Featured Post


If you're a student looking for syllabi, click the "Academic Home Page" link on your right, and start there.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "And We Danced"

After the slick-dressing faux-innocent sexually-ambiguous R&B androgyny of the past couple of weeks, you might be thinking, "Good grief! Were there no ordinary-looking, hard-rocking, jeans-wearing white men making simple, kick-butt videos about taking one's girlfriend out on a date in the 80s?" It's a fair question. The Hooters have your answer.

Actually, it's not that simple a video; I count three distinct subplots through the whole thing. Not bad for four minutes.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Best Thing (on Health Care) I've Read All Week

(I seem to be having a hard time getting anything up on the blog these days. Thank goodness I programmed my Friday Morning Videos in advance, or else September would have ended up being a pretty empty month.)

Last night, I went to a meeting of our local chapter of the DSA. I pigeon-holed one of the long-standing members and asked him: what became of the local efforts on behalf of Health Care for America Now? There were all sorts of meetings and discussions about various registration drives and public actions during the summer; what became of it all? And the story, as it so often is, was simple: nothing ever got off the ground, because every meeting descended into arguments over the details and compromises contained in the various Democratic proposals in Congress. Would it include a public option? What would become of Kucinich's single-payer amendment? How much has Obama already sold progressives out to the insurance companies? (For many people, it wasn't a question of whether or he had; it was assumed that he had, the only question how much he'd already given away.) There was grousing about Democrats, about Republicans, about the public forums all over the internet, and all that grousing led to disagreements and accusations, and that fighting ultimately led people to decide that--par for the course!--it wasn't just going to be impossible to put anything together around here. The Left defeats itself again. [Update, 10/4: Janice Bradley has set me straight about a lot of good and necessary progressive work in favor of health care reform which did happen in Wichita, completely aside from HCAN's big plans which came to naught. See the comments below to get her perspective. Thanks very much for the correction, Janice, and for the example you set in keeping up the forward motion despite local resistance!]

It was with this on my mind that I checked out The New Republic this morning, and a slap upside the head, via Jonathan Chait:

If health care passes, will it be a grand historical achievement, or a crushing disappointment? The answer, I predict, will be both. The American health care system is an indefensible morass of waste and cruelty. The distance between the status quo and the ideal is therefore so vast that we could—-and probably will—-end up with a reform that massively improves the system, while coming nowhere close to the ideal....[O]ver the next few years, President Obama’s political capital will hinge in part on whether Americans see health care reform as genuine progress or a political fig leaf. And his biggest foe in the perception battle seems to be the liberals....

My liberal friends seem convinced either that Congress will reject health care reform, or that it will pass a meaningless palliative. The main exception among this admittedly unrepresentative sample consists of liberals who study health care reform for a living and those (like me) who regularly communicate with them. These wonks (and wonk acquaintances) all think Obama will sign a historic health care bill. Sadly, the wonk cohort is starkly outnumbered.

So, it’s worth pointing out that, for all the flaws of the process, Obama appears to be on track to sign one of the towering social reforms in American history—-the most important change in our social contract since at least 1965, or (I’d argue) even longer. Even the most conservative of the bills working its way through Congress would regulate the health insurance market to prevent the discriminatory practices that ruin the lives of the sick and make vulnerable workers fear to change jobs or strike out on their own. It would start to rationalize the practice of medicine and slow the explosive growth in costs that have gobbled up any growth in wages for many years....And, of course, every bill would establish a practical entitlement to health care....So why are liberal activists, bloggers, and even members of Congress so sullen?

Chait asks a good question, and he gives a couple of good answers: suspicions about the involvement of the private insurance industry (which Obama has made very clear he wants reform plans to work with and build upon, not replace), or a fixation on the public option as the only possible route to decent health care. But I would add to those answers this simple fact: we have developed (or have allowed ourselves to be mostly developed into) a political culture which by and large divides us into complainers or boosters, and the former is always easier than the latter. There is much, to be sure, to complain about this process and the bills it has produced thusfar, especially from a progressive perspective, and particularly from my own convoluted populist-localist-socialist perspective. But folks, seriously; how about at least a little bit of boosting here?

The way I see it, unless you're a Friedmanesque fiscal conservative and genuinely believe that any possible health care reform which comes out of Washington DC will positively bankrupt us once and for all and send the nation back to the Stone Age, or unless you're Hitleresque fascist and genuinely believe that any attempt to make more effective the meager health care options available to the poor or unlucky in our nation will lead to total cultural meltdown, you need to lighten up here. There is much that can be productively debated about what's happening in Congress right now, much that, in turn, both liberals and conservatives may have reason to oppose. But good grief: these are proposals that, whatever else they do, will result in fewer medical bankruptcies and fewer uncompensated costs from unnecessary emergency room visits, and by and large leave everyone who is satisfied with the current insurance alone. What could possibly be wrong with any of that? That there is much which could be better, I'll happily admit. (Single-payer, all the way!) But we're looking at the likelihood in a real improvement in an area that's been a growing, frequently-patched-up-but-never-truly-fixed mess since the Truman administration. That's a real victory, I say. Thank goodness for writers like Chait for calling it like it is. Now if all the rest of us on the left, and all the rest of the decent, even-if-only-just-moderately-egalitarian-and-compassionate Christians out there, would realize the same thing.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Day the End of the Beginning Began

Forty years ago today, September 20, 1969, John Lennon announced to Paul, George, and Ringo that he was leaving the Beatles. They had completed their final song created in the studio all together--"I Want You (She's So Heavy)"--about a month previously. The album it would appear upon--Abbey Road--was released in the U.K. about a week later. Let It Be wouldn't be released until 1970, and there were various legal matters which kept the entity called "The Beatles" alive on paper well into the 1970s...but this was, for all intents and purposes, the date that the Beatles, the group, died.

The Beatles provided the soundtrack for the modern world--"modern," in this case, meaning Caucasian, North-American-Western European, middle-class-or-better, post-Christian, post-war, mostly urban, bourgeois. That's a horribly constricted definition of what makes up the "modern world," of course, but I don't know how anyone at all honest about the presumptions which undergird the modern economy or globalization or the mass media or anything else can contest this. Even those movers and shakers today who, for reasons of youth or religion or multiculturalism, disdain everything tainted by the baby boomers or the Beatles are shaped by them. Their lyrics and sounds shape our expectations for love, for aging, for success, for rebellion; their rhythms are the rhythms of advertising, politics, the pulpit. The King James Bible, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dickens, Irving Berlin, Cary Grant, John Wayne: the Beatles join these and other works of art and and effort production in having become immanent icons, touchstones of reference and meaning that cross practically all boundaries.

Eventually, they'll pass away, and become mere history. The influence of the Beatles on what it means to be modern will be strange and antiquarian, like my trying to explain to my students what Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin meant in America in the 1850s. But that hasn't happened yet. Forty years ago today, the Beatles, having mid-wifed the birth of the modern Boomer consciousness, having bridged the world of war to a world of meritocratic achievement and wealth and all its attendant doubts, decided to call it quits, and let the modern world make its way on its own. I wouldn't say we've done well, but we could have done much worse. So, in that spirit, I doff my hat to them that started us out.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Who's Johnny?"

What can you say about El DeBarge? Not as much a Prince wanna-be as last week's video entry, but one with a little bit of Latino flavor thrown in, plus a much goofier and innocently 80s sense of humor. Have him record a song about a sneaky robot and dance around for a while with Ally Sheedy, and you've got video gold.

I've never seen this movie, by the way. I hear it's totally awesome.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Oh Shelia"

Yep, your Friday morning video breaks are back, tan and rested and ready. Ready for the World, that is.

You know, not everyone can be Prince, but you got to hand it to RFTW; they gave it their very best shot.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Representative Joe Wilson from South Carolina is a Complete Ass

There is much that could be and probably will be said about Obama's speech tonight. But first, let us hail Representative Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, for, I can only assume, acting upon a deep-seated desire to turn our Congress, and the relationship between Congress and the President, in a more parliamentary and participatory direction. That is, in the best tradition of the British PM's question time with the House of Commons, Wilson shouted out that Obama was a liar during his speech. Too bad that, while expressing himself in this way, he made a demonstrably false claim, apparently asserting that the Democrats' reform proposals will guarantee health coverage to illegal immigrants...but hey, those of us who want to jazz up our elected bodies can't be too choosy.

Picking up on this same approach--an approach, mind you, that I find very admirable; I tend to think democracy works better in a parliamentary framework than a separation of powers one--let me respond in kind: Representative Wilson, I think you're an ass. Probably a perfectly nice person, and wonderful family man as well, but an idiot, and also an ass.

Boy, that makes me feel better.

Update: Wilson has apologized. Good for him, and I hereby retract, or at least modify my above statement: Representative Wilson, last night you were a bit of an ass. That being said, I really kind of wish that, rather than apologize, Wilson had come out with a full-bore defense of shouting out disagreements--not simply boos, mind you, but accusations--during presidential addresses...with the necessary follow-up, of course, that we would have a much healthier politics if the executive and legislative branches weren't separated by the sort of walls of decorum which our system gives us. But I suppose we can't expect to turn into a participatory democracy overnight, can we? Baby steps.

What I Hope Obama Says Tonight

I don't aspire to write political speeches, nor predict what will be included in them, and the one time I tried, the results were hardly impressive (much less accurate). Still, as I watch and listen to Obama's big speech before Congress on health care tonight (of course I'll be tuning in; won't you?), there are at least a few things I hope get said:

So let us confront some hard truths here. Why do health care costs spiral ever-higher in the United States, forcing your premiums to become more expensive, forcing private insurers to place more exclusions and limitations on who they are willing to insure and for how much, forcing more unemployed or underemployed individuals to desperately rely upon hospital emergency rooms for the last-minute care they need? There are many causes, of course, and I would not pretend that the House Democrat's health care reform plan, or the Senate's, or anybody's, could ever address all of them. But there are some things we can address. We can address the multiplicity of overlapping payers amongst our nation's health care systems: insurance companies which, because of our disorganized and often incoherent patchwork of plans and providers, have come too often to act like minor fiefdoms, on the one hand exercising monopolistic control over those citizens who, through their jobs, are all to happy to pay through the nose in order to maintain the protected (yet invariably arbitrary and limited) lifelines of coverage which those companies provide them with, while on the other hand abruptly and inconsistently refusing to cover this condition or another, sending many patients scurrying to find some way to pay for something which some of their fellow citizens are lucky enough to be able to take for granted.

Private doctors and insurance plans makes sense--they make good sense. There are many ways of effectively providing for health care in line with basic principles of mercy, compassion, and fairness, and arguably the way we do it in America is not the best of all those ways. We could look to those nations who have a single national medical establishment, which essentially employs every single local nurse or doctor or midwife, everywhere throughout the country. We could consider having the federal government simply assume all medical costs, and pass the burden on to tax-payers, thus making health care into a right which is collectively provided by us all. And, in truth, we already do have elements of both of those approaches. If you or a parent or a friend have served in the military, and you make use of the Veteran's Administration, you've seen the first, national-establishment approach in action. If you or a parent or a friend is of retirement age, and you make use of Medicare, then you've seen the second, collective-provision approach in action. For better or worse, however, it is my feeling, and it is the feeling of the majority of the hard-working legislators who are sweating day and night to both listen to their constituents and use their own best judgment in responding to this crisis, that the fundamentals of the American system need not change. We will still have private doctors and various insurance plans. But we must find some way to make the exchange of information, the movement from one plan to the next, the provision of coverage, smoother, less repetitive, less exclusionary, less costly, and more just. I believe we have found--or at least are very near to finding--a way to do that, and the results will mean more security, better health care, and less personal cost, for the American citizen.

The mass media has been filled with tales of outraged mobs, crying protesters, and angry citizens--and those things deserve to be discussed, just as every expression by every American citizen deserves, at the very least, to be heard. But that doesn't mean we should allow misinformation and vituperation to crowd out the productive, intelligent work and debate and information-sharing and compromises that are taking place in legislative halls and church basements and school cafeterias all across this country. The people ask: will a public option be included in the final plan? I say: I would like one, because I am doubtful that even the best regulations will be able to address all the inconsistencies in how we Americans pay for the health care coverage of diverse parts of the population unless there is a subsidized, government-led insurance plan to provide competition with private insurance monopolies. But would I veto a bill that didn't have one? Assuming it showed some other way of accomplishing the same goal, or at least something near to that same goal, I would not. The crisis of health care costs is too dire to insist on what I think is best at the expense of what many, many others more informed than me might agree on at least being pretty good.

The people ask: how much more socialism will you force us to embrace? I say: if by "socialism" you mean some crazy plan centralize the ownership of property and dictate economic decisions to manufacturers and consumers, then not one bit...or at least, not one bit more than which we have already, as a nation, long since embraced, whether the rabid haters are willing to admit to it or not: national parks, environmental regulations, public schools, city libraries, neighborhood playgrounds, Social Security and all the rest. I suspect those things are hardly the stuff of most people's nightmares of communism (assuming most people even have any such nightmares), but, if you're so inclined, they can just as accurately branded with the socialist label as any kind of Marxist plot from a century ago. Perhaps, if more of us could accept this fact, then more of us would be able to resist the media-enabled story that some radical complainers prefer, in which the fight over health care is some revolutionary struggle, as opposed to what it really us: a serious, patient attempt to democratically resolve issues which have plagued this nation for decades, which are very close--unless we act now--to being unresolvable. Of course, it may be that by "socialism" you mean any or every kind of government involvement, on any level, in any kind of private transaction whatsoever. In which case, I say that in a choice between the poor and the sick and the young and the unlucky not having what they need to save an arm or stave off crippling pain or prevent an early death, and the poor and the sick and the young and the unlucky being able to find a way to pay for just enough medical care to ensure them of at least some of those things, I will choose socialism every time. I would hope every Christian, and every American, would choose the same.

Please note that this is not the speech that I wish Obama would be in a position to give; I'm a single-payer fan, all the way. Moreover, I am perfectly aware that it would probably be political suicide, and seriously counter-productive to the cause of health care reform, if he gave this speech. So I suppose it's a good thing I'm not him, isn't it? Yep, I thought so too.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Canaries in the Coal Mine? (APSA Reflections)

So, I'm back--back from a crazy end of summer filled with rushed deadlines, back from the late nights and late mornings and returning to the family's usual school-year schedule, back from Canada, where I spent three hurried days last week tearing from one APSA session and appointment to another. And, of course, back to blogging--at least until I take another break, that is.

I love going to the American Political Science Association's annual meetings; I really do. It's a great opportunity to meet old friends, encounter new ideas, pick up books, and just jazz myself up intellectually. This conference was no exception (and the fact that it was being held in Toronto, thus giving me the opportunity to meet up with an graduate school friend, being a much appreciated added bonus). Still, I have to admit that I had a lot of ups and downs over the three days I was there, a lot of running from one place to another, a lot of hurrying up and then waiting and just missing someone or misunderstanding some conversation and feeling somewhat lost. That was probably just me...but I wonder if others might have felt the same.

Political scientists--and in particular the political theorists with whom I spend most of my time, and the theoretical debates I'm most interested in following--are hardly the most expert and reliable barometers of the directions in which our shared (or at least observed) political culture may happen to be evolving at any one time. Still, it somewhat surprised me, once I completed my exhausting final day and returned to Kansas, to think back and see in my memory of the previous three days, scattered everywhere, like tea leaves waiting to be read, signs of a common pre-occuptation. In all sorts of ways, it seemed to me that everyone was talking about, or at least opening the door to, the limits of, or the problems with, sovereignty, and centralized power, and the state.

Jacob Levy, in giving the best paper presentation I heard the whole conference (but then Jacob always gives great presentations), attacked the idea that modern liberal democracies, premised upon a social contract ideology, somehow escape the subtle moral teleology which is usually seen as fundamentally characterizing pre-modern political forms...which opens to the door to the argument that the only way to avoid investing political organizations with unwarranted normative presumptions is to look towards non-political forms of social organization entirely. In a couple of presentations given by my philosophical hero, Charles Taylor, one as part of a roundtable on his report on accommodating minority differences in Quebec, the other on different ways of responding to religious claims in a liberal and pluralistic context, he repeatedly emphasized that the practical response to all of the contesting and conflicting demands free people have must be expressed locally, that principled and over-arching and contextless legal determinations--at least beyond an absolute bare liberal minimum--will almost always be counter-productive, and that, in the end, these kind of arguments must lead towards the question of decentralization, and a critique of the moder juridical state. In a couple of workshops on comparative political theory (a continuing interest of mine), and even in a couple of panels I attended addressing thinkers and conceptual categories from contexts as diverse as ancient China and contemporary Eastern Europe, repeatedly harsh questions about economic globalization and state sovereignty emerged, and names like Herman Daly, E.F. Schumacher, and John Milbank were tossed about. The late G.A. Cohen's just released and, presumably, final book, Why Not Socialism? (nicely introduced and discussed in this Crooked Timber thread here), makes one of the best cases for essential socialist principles that I've ever read...and then quite plainly admits that, despite continued experimentation, we yet have no idea how to actually institute those principles on any basis much larger than a group of friends going camping. James C. Scott, he of the extremely insightful Seeing Like a State, has just come out with a huge, meticulously detailed volume, The Art of Not Being Governed, making an "anarchist" case for the non-state organizations by which millions of Zomia peoples (a collective terms for the upland inhabitants of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and south China) traditionally resisted state-builders both capitalist and communist. All of that, plus the conversation I overheard between a couple of political scientist bigwigs, discussing how the fundamental problem with all of the very good, very persuasive, and very true arguments which President Obama's people have put forward about how much more efficient and effective the delivery and funding of health care is in just about every other industrialized nation on the planet, is the simple fact that all of those nations which advocates of health care reform--like myself!--refer to have smaller populations, and smaller economies, than does ours...which makes all comparisons, however worth making, slightly hard to take seriously.

Well, I don't know--it's all probably more a matter of my own interests and concerns than anything else. And it's not like all that is anything like a representative sample of the tens of thousands of conversations taking place Wednesday through Sunday at the Toronto Convention Centre. And even it is was, it'd only be, as I said, at best just some stray tea leaves looking for an interpretation. Still, for whatever it's worth, if political scientists are any kind of canary in a coal mine, I can't help but wonder if the lurking issue that may suddenly emerge to shape political thinking in the near future might simply be a sense that, well, enough is enough: that politics--state politics, national politics, to say nothing of international politics--claim too much, and try to do and to mean, too much. An awareness of the need to balance state and market imperatives with local humility, perhaps? That's not a bad lesson to learn, if it turns out that anyone really is teaching such a lesson at all.