee McCracken, Daniel Larison, Patrick Deneen, and more. All, in different ways, have helped me become better at thinking through where I'm at and where I'm going, which is really what blogging--I eventually came to realize--at its best is all about.

I should mention a couple of others: there were those readers (Alan Jacobs foremost among them) who got to know me, and whom I got to know, primarily through sharing our Harry Potter nerdery; and then there are those Wichita and Kansas area bloggers (especially John Buass) that I've gotten to know just by putting my roots down more deeply here in our new home. Muchas gracias to them as well.

Alongside all of this, there are a couple of other abiding factors that have shaped my blogging. First are the wonderful associations I've made through Times and Seasons, the Mormon blog I've been part of since late 2003. From the beginning, I wondered exactly how to handle my religious side on this blog; once I joined T&S, that problem was resolved. And plus the whole gang over there, as regular and guest bloggers have come and gone, has been just wonderful to get to know. Second were my very first and still enduring set of captive victims readers: old college and graduate school friends that have no doubt long since tired of all the crap I'm always sending and forwarding to them. A few of them blog themselves (Scott, Mary Ellen, Matt, Rob), but whether they're active or not, whether they're critical or just confused, I'm grateful to them for their friendship--the Mormons and the agnostics, the libertarians and the Marxists and restaurateurs, the quiet types and the troublemakers...all of them.

Where am I now? A tenure-track assistant professor of political science at Friends University, one who cares a lot more about teaching and writing in general than I did five years ago; one who also is a lot more conscious of and mature about the larger way political ideas can and should play out in everyday life and conversations than I was back then. Plus, I also have a lot more friends and acquaintances, of a much greater ideological and philosophical breadth than before. To the extent I can thank blogging for any or all of this, I'm grateful to the geeks at Blogger, and everyone else whose made this possible.

I was originally thinking when I started this post that I'd do some sort of "Greatest Hits" list, but I don't think I care to do the work to identify all my bests and worsts, low points and high. I've written some stuff I'm pretty proud of, and a lot of ephemeral junk too. I write lengthy posts, I know; mostly, these days, I'm fine with that--that's just the sort of blogger I am--though even I have to admit that occasionally bite of more than I can chew. Sometimes I get a lot of readers (the 2004 elections were a busy time, and the build-up to and release of The Deathly Hallows got me my largest number of comments ever); most of the time I just muddle through. Either way, after five years of this, I figure I'll probably keep at it, barring some major personal or technological revolution. If you're reader, then I thank you--and hope you'll keep coming back too.

In five years, I think I've only recruited one person into blogging: my wife Melissa. But she makes the whole thing worth it, of course.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Adapting Harry Potter

Yes, it's another HP post. What can I say? I'm a nerd.

So, as anybody whose obsessive about this stuff (what, obsessive, me?) has heard by now, The Powers That Be are going to split the film adaptation of The Deathly Hallows into two movies. Fan reaction, from what I can tell, has been mostly positive. And why not? It's more Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter! More Emma Watson as Hermione Granger! More (hearts flutter, palms grow sweaty) Alan Rickman as Severus Snape! Well, put me down for a dissenting vote. The movies have, generally speaking, gotten better over the years--though there continue to be low points and high points spread unevenly throughout--and while the folks behind this franchise (for a variety of reasons) don't have the comprehensive drive of a Peter Jackson moving them forward, a somewhat consistent cinematic language and fantasy vision has nonetheless emerged. I sincerely doubt turning DH into two films will serve that accomplishment very well. Why?

1. I simply don't believe the reasons for the split being given. Sure, DH is the final book, with lots of loose ends to tie up. And yes, there are some fairly extensive subplots and side notes which are both essential to the books plot and completely exclusive to DH (the whole Dumbledore-Grindelward thing, for example); finding the space to fit them into the film is surely important. But is there really so much going on that it resists a concise adaptation? You're going film Bill and Fleur's wedding (even though, thus far, we've no indication that either of them will even appear in the sixth movie, which presumably ought to be setting up their whole relationship)? You're going film all of the Trio camping, all of the events at Shell Cottage, all of the encounter with Xenophilius Lovegood? I'll believe it when I see it.

2. Which leads to an additional concern: if they really do film it all--if they really do give us a combined five (or more?) hours of DH adaptation--then I can't imagine the results will be good. I imagine a replay of what made the first movie such a slog: a mess of hasty exposition and clipped, context-less scenes as they scrambled to fit in everything. Maybe I should give them the benefit of the doubt, or at least wait to see what the film adaptation of The Half-Blood Prince brings us this winter, with the final team of David Yates (director) and Steve Kloves (screenwriter) working together. (My wife has long insisted that the real problem with adaptation has been the screenwriter; I know Kloves has written and shot some good films, but so much of his work on the HP films has just come off as obvious and insistent, whereas a different screenwriter shaped, under Yates's direction, Order of the Phoenix--the longest and most cumbersome of the HP novels--into the leanest and most effective movie to date.) But I'm not confident. Going for two movies, striving to "fit it all in," is going to require some thinking outside the box, and we haven't seen much of that so far.

3. What sort of outside the box thinking am I talking about? Look at it this way: as many of us discovered somewhat surprisingly by the end of DH, Rowling really was writing a children's book
(or, as Alan Jacobs's put it in the single best review of DH I read, "boys' literature," a "penny dreadful"). The puts certain constraints upon adaptation--going for the "shoot everything" approach, however, puts different expectations in place. If the goal is really to catch each and every detail of DH on film (which, again, I doubt is what will happen or is even a good idea), then what you need to do is think expansively, think epic-style...and that means reshaping the books so that we have a multiplicity of viewpoints and concurrent events. The books do this, sometimes, but mostly Rowling managed to make everything significant--including exposition--happen in Harry's real-time (he reads something, he overhears something, etc.). The films have actually been pretty faithful to this, though often clumsily (it may be true to Hermione's know-it-all character, but giving Emma Watson constant exposition and explanation duties has mainly resulted in her having to perfect sighing and raising her eyebrows, rather than really delve into her character). If you want to break away from the one-film limit, then Yates, Kloves & Co. really should be looking at ways to break away from all that as well...and that means, fill in the gaps, give all the co-stars and secondary characters something to do! Write and film Ron's angry departure from Harry and Hermione, his escape from the Snatchers, and his return to his friends from his point of view. (C'mon, you just know Rupert Grint has the action-hero chops to handle it.) Moreover, definitely shoot Ron and Hermione's escapades in the Chamber of Secrets (what do you mean, Rowling didn't write exactly what happened? well then, make something up!). How about Neville, Luna and Ginny--and others?--trying to keep hope alive at Hogwarts, recruiting for Dumbledore's Army, trying to steal the Sword of Gryffindor? Or Dean on the run? Or Remus's return to and reunion with Tonks? I really think this kind of comprehensive attitude towards the story--rather than a niggling, "this time we won't have to leave anything on the cutting room floor!" approach--is the only approach that would make splitting the story in two worth it. Otherwise, we Potter geeks may just end up with the promise of something more than another fun, affecting film waved before our eyes, before it collapses in a mess.

I think I'll forward this post to Warner Brothers. No doubt, they'll be so bowled over by my reasoning that they'll take my every criticism and suggestion to heart.

Special St. Patrick's Day PSTSS: "Lily of the West"

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, I discovered the Chieftains. No, I'm not Irish (not even a little bit, unless you want to go a long ways back); discovering the music of this acclaimed Irish folk band just seemed to be something a lot of people I knew were doing at the time. Did all the intellectually aspiring, culturally discontented, youthful middle-class white people of America do the same around then? Probably not, but an awful lot did. "World music" wasn't so much a present reality for most of us at that time as it was something that all the hip pop artists we listened to--Paul Simon, Graceland; Sting, Nothing Like the Sun; Peter Gabriel, So--were gesturing towards, and it was probably inevitable that their radio success would allow the actual international folk artists they grooved on to experience a little of my beloved MOR American attention themselves. (Did I own a Ladysmith Black Mambazo album? Darn straight I did, and so did you, or else your locker partner or roommate did.)

Point being, there came a time when the Chieftains crossed my radar screen, and after I dipped into their enormous discography a little, I was hooked. They've never, so far as I know, had any kind of straightforward pop success anywhere...but that doesn't mean that some of the finest rock, country, blues, jazz and folk artists of the world haven't leaped at the chance to go into the studio with them, to try to share in some of their Celtic wizardry and raw musicianship. In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I could cite a dozen collaborations that, in a better world, would have been huge international hits, but I'm going to stick with one my earliest favorites from their oeuvre: a recording of the multitalented Mark Knopfler joining the Chieftains in playing and singing an old English (or Irish, or possibly American; there are many versions of the song, which has been recorded by Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, among others) folk tune, "Lily of the West." You can find it on 1995's The Long Black Veil, and a finer rendition of the classic sad story of a young man whose infatuation reaches too high, and who finds himself betrayed as a result, you'll never hear. As for whether there's anything typically Irish about that...well, I'll let you decide.

When first I came to Ireland,
some pleasures for to find.
It's there I spied a damsel fair,
so pleasing to my mind.
Her rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes
like arrows pierced my breast;
and they called her "lovely Molly-O,
the lily of the west."

One day as I was walking,
down by the shady grove,
I spied a lord of high degree
conversing with my love.
She sang a song delightfully
while I was sore oppressed--
saying I'll bid adieu to Molly-O,
the lily of the west.

I stepped up with my rapier
and my dagger in my hand.
And I dragged him from my false love
and boldly bid him stand.
But being mad with desperation
I swore I'd pierce his breast.
I was then deceived by Molly-O,
the lily of the west.

I then did stand my trial
and boldly I did plea.
A flaw was in my indictment found
and that soon had my free.
That beauty bright I did adore
the judge did her address:
"Now go you faithless Molly-O,
the lily of the west."

Now that I've gained my liberty
a roving I will go--
I'll ramble through old Ireland,
and travel Scotland o'er.
Though she thought to swear my life away,
she still disturbs my rest--
I still must style her Molly-O,
the lily of the west.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Amy Sullivan's Party Faithful

Amy Sullivan's The Party Faithful: How and Why the Democrats are Closing the God Gap came out a little less than a month ago, and I haven't seen it discussed much on the blogs. Of course, it's not that you can't find anything on the book: Beliefnet has given her a page to talk about her argument, the NYT gave the book a prominent and sympathetic review along with a similar new book by E.J. Dionne, it's been excerpted in Sojourners magazine, and Salon ran a long interview with her. But still, I'd expected her work to make more of a splash. Amy has been around the blogosphere for a long time (I used to read her "Political Aims" blog all the time, as well as her contributions to the "Gadflyer" blog, the content of both of which are lost somewhere back in the mist of the unarchived internet ruins of 2003 and 2004), and talking about her work usually drives one's readership up. Not because she has a lot of fans amongst bloggers; on the contrary, probably 80% of everything I've ever seen online about her views that she hadn't written herself has been negative, sometimes harshly so. The Christian conservatives who blog generally don't take her seriously, and the secular liberals who blog, predictably, frequently see her as worthy of contempt, a traitor in their midst. So, if nothing else, you'd think her book would have been snapped up by folks on both the left and right, looking for something to be snide or angry about. As for "liberal Christians"--or better, orthodox religious believers who are also political and economic liberals (a label I frequently use to describe myself, if only because self-identifying as a "conservative Christian communitarian/social democratic populist" is just a mouthful)--well, we're a small enough minority in the blogosphere that anything we have a lot to say about just isn't going to seen by that many readers, no matter how large a font we use.

Which is too bad, because Amy's book is very good--or at least, it does what it sets out to do very, very well. I have some serious reservations with it, reservations that aren't all that dissimilar from complaints that I've voiced about Amy's basic approach to her chosen subject before. But let me get to those objections later on: first and foremost, let me praise this book as a very solid, very persuasive, very accessible journalistic story of the Democratic party's failure to attend to and attract religious voters over this past century (focusing especially on the past four decades or so), and of the tentative successes some Democratic politicians and activists have had in recent years in getting that to change. As far as political books looking to comment on the events right at hand--like the current presidential race--are concerned, this one deserves much more attention than it's gotten so far.

Amy frames the book with autobiographical vignettes, beginning with reminiscences about her youth with the evangelical and scripturally orthodox First Baptist Church of Plymouth (MI), a church that sustained and inspired her and her family while she was growing up, but which also became in later years (to Amy's dismay) a thoroughly and overtly Republican congregation; she concludes with a glimpse into what she interprets as a slowly but surely changing evangelical world (and Democratic party) which she sees around her at a Christian music festival in Washington State in 2006, and at a meeting for religious progressives organized by Sojourners and attended by all the Democratic presidential front-runners in Washington DC in 2007. In between, she sketches out a history and an argument about the by-no-means-inevitable changes in the Democratic party--an argument that, as any reader of this blog could guess, I affirm pretty strongly, in most of its details, anyway. She talks about the way a "conservative" Christian orthodoxy and "progressive" social concern at one time operated simultaneously in the writings and activism of such populist and socialist heroes of mine like William Jennings Bryan or Dorothy Day; she reminds her readers that Franklin Delano Roosevelt quoted from Pope Pius XI's writings on a socially just economy, more than once described the New Deal as an effort to enact the Sermon on the Mount, and once stated that "[t]here is not a problem--social, political, or economic--that would not find full solution in the fire of a religious awakening" (pg. 17). She makes a good case (not that she had to work hard to convince me) that an instinct for Christian seriousness and cultural conservatism was not from the beginning an opponent of progressive and egalitarian politics; it was, by contrast, an essential support to it.

Still, she recognizes the depth of "the God gap," the sense amongst many that only one of our two dominant political parties listens to or takes seriously religious voters; she doesn't dismiss it as something which just developed by accident. She divides this section of her story into two parts: first, how the Democrats lost evangelicals (whom she defines as Protestants with a "Biblically centered faith"), and second, how they lost Catholics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she does a better job on the first part than the second. I learned a lot from her chapter on the growing distance between liberalism and evangelicalism in America; the Scopes trial and the discrediting of Bryan and the growth of the initially reclusive fundamentalists I knew about, but I was surprised by what she uncovered about the "neo-evangelical" movement in the 1940s, 50s and 60s (led by such individuals as the young Billy Graham, who banned segregated seating at his revivals in the South and spoke out forcefully for the civil rights and anti-poverty legislation of Lyndon Johnson), as well as all the opportunities she describes Jimmy Carter, a Biblically orthodox born-again Baptist himself, missing out on in regards to connecting with and enlisting the support of the then-emergent-but-still-unformed evangelical/fundamentalist backlash of the 70s and 80s (Jerry Falwell at one time spoke highly of Carter, claiming the majority of the people he associated with at church supported his candidacy and presidency, but became quickly "disillusioned" by Carter's willingness to curry the favor of, and the lengths he went to avoid antagonizing, the secular left that rose to prominence in Democratic circles though from the late 60s on--pg. 37). As for Amy's chapter on Catholicism, it has some weaknesses (how can you discuss the way Catholics became the leaders of a broad, religiously orthodox and culturally conservative backlash movement in the U.S. without ever mentioning "Evangelicals and Catholics Together", probably the most politically significant Christian statement of the last 20 years?), but it may be I'm particularly sensitive to some of these issues, having been thoroughly educated by my encounter with Damon Linker's book, The Theocons. In general though, she tells the story of the alienation of Catholics from their tradition home in the Democratic party pretty well: she starts with the reforms pushed through in 1972 by George McGovern's people which undermined powerful--and as it happened, often mostly Catholic--ethnic party machines; continues through the belief of party activists that Catholic voters would care little about the support voiced in the Democratic party platform for abortion rights in spite of their church's condemnation of Roe v. Wade, given that most American Catholics had rejected prior church teachings on birth control (the way even moderate Catholic leaders like Archbishop Joseph Bernardin and Reverend Robert Deming felt "betrayed" by Carter, and the explosion of the Catholic "Reagan Democrat" vote soon thereafter, proved those activists to have been wrong--pg. 64); and concludes with the rise of harshly (theo)conservative Catholic intellectuals like Michael Novak and George Weigel, who--while ignoring many traditional Catholic teachings on society and the economy--pushed forward a Republican-friendly culture war mentality, all while Catholic Democratic politicians, after Mario Cuomo's and Geraldine Ferraro's tangles with Archbishop John O'Connor, decided to lie low and and keep their religious identity quiet. Amy doesn't blame them, but allows that "it was a problem for a party that was already largely seen as secular when the elected officials who made up its largest religious bloc stopped talking about religion" (pg. 78).

There is a lot more to the story she tells, and most of it is entertaining and thought-provoking, even when the stories are well known (such as the way the Democratic party leadership not only refused to allow Pennsylvania Democratic governor Bob Casey to speak during the national convention in 1992 on the topic of how the party does not formally support "abortion on demand," but went further and brought one of his opponents on stage to be honored as a "Republican for choice"--pgs. 78-79). Amy's portrait of the Dukakis campaign in 1988 as completely unable to relate or respond to the revival and political relevance of evangelicalism and Catholicism amongst American voters is embarrassingly funny. She makes a solid case for Bill Clinton as being a thoroughly and comfortably faithful president, one who could reach out to and bring into his economic and social coalition otherwise religiously conservative voters (a point I and others made immediately after the 2004 election)...an advantage that he nonetheless threw away because of his miserable personal behavior and through his own and his party's unwillingness to turn his poll-tested take on abortion ("safe, legal, and rare") into more than just a phrase (Catholic advisors and supporters like Paul Begala and Margaret Steinfels wondered if they had been "duped"--pg. 108). And her account of the Kerry campaign's uncomfortable struggles to negotiate issues of abortion and faith--despite (or perhaps due to) being an observant Catholic--is alternately sad (the collusion between the Bush machine and some Catholic leaders to turn Kerry's partaking of Communion into a political football) and pathetic (the Kerry's campaign's almost total dismissal of religious media and personalities, unless they were African-American: as one campaign organizer put it, "We don't do white churches"--pg. 149). But anyway, you get the gist of it. There's been a disruption in American civic and religious life--two terms that use to go easily together, but which demographic changes (mostly having to do with urbanization, analyzed extremely well in Brian Mann's book Welcome to the Homeland which I discussed of couple of times after the 2006 midterms) and ideological and lifestyle struggles (struggles over individualism, authority, morality, sexuality, choice, privacy, religion, tradition, etc.) have over the past four decades torn almost completely apart apart. And Democrats, in Amy's view, have fallen into the gaps that have been exposed by those divisions, while the Republicans have mostly benefited from them, by having chosen one side of it and prospered. But of course, all this is an extremely contentious and complicated claim to make--to make it persuasive, you need to move beyond just documenting choices and consequences, but examine the underlying ideas that motivate both. The closest Amy ever comes to really expressing herself in that way comes in a long excerpt and elaboration she gives of a presentation William Galston gave to the Democratic Policy Commission in 1986:

Galston...argued that family issues had become a liability for Democrats. "We are not seen as responsive to the needs of the family," he told the commissioners. "We are seen as the party of individual rights, but not the party of individual responsibility. We are seen as the party of self-expression, but not the party of self-discipline"....Over the previous two decades, liberals had taken extremely worthy positions--equal rights and opportunities for women (including reproductive freedom), civil rights for racial minorities, acceptance of homosexuality, and a willingness to acknowledge that the model of a nuclear family no longer described many American households--and raised them to the level of doctrinal fetishes. Support for equal rights for women quickly morphed into a pro-choice litmus test for presidential nominees. Celebration of civil rights for minorities somehow resulted in opposition to any attempts at reforming the welfare system. Instead of developing a political philosophy that balanced individual rights against the common good, liberal Democrats had replaced communitarianism with individualism, at least in the social sphere. They believed that people had economic responsibilities to each other that required them to support a minimum wage, welfare programs, and efforts to hold corporations accountable. But liberals drew the line at acknowledging the effect personal actions had on the community. Choices, they insisted, were private and sacrosanct. The days of William Jennings Bryan, when progressive populists believed in economic and social communitarianism, were long gone.

Liberals defense of hard-earned individual rights often prevented them from confronting--or even acknowledging--other social problems. The social turbulence of the 1960s and 70s had resulted in positive changes for many Americans, but had also given rise to a number of troubling developments. By the late 1980s, divorce rates had soared, teen pregnancies had increased, and family stability was at an all-time low. Without public policy changes to accompany the growth in two-parent working families, more children were unsupervised for more hours of the day. And a general coarsening of popular culture--another unanticipated consequence of relaxed social norms--meant that those children were exposed to higher levels of profanity, sex, and violence on television and in movies. Conservatives jumped at the chance to blame these trends on liberals, and were particularly eager to lay every negative social indicator at the feet of the women's movement. But as liberals rightly rejected those charges, they too often went in the opposite direction and denied that there was a problem at all (pgs. 86-87).

It would be easy to cry foul at this point. Her lengthiest account of the philosophical and cultural foundations of what caused and resulted from the God gap is more than twenty years old--before Clinton was president, before abortion rates began their decline, before welfare was reformed, etc., etc. As Amy herself amply documents, the national Democratic party has acknowledged the heart of the alienation and discontent which cultural and religious conservatives have long felt towards the secular, rights-obsessed liberalism that came to dominate the Democratic party by the 1980s and 90s, and like all good political parties, they've responded. She spends a good deal of time addressing the election and subsequent political agendas and careers of Democrats like Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey, Jr. (who I said my bit about here), Colorado governor Bill Ritter and Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, to say nothing of trumpeting the spiritual bona fides and religious openness of all the major Democratic presidential candidates as of late 2007 (Clinton, Edwards, and Obama). So what's the argument, really? Granted that NARAL and more than a few other powerful interest groups, the majority of liberals and progressives that write blogs or participate in the "netroots," and an increasingly significant cohort of unapologetically secular (mostly young, mostly white) urban voters, are all basically determined to keep the Democratic party a bastion of cosmopolitanism and personal liberation, and to deny any legitimacy to the old intellectual (not to mention moral) connection between religious orthodoxy and/or authority--and the discipline and sacrifice that entailed--and liberalism (which once meant a whole range of collective, socio-economic goods, but today often just means, to many of these particular voters anyway, an expansive and protected set of liberal freedoms and a nicely moderated capitalism). But still, you could add all those groups up, and you're not coming close to exhausting all potential or likely Democratic voters. For the rest of them, can't one simply claim that the Democrats have survived the worst of the post-60s cultural backlash, that the cultural wars are essentially over, and that the Democrats needn't worry too much about the God gap any longer?

Perhaps yes, perhaps no. For committed Democrats, abortion might arguably be the only elephant (pun intended) left in the room--same-sex marriage and other issues that challenge serious Catholic and Biblically-grounded voters are major issues, to be sure, but there is little evidence they are continuing to drive campaign dynamics, policy positions, and political donations the way abortion reliably can. So for Democrats, abortion still presents a conceptual problem, which is why Scott Lemieux, in one of the few thoughtful engagements with Amy's argument that I've found online, believes that allowing Amy's framing of this and related issues to have too much prominence is bad for the party and what it stands for: by highlighting the efforts of Democrats who are troubled by or opposed to essentially unlimited abortion rights to decrease the number of women who feel a need to choose that option (case in point: Representative Ryan's "Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Families Act," which Amy celebrates in heroic terms--pgs. 165-167), one highlights a contentious moral issue, when what the Democrats ought to do is stick solely to legal arguments. Scott is, of course, completely committed to idea that complete reproductive freedom--meaning, basically, abortion on demand, though he probably wouldn't call it that--is essential to treating women equally, has to remain one of the pillars of the contemporary Democratic party. Hence, Scott writes that while "it's certainly possible for a pro-choicer to acknowledge that people disagree about the morality of abortion...[g]ood coalition-building on reproductive freedom would consist of emphasizing agreement...and de-emphasizing moral conflicts. People object to Sullivan...because [she] emphasize[s] the latter rather than the former...and [thus] argue[s] almost exclusively on the political terrain favored by anti-choicers."

I disagree here with Scott--not in that I think he's wrong about the need to avoid moral argument when discussing abortion (though I do, as I have a rather different take on some of the relevant moral issues than he does; like Amy, I don't like either the "pro-choice" or the "pro-life" label), but that I think he's wrong that Amy is solely engaging in moral arguments. On the contrary, I think (and I suppose that, as a religious believer, I just may be more sensitive to this dynamic than he) that Amy doing what she has generally always done: striving to show that there is no necessary conflict between religiously conservative or orthodox positions and politically liberal ones. Which is all well and good--except that, I am dubious, and I think many other (though surely not all) religious believers are also dubious, that one can bring a large or even significant number of religious voters over to one party or another without granting their particular religious orientation some legitimacy on its own terms. That is, not simply acknowledging the complicated choices that present themselves whenever believers make political and moral decisions, but granting the conclusions such believers may come to as worthy of a respectful place in the overall orientation of the party or movement they are part of. In other words, in the same way that Day and Bryan and FDR made religious perspectives part of the infrastructure of their progressive politics, the voters that Amy is going after--or at least some of them--need to be shown that contemporary Democratic party can do the same. Given the attachment many Democrats have to post-60s individualism and liberation, that still might not be a major problem if one is only talking about a highly personal faith like Amy's own evangelical Baptist religion...but it does become one if you're considering a fairly dogmatic faith, like Catholicism or Mormonism. Amy's own words betray this: in talking about Catholic Democrats who want to limit abortion, she regularly makes the point that the individuals she is describing are self-consciously independent Catholics:

Born after Vatican II, Ryan grew up with an altogether less complicated relationship with the Church than his older Democratic colleagues did. It has an ease and a loving irreverence that eludes Catholics of Kerry's generation. Ryan is no less devoted to his faith...[b]ut unlike pre-Vatican II Catholics, Ryan doesn't quake at the idea of questioning church authority when he thinks it is in error. And he does indeed think the Church is in error in its teaching against the use of contraception....His challenge to the Church is to stop being an obstacle to lowering the number of abortions. Yes, that's right, an obstacle. "When I leave Congress, I don't want to sit back and think that there were 1.3 million abortions each year and I didn't do anything about it." It's hard to listen to Ryan without wondering what would have happened in 2004 if those words had come out of John Kerry's mouth. Or if Kerry had responded to criticism from Catholic bishops in the way that Ryan deals with blowback from the Church. In the summer of 2006, the U.S. Catholic Conference sent Ryan a littler to communicate its "disappointment" with his leadership on abortion reduction efforts that include contraception. Ryan's reaction? "Well, I love my church, but I'm used to making nuns and priests mad." He shrugs. "I got a lot of practice during my twelve years of Catholic school" (pgs. 162-163).

I'm spending a lot of time here on Catholicism and abortion simply because it is the clearest way of getting at a crucial issue: Amy is essentially talking about the Democratic party's opening of itself up to--and it's need to continue to open itself further up to--those religious believers who are reaching out to it. With some exceptions, her message to her own party can be boiled down the same message she describes Clinton aides as having scrambled to send out to the floor of the Democratic convention when, as an attempt avoid repeating "the Casey fiasco," Ohio congressman Tony Hall was invited to speak in 1996 about being a being a pro-life Democrat: "please don't boo him" (pgs. 108-109). Please don't boo the believers that are trying to join us! Please don't be like Amanda Marcotte and go out of your way to mock Catholicism, or at least don't treat those Democrats who are bothered by such mockery as "no different from the religious right they pretend to oppose" (pgs. 216-217)! All well and good. And who knows--maybe, for the Democratic party over the long haul, it'll be sufficient: maybe enough Americans are becoming secular, and enough believers are becoming independent and irreverent, that all that'll be necessary to resolve the God gap is for the Democrats to continue to learn how not to shut the door in the face of those believers that want to join. Certainly any number of studies of American Christian beliefs--most of whom indicate that, whether you call yourself a Baptist or a Catholic or a Mormon, your real religion is basically more a kind of "moralistic therapeutic deism" than anything else...and if that's where you're coming from, then just not being a jerk about religion, just not treating as some weird irrational disease that all intelligent people grow out of sooner or later, is more than sufficient for building a coalition. But for me, at least, that's ultimately an incomplete argument. My hopes for the Democrats have always been a little bit more expansive, a little bit more idea-driven: a hope for a Democratic party whose egalitarianism is populist, whose sense of social justice has a cultural (and therefore religious) grounding to it. So the argument I want to see is not about the Democrats opening themselves up to those believers who have chosen to reach for some of what they offer, but about how the Democrats can reach out to believers, and tell them why they belong on the left...and therefore, of course, remaking the left into something with some of moral authority that, as recently Martin Luther King, it unambiguously enjoyed.

Good luck with that!, I can hear you all say. And probably appropriately so. There are good reasons why Amy Sullivan (like others before her) don't end up writing books with theses and approaches I can fully embrace: because I'm probably crazy, and crazy theoretical constructs generally don't go very far in the real world of politics or political commentary which Amy is trying to influence. Oh well. I admire this book, for what it has to say and the way it says it. Give it a read, and make your own arguments about it. For my part, I'd rather she'd written a different--more intellectually engaged, more philosophically informed, more ambitious--book, but I'm happy for this one all the same.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Environmentalism, Class, and Country

I fairly regularly check out Orion Magazine, but I'm not nearly as consistent a reader as I should be. Case in point is the thanks I owe to Chris Bertram, who pointed his Crooked Timber readers (myself included) towards this fine piece by Rebecca Solnit on, well, environmentalism, class, and country (both country music and the country as a whole). It's not a radically original thesis; as my David Salmanson comments in that CT thread, the various points that Solnit makes--that environmentalism as an ideology and a movement has more often than not been the sole province of a particularly white, wealthy, urban class of true believers; that said believers rarely have done the work--or had the sort of life experiences that might make it desirable for them--to reach out the rural working and underclasses that in theory they ought to support and make solidarity with; and that a lot of this divide can be summed up by urban, youthful, overeducated environmentalists' contempt for the sort of music that rural working and underclasses tend to enjoy (specifically, Elvis and country music in general)--have been kicking around for a while. Everyone who takes the time to think about it knows that when progressives write off "rednecks," they're also helping to write off the possibility of a truly country-wide movement; but knowing that nonetheless doesn't guarantee any change in perceptions or strategy. And so, Solnit's article is worth reading, just to help pound the message in a little deeper. You should read the whole thing, but let me hit a few great passages. It begins when Solnit accounts her arriving along with a group of other green activists in a small British Columbia town, coming back to civilization after some time traveling through the mostly undisturbed Canadian wilderness:

We were celebrating two weeks of rafting down the central river in that ungulate- and predator-rich paradise at the outpost’s big honky-tonkish nightclub, where the DJ kept playing country songs, to which all the locals would loop around gracefully, clasped together. But my compadres kept making faces of disgust at the music and asking the DJ to put on something else. He’d oblige with reggae, mostly, and we’d wave our limbs vaguely, dancing solo and free-form as white people have danced to rock-and-roll since the mid-1960s. Everyone else would sit down to wait this other music out. It was not a great movement-building exercise. How far were you going to get with a community when you couldn’t stand their music or even be diplomatic about it?...

I grew up surrounded by liberals and leftists who liked to play the idiot in fake southern accents, make jokes about white trash and trailer trash, and, like the Canadian enviros, made gagging noises whenever they heard Dolly Parton or anything like her. If Okies from Muskogee thought they were being mocked, they were right, in part. This mockery was particularly common during the 1970s and 1980s, but it has yet to evaporate altogether...My aged mother continues to make liberal use of the term “redneck” to describe the people I grew up among (though they were just suburban conservatives), and last summer I met a twentysomething from New York at a Nevada campout who told me he too was raised to hate country music. He was happily learning to love it, but late, like me.

My own conversion to country music came all of a sudden in 1990, around another campfire, also in Nevada. The great Western Shoshone anti-nuclear and land-rights activist Bill Rosse, a decorated World War II vet and former farm manager, unpacked his guitar and sang Hank Williams and traditional songs for hours. I was enchanted as much by the irreverent rancor of some of the songs as by the pure blue yearning of others. I’d had no idea such coolness, wit, and poetry was lurking in this stuff I was taught to scorn before I’d met it....

I remember talking to a young rancher in an anti-environmental bar in Eureka, Nevada, who humbly presumed that environmentalists, including myself and the group I was with, loathed him. His hat was large and his heart was good. Whatever you think of arid-lands ranching, he seemed to be doing it pretty well. He boasted of grass up to his cows’ bellies, talked about moving the cows around to prevent erosion, and deplored the gold mines that are doing far worse things to the region. We were clearly on the wrong track—the environmental movement as a whole, if not the Nevada activists I worked with, who did a decent job of bridging the divide, but why was there a divide?...The socialism and progressivism that thrived through the 1930s saw farmers, loggers, fisheries workers, and miners as its central constituency along with longshoremen and factory workers. Where did it go? You can see missed opportunities again and again. Some of the potential for a broad, blue-collar left was trampled by the virulent anti-communism and anti-labor-union mood of the postwar era. More of it was undermined by the culture clash that came out of the civil rights movement. By the 1980s, when I was old enough to start paying attention, the divide was pretty wide. And environmentalists were typically found on one side....

The anti-environmentalist right has shot itself in both feet in the past few years, losing credibility and constituency, and a smart and fast-moving left could make hay out of this, to mix a few fairly rural metaphors. It would mean giving up vindication for victory—that is, giving up on triumphing over the wickedness of one’s enemies and looking at them as unrecruited allies instead. It might mean giving up on the environmental movement as a separate sector and thinking more holistically about what we want to protect and why, including people, places, traditions, and processes outside the wilderness. It might even mean getting over the notion that left and right are useful or even adequate ways to describe who we are and what we long for (or even over the notion of rural and urban, as food gardens proliferate in the latter and sprawl becomes an issue in the former). We must also talk about class again, loudly and clearly, without backing down or forgetting about race. This is the back road down which lie stronger coalitions, genuine justice, a healthier environment, and maybe even a music that everyone can dance to.

The whole piece puts me in mind of a post I wrote nearly five years ago, a post inspired by a visit by New York Time columnist Nicholas Kristof to the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and how he rhapsodized about the Refuge as the "last great wilderness virtually untouched by humans other than Eskimos and Indians," and how thrilling it was to spend time in an "awesome," "harsh," "inhospitable" land where "humans are interlopers and bears are kings." I couldn't resist myself: I thought this was the worst kind of eco-porn, an environmentalism that depends upon the money to parachuted into a distant place, and presumes that while one is there, you won't be bothered with addressing the needs of--much less enjoying the music of!--the actual human beings (just "Eskimos and Indians," of course) who happen to live in that part of the country. I was hardly then and I'm not now dismissive of the green arguments in favor of protecting ANWR, but seriously: Kristof approach to the issue was as dismissive and as uninterested in reaching out to and building something common with the people of this country--the great majority of whom, urban or rural, Indian or white, educated or redneck, really can be moved by a genuine, communally aware love for the earth--as anything I'd ever read.

Solnit's hope, expressed at the conclusion of her piece, is that the old divides--musical and otherwise--are fading, that a new, more participatory, more class-and-culture-sensitive environmentalism is being born. One can only hope. But anyway, give her essay and read, and pass it along: the more people who hear the message, the better.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Friday PSTSS: "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"

Just answer me honestly: is there anything that we as a people have learned from the glut of serial-killing-obsessed entertainments we've endured over the past couple of decades--anything about voyeurism, horror, dark humor, mass hysteria, or all the rest--which the Beatles hadn't anticipated nearly forty years ago with this song? I think not. After I realized how one could fit it all together with our present cultural moment, I couldn't stop laughing. I picture a video to this song featuring a young Hannibal Lecter singing along, perhaps while doing a jolly little dance.

Depending on the day of the week and the phase of the moon, I might say this is my favorite Beatles song, off of--again, depending on whatever mood I'm in when you ask--possibly my favorite Beatles album (and one of the Essential Pop Recordings of Western Civilization), Abbey Road. So put on the cd and sing along, sympathizing with poor Maxwell Edison. As another pop artist would later put it, he's just an excitable boy, that's all.

Joan was quizzical;
studied pataphysical
science in the home.
Late nights all alone with a test tube.

Maxwell Edison,
majoring in medicine,
calls her on the phone.
"Can I take you out to the pictures,

But as she's getting ready to go,
a knock comes on the door.

Bang! Bang! Maxwell's silver hammer
came down upon her head.
Bang! Bang! Maxwell's silver hammer
made sure that she was dead.

Back in school again
Maxwell plays the fool again.
Teacher gets annoyed.
Wishing to avoid an unpleasant

She tells Max to stay
when the class has gone away,
so he waits behind.
Writing fifty times "I must not be

But when she turns her back on the boy,
he creeps up from behind.

Bang! Bang! Maxwell's silver hammer
came down upon her head.
Bang! Bang! Maxwell's silver hammer
made sure that she was dead.

P. C. Thirty-one
said, "We caught a dirty one."
Maxwell stands alone,
painting testimonial pictures.

Rose and Valerie,
screaming from the gallery,
say he must go free (Maxwell must go free).
The judge does not agree and he tells them

But a
s the words are leaving his lips,
a noise comes from behin

Bang! Bang! Maxwell's silver hammer
came down upon his head.
Bang! Bang! Maxwell's silver hammer
made sure that he was dead.

Silver hammer man.

Thoughts on Kosovo, Mill, and Walzer

Last week I was drawn into a couple of fascinating threads on Crooked Timber, both started by Chris Bertram and both focusing on the question of what, if anything, Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia means for the future of national-building and national separation (to say nothing of what it more immediately may mean for Russian and European politics--for a good summary of that, see Doug Muir's thoughts here). Chris started the discussion focusing on the matter of secession, and bringing up the work of Allen Buchanan as part of an argument suggesting that Kosovo's claim of independence could be (and thus presumably should be) justified--though not just another potentially troubling burst of arguably legitimate ethnic-based nationalism, but as the exercise of a "remedial right," given that "[t]he Kosovo Albanians...have both suffered injustice and have no good reason to believe that a just settlement is possible within Serbia." Soon though, both threads spread to discussions of self-determination--and therefore nationalism and democracy--in general. I wanted to put my comments on both threads into a somewhat coherent form, and so let me try to make a few broad points here:

1) Chris is rather hostile, to say the least, to the idea of "self-defining 'nations' complete with normalizing ideologies," preferring instead "multiethnic states if possible, separatism only if strictly necessary"; hence he doesn't want to read anything more into the Kosovo secession than he needs to. He has, of course, a very good point: ethnic separatism has in recent history been the cause of an enormous amount of violence and deprivation, and the ideological promise of "national self-determination" has encouraged more than a few racial/ethnic/tribal elites over the past century to use their influence over local economies and media to panic or stratify their fellows into narrow groupings over which they then somewhat plausibly claim rights of sovereignty. Arguably, that's the whole recent history of the former Yugoslavia in a nutshell. But in the end, it's too simple a story: it's just too easy a response to dismiss what is such a major element of the modern consciousness--our many often convoluted attempts to articulate and/or imagine a national identity (as I wrote long ago, the whole question of "'people-making,' or imagining, or articulating, depending on whether you prefer a more or less constructivist or essentialist approach to the question of peoplehood," is a complicated one to get a handle on)--as "petty bigotry." The truth is that the sort of ideals that many would like to see take the place of ethnic or tribal or racial self-identification and determination--things like neutral state-based "democracy" and "human rights"--are themselves parasitic upon, or at the very least historically developed from, recognitions that are much less abstract, much more tied (though admittedly in an often murky aesthetic/expressive way) to the everyday performed and seen and spoken raw material of our lives. Democracy requires a demos, and for a people to come to a collective self-understanding of itself as capable of self-government, it needs to have been able at some point to "bound" itself, to see itself as a body with the capacity for, much less the right to, sovereignty. How does it erect those boundaries? Obviously much of the time they've been erected from the outside by the brute force of invading empires and colonizing states; but those aren't the cases under consideration here--were considering how a people can come to the capacity of self-recognition internally, on their own. So, when it comes to matters of borders...well, race, tribal ties and ethnicity are obvious and very basic possibilities; other thinkers however (like J.G. Herder) point us towards religion and language as more expansive possibilities, ones which potentially open the way to a mixing of national apprehension with the sort of egalitarian perceptions most moderns would prefer to see. (Which, arguably, is the deepest explanation of how America's own "national idea" came to be.) Either way, however, if there doesn't come to be a ground upon which a people can properly determine itself to be such, then there isn't going to be a consciousness of rights or democracy which said people will be able to elaborate, act upon, and commit themselves to.

Obviously, this doesn't mean that we should fall back defeated by some historical imperative or logic of Enlightenment when, say, a group of Albanians start crowing about self-determination. The debate--both the theoretical and the practical, political one--about identity, community, and sovereignty, and the prudence of striving for such, is, as I said above, a complicated one within which you can find a great many different plausible arguments. In the comments, Chris chooses to contrast "citizenship" with ethnicity insofar as recognition and identity are concerned, and suggests that the American and (to a lesser degree) British and French national self-understandings do a fair-to-good job of prioritizing the former over the latter, in contrast to the German self-understanding, which doesn't. Here he's invoking the distinction between "civic" (or "cultural" or "liberal") and "ethnic" (or "illiberal") nationalism, the idea being that some forms of self-understanding or peoplehood are going to be premised upon open-minded notions of shared social and civic life and thus be nonexclusivist, whereas others won't be; they will focus upon nontransferable blood and soil ("blut und boden") matters that will always seek to exclude. There is a great deal of scholarship on this point, going both ways, far too much to synthesize here. All I can say to this is that, while surely the differences here are real and worth emphasizing, I fear that Chris and others who think like him are perhaps failing to appreciate what being acculturated, being socialized into a culture, and thus being able to recognize what it is and what it is not and be a part of it, fully involves: their ideas are not capturing the unspoken, performative, ritualistic, participatory, and/or expressive aspects to peoplehood. That doesn't mean I think all national identities must, by definition, be exclusive, or to apologize for those that are; it simply means that, to the extent one wants to encourage the formation of peoples that might see themselves collectively as sovereign and thus may possibly govern themselves democratically, one shouldn't draw too firm of a justificatory line between purely and hypothetically "civic" markers on the one hand, and locally embedded ones (historical, linguistic, religious, ethnic, whatever) on the other; there are important ways in which any of those might in fact contribute to the formation of a liberal and/or democratic state. (I'm drawing on a lot of different thinkers, but mostly Craig Calhoun, Ranjoo Seodu Herr, Eric Kaufmann, and Bernard Yack, in coming to these conclusions.)

2) Perhaps predictably, John Stuart Mill makes an appearance in the discussion. Mill made very clear his belief that the education of peoples for representative self-government had to involve their being in a position to receive such an education collectively, forming and sharing public opinions that are clearly their own and not someone else's; as he wrote in Considerations of Representative Government (chp. 16), "One hardly knows what any division of the human race should be free to do, if not to determine, with which of the various collective bodies of human beings they choose to associate themselves....Among a people without [this] fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary for the working of representative government, cannot exist." This statement and others of his which defend the idea of mono-ethnic societies--which Chris suggests was one of the inevitabilities of the "disastrous doctrine of national self-determination"--is contrasted to the position of Lord Acton as detailed in an article by Pratap Bhanu Mehta that Chris praises, an article which suggests that Acton properly understood that it was "more important to secure liberal protections than link ethnicity to democracy"

Well, as should be clear from above, I would dispute that "link[ing] ethnicity to democracy" is all or even mostly what the doctrine of self-determination involves; yes, of course, that often takes place, but it isn't necessarily solely what takes place, and when it takes place it doesn't necessarily enlist a cultural understanding that is illiberal in all ways. But leaving that huge, complicated debate aside, my point here is actually a rather narrow one. I'm hardly a major defender of Mill; that his writings on self-determination were joined at the hip to a 19th-century condescension and/or racism regarding certain peoples is undeniable. He was, despite his modifications of doctrine throughout his life, a utilitarian until the end, and as he simply couldn't imagine the utility of being a member of an uncultivated community as opposed to a metropolitan one--Basques or Bretons or Scottish Highlanders, "sulk[ing] on [their] own rocks, the half-savage relic[s] of past times, revolving in [their] own little mental orbit, without participation or interest in the general movement of he world"--he didn't grant any real weight to the claims or attachments of such peoples. That being said, however, think about what his arguments may suggest about demands for independence coming from Kosovo. The context in which Mill was writing was one in which the Bretons and Scots had long since been formally absorbed by the French and British states; Mill, while having already granted the general principle of self-determination as an important element of democratic expression and development, wondered nonetheless why on earth these poor benighted Bretons and Scots complained. Far better, he thought, for them to accept the advantages offered them through governments which have already gone through and benefited from their own national articulations and struggles. Similarly, Kosovo is a region that has contested its incorporation within a post-Yugoslavian environment; in pushing for independence, it is challenging a larger, legitimated polity. I'm not defending Mill by any means, but still: if he was willing criticize the Bretons and Scots, then doesn't that mean he’s not quite the self-determination absolutist which Mehta’s comment makes him out to be? Doesn't that mean that, contra any supposedly stark distinction between himself and Acton, Mill as well was thinking--however condescendingly--about the realities of self-government, and where one is most likely to find the space for democratic development? I'm not enlisting Mill either for or against the Kosovars; just pointing out that Mehta's duality is, again, much to simple for historical and contemporary reality.

3) Finally, Michael Walzer came up on the thread, specifically his collection of essays What It Means To Be An American. Walzer's actually been on my mind a bit lately, thanks to some comments from Jacob Levy and Damon Linker (the latter having caught a recent speech of Walzer's at the University of Pennsylvania, and who referred me to a piece on Walzer's latest book from the NYRB that I'd missed). Walzer is an important thinker to bring up in this matter, because his bona fides span the debate: he's been a strong defender of the principle of sovereignty as both a potentially democratic expression of local/national identities and communities and as a tool for preventing exploitation, but is also deeply liberal in his commitment to egalitarianism and justice. The question at hand is, does he believe the latter necessitates a purely civil form of the former?

That Walzer is firm believer in the legitimacy and the enviableness of America's civic accomplishment: it is a good thing, he affirms, that America is not a "homeland," but rather a place defined as a people "only by virtue of having come together"; as he writes at greater length: "These abstract ideals [liberty, equality, and republicanism] made for a politics separated not only from religion but from culture itself or, better, from all the particular forms in which religious and national culture was, and is, expressed" ("What Does it Mean to Be an 'American'?" pgs. 24, 27, 30). But, he almost immediately goes on to note that he doesn't "want to claim that American politics was not qualified in important ways by British Protestantism," to say nothing of all the other religious and cultural movements that burrowed their way inside what describes as "this strange America"--strange because this most patriotic of nations actually doesn't appear to have what it takes for any real kind of nationalism (pgs. 31, 46, 47). And sometimes he will admit to some regrets on this point--regrets that take him back to a desire to construct truly sovereign democratic communities, which he acknowledges will require civic attachments and virtues that will require more than just a liberal public square:

Among a people like ourselves, a community of patriots would have to be sustained by politics alone. I don't know if such a community is possible. Judged by the theory and practice of the classical republics, its creation certainly seems unlikely: how can a common citizenship development if there is not other commonality--no ethnic solidarity, no established religion, no unified cultural tradition?...Given liberal society and culture, certain sorts of dedication may well lie beyond our reach. But that's not to say that we cannot, so to speak, enlarge the time and space within which we live as citizens. This is the working principle of democratic socialism: that politics can be opened up, rates of participation significantly increased, decision-making really shared, without a full-scale attack on private life and liberal values, without a religious revival or a cultural revolution. ("Civility and Civic Virtue," pgs. 98-99).

So yes, Walzer finds America's accomplishment unique and admirable...but he also sees it as needing to find something political--in a rather deep and redistributive sense--to supplement the sort of civic strength that its plurality prevents it from developing internally on its own. I would take this point, and deepen its historical force; I would argue that the history of populism and progressivism and egalitarianism in this country reflects at least in part the abiding influence of tight communities motivated by common bonds--whether they be poor white farmers from the Great Plains or exploited African-Americans from the South--extending their self-generated understandings of dignity and democracy to the wider world, strengthening the country along the way. Which is, perhaps, just a rather pretentious way of making the same point: that even we prudential liberals and social egalitarians have to make room for, perhaps even have to depend upon, the emergence of tight attachments--dare I say self-determining attachments--if we're going to see self-government and justice make any kind of headway.

This actually comes out fairly clearly in Jeremy Waldron's review of Walzer's thought that I mentioned above. He writes that "political community is the heart of Walzer's writing," and that he believes "communal integrity has a nonrelative claim upon us"; we morally and prudentially ought to, in short, allow all (or almost all) self-identifying communities the space to work out (and deepen, and thereby perhaps through an education in democracy extend) their own identities and claims. What others may see as a clear-cut issue of humanitarian justice (a state oppressing its ethnic minorities, a violence-prone secession movement gaining power), Walzer sees--at least in many cases--as more of the "traditional philosophical dislike for politics." Waldron adds:

Even in the absence of democracy, Walzer wants to hang on to the principle of self-determination. A political community "is self-determining even if its citizens struggle and fail to establish free institutions, but it has been deprived of self-determination if such institutions are established by an intrusive neighbor." The compromises that people make, the sacrifices they forgo, may trouble a philosopher who is obsessed with human rights. But "I don't believe," says Walzer, "that the opposition of philosophers is a sufficient ground for military invasion."

Walzer is a careful and complicated thinker, as anyone should be who dares to take on the thorny and often discomforting mess of cultural and civic issues that surround claims to self-determination, claims which are central to figuring out what to think about Kosovo (or for that matter, Iraq, or even the U.S., as it tries to take care of its own issues while allowing itself to be dragged into others' as well). If I've learned anything from the past five years of trying to apply my knowledge of political theory to world affairs, it is to not assume that I can really see to the ends of the particular rabbit holes I feel obliged to dive down, not the least reason for which the possible violence I may be doing to those who go down (or may be dragged down) the hole along with me. Self-determining nationalities may not be entirely theoretically justifiable, or even politically desirable, but they do, undeniably, play a part in making a people sovereign, capable of deciding where they want to go and which hole they want to go down. People who would warn the Albanians about the very legitimate risks facing them after having declared independence, or who argue about what Mill or Walzer or anyone else might say to them about such, need to keep that in mind.