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Friday, January 29, 2010

Pass the Damn Bill!

The only thing worth doing on Facebook today. Seriously.

Friday Morning Videos: "Too Late for Goodbyes" (Again)

If I'm going to save a former Beatle from Youtube's vicious disembedding campaign, I might as well save a son-of-a-Beatle from the same fate.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Would America Be More Governable If...

...our states weren't quite so unrepresentative of the people who lived there?

So suppose you find yourself accepting the possibility that within the United States today a discursive space wherein people can truly meet, argue, listen persuade, change their minds, make plans, and otherwise govern themselves democratically can no longer be reasonably expected to emerge. In other words, that republican government is at an end. One possibility would be to wash your hands of the whole thing. Another possibility would be to look at whether there is something in the structure of our 300 million-plus country which makes even the bare elements of democratic republican--that is, representative government--practice harder and harder all the time.

One obviously place to begin would be with the Senate, which has become progressively less democratic and more difficult to get legislation through as the decades have gone by. (Obama talked about this last night--though not nearly harshly enough--with his references to the Republican party's implicit demand for "supermajorities.") But beyond some procedural reforms regarding the filibuster, isn't there something more that could be done to make the states more likely sites for real democracy, whether locally or on the national level. That might require something dramatic. Not as dramatic as abolishing the Senate; for myself, I like federalism, and I like states having power on the national level. (Fact is, it's the 17th Amendment which I'd like to see abolished.) But what if the states the Senate represented were themselves a little more "democratically" organized? Like, say, this?

It's a thought experiment, designed around the idea of creating fifty states, all with essentially equal population. (Find out more about it here, here, and here.) Of course, states will never be--or at least, probably never should be--redrawn solely on the basis of population for electoral purposes, even democratic ones; there is history, culture, geography and more to consider. Still, such reconsiderations go along with my oft-stated wish that we could have more states--more locations for people to center themselves around, identify themselves with, and develop as a culture, a community, a demos capable of listening to, learning from, and even sometimes agreeing with one another. It's worth imagining, at least.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


A solid B, I think. Not a great speech, but pretty good. Good content, but too much content to really make his strongest points about the political context within which that content is debated come through as clearly as they should have. State of the Union addresses have been laundry lists of legislative priorities and promises for as long as I can remember, and by now I presume that's just the nature of the beast. Too bad Obama and his people weren't willing to fight that beast a little bit more; a leaner, more directly--but also less detailed--partisan speech, focusing more conceptually on the civic environment that he claims to want to move our government in the direction of--one of more responsibility, and less crassly political calculation (more civic virtue, in other words)--would, I think, been taken more seriously by some of those who need to hear that message most. No doubt it would have cost him the opportunity to appeal to this or that interest group, but it would have been worth it, I suspect. But hey, I'm an intellectual, so what do I know?

Best lines from the speech, I think:

I am not nave. I never thought the mere fact of my election would usher in peace, harmony, and some post-partisan era. I knew that both parties have fed divisions that are deeply entrenched. And on some issues, there are simply philosophical differences that will always cause us to part ways. These disagreements, about the role of government in our lives, about our national priorities and our national security, have been taking place for over two hundred years. They are the very essence of our democracy.

But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We cannot wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about their opponent – a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants should not be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual Senators. Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, is just part of the game. But it is precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it is sowing further division among our citizens and further distrust in our government.

So no, I will not give up on changing the tone of our politics. I know it's an election year. And after last week, it is clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual. But we still need to govern. To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes, as supermajority, in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.

Good stuff. More please.

Context vs. Content, Once Again

In a couple of hours, President Obama will give his first State of the Union Address. Should make for interesting viewing and listening. Will Representative Joe Wilson of South Caroline repeat his wonderfully rude parliamentary-wanna-be outburst of last September? Leading Republicans say "no", but we shall see.

Ezra Klein is calling this speech "the most important of [Obama's] young presidency" and "the most revealing of his career." Of course, in a world of 24-hour media attention and the possibility of some random moment going viral and becoming the storyline the mainstream media--and, thus, public opinion--will follow for days or weeks or months to come, practically any speech could potentially become the most "important" or "revealing" of any politician's career. But Ezra is on solid ground, I think, in making this claim. We all know why: health care reform--or rather, the larger political meaning that health reform has come to hold in minds of a great many Americans. For those who support it--even folks like myself who are depressed at how a chance to turn our nation in the direction of treating health as a public good has fallen from those heights down to that of a messy, conflicted, worthy-but-still-compromised social welfare program (and now, perhaps, not even that!)--it's fate reflects the promise of the Obama administration that fired us up a year or two ago. A promise that, even if we never fully bought into it, seemed real, in the sense of suggesting real action towards difficult but necessary civic goals. For those who oppose it, of course, it's fate represents a push-back against every bad thing they, rightly or wrongly (in all honesty, probably a little bit of both) associate with his administration: an unfeeling, even un-American intellectualism, a hard-ball determination to imagine a center-right nation as more liberal (in the contemporary sense) than it is or wants to be.

I wonder if that sets us up for failure though--a failure even more profound than the failure of national health insurance reform or any other such broad legislative measure could be. I wonder if it makes us look at the wrong thing: at what Obama is trying to do, rather than at how he's trying to do it. And I wonder, also, whether to two can be separated at all.

Peter Levine suggests they can, at least far enough to properly prioritize them: and for Peter, the latter is clearly more important than the former. Peter's great theme has always been civic action and participatory democracy, with all the communitarian and populist implications which follow from that--he's a strong supporter of health care reforms which will empower individuals to escape the corporate monopolies which dominate our system, to be sure--but he doesn't put the cart of such political content before the horse of political context regarding how it is to be achieved. Levine is frustrated with Paul Krugman, who--after the travails of health care reform over the past two weeks--has declared that he's "pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama." Peter will have none of it, and what he says speaks to the communitarian, the populist, the civic republican in me:

Obama never said he was the one we were waiting for. He said (quoting a line from the Civil Rights Movement): "We're the one's we've been waiting for." This was in the context of explicitly arguing that change does not come from the top down, but from the bottom up. The lack of bottom-up pressure for health reform is a major reason why the bill is being dropped. No major progressive organizations or movements really fought for a bill that could pass Congress, and you can't win a legislative battle without grassroots support.

Now Peter is, I think, eliding a point in how he makes this argument: there were plenty of progressive organizations who fought for the bill--I was part of that fighting, for whatever it was worth here in Kansas--so it's not as thought support was lacking. What was lacking, perhaps, was the ability to follow through, with just as much fervor, once Joe Lieberman kicked away that last option for passing a bill in the Senate which included something that could have become truly social and comprehensive and public. Or maybe not--I'm not sure how to measure that, absent tabulating every phone call, e-mail and Tweet every member of Congress received. But doesn't the fading of civic determination tell us as much about the nature of the American civitas, as it does about our level of civic responsibility and hope as well?

E.J. Dionne thinks the answer is simple: Obama is a believer in civic engagement--and he was wrong to trust in it. He shouldn't, at least when it came to something as large as health care, have tried to "bring the country together." Dionne sees a contradiction in "Obama's commitment to sweeping change and his soothing pragmatism that disdains public fights," and he may be right. Where's the determined leadership? Where's the...well, the content? Can you really conceptually, philosophically, approach a democratic community without presupposing what that democratic community is for--without offering them real specifics about how one intends to interact with that community (and, in our polity, interacting with the national community, at least in an immediately politically effectual way, means using a party, with a platform and goals and all the rest)? Of course, it's not as though Obama hasn't done any of that; on the contrary, he's done a lot. But in the present, very delicate moment, where hope is not yet dead but certainly on life support, perhaps his devotion to a certain civic context, to always encouraging Democrats and Republicans alike to "coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on"...well, perhaps it an betrays inexperience, an unwillingness to fully use the office of the presidency, maybe even an over-reliance upon a pragmatism which borders upon a religion, a deep commitment to the process of listening to the experiences of ordinary people. Which is entirely appropriate to a community organizer, but not so much for a man who, for better or worse, occupies the office of the presidency.

There's a lot of frustration out there; I suppose there always is, but this frustration stands out to me, because it seems to come back, again and again, to our size and diversity, and the sense that maybe civil discussion is a literal impossibility in America today. Patrick Deneen, for one; but then Patrick has suspected (and for good reason; let's not deny that) that America has become an all-but-ungovernable empire for a while now. But even Tim Burke, who has always struck me as an unflappable defender of modern complexity, seems to agree. To the depressing battle over health care in 2009 he's found himself making fatalistic noises: shrugging his shoulders hopelessly, saying "Whatever," adding in the comments that he doubts there's any real communicative, democratic context worth its name in America any more: "[T]he proposition that there’s some communicative connection that can happen, that the content of speech and ideas isn't just a projection of a habitus, that we can somehow connect the hubs and spokes of a social network and make something that links the situated knowledges of people to systematic improvements in our institutions? It just seems like a stupid thing to have ever believed that possible." If he's right--and he may be--then should Obama make any attempt tonight to defend how he aspires to lead America, as opposed to what he's leading us towards, it'll be worse than a joke: it'll be a waste.

As for myself...well, I've defended context over content plenty of times over the years, and I'm not willing to give up on it yet. Maybe I'm wrong to have become so susceptible to disappointment; maybe I've been valuing a particular content--health care reform--too much. Then again, that's a reform which can save lives, and what's the point of a healthy civic context if you can't democratically use it? As usual, I'm wishy-washy. So I'll watch the speech tonight, and think about the slow, hard, long defeat of those who try to do right, in the right way, knowing that they'll nearly always lose, or at best win far less than they'd originally dreamed. Maybe, in the midst of such somber thoughts, Representative Wilson will be an ass again. I know I'll at least have something definitive to say about that.

[Update, 1/27/10 9:56pm: I have my say here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Short Morning Takes on Wichita, Geekery, and Self-Promotion

It's Sunday morning, and I'm skipping church to stay home with Alison, our third daughter, who is almost-but-quite-recovered from a nasty bug that had her throwing up for past couple of days. I think it may be the first day of church I've missed--leaving aside snow days and such--in four years of so. It feels weird. So what do I do, while Alison crashes on the couch, watching Monsters vs. Aliens? Blog, of course.

1. John Buass is back up and blogging again, at Blog Meridian and Cycling in Wichita, and I'm delighted. I'm particularly delighted with the latter, because through that blog John has done more than anyone to keep me aware of numerous local issues involving transportation, community development, and political and economic planning that are pretty important to me. So I ought to return the favor, by saying something about the most recent Westlink Neighborhood Association meeting, over here on the west wide of Wichita. We hosted a visit and presentation from Robert Layton, Wichita's city manager, and he gave a great, sobering but informative presentation. Of particular interest to Wichita readers might be his comments about public transportation (most of the participants in WNA are older folks, for whom buses, rather than pedestrian or bicycler transportation, is paramount). He noted that, given Wichita's current economic state, any serious rethinking of public transport throughout the city would likely have to be put off until 2012 or later, but he acknowledged the long-term need to get such rethinking done, eventually. Our buses operate on a spoke-and-hub system (all transports extending out and returning to a couple of central points), which is a relatively cheap and straightforward way of covering as much area as possible with as few buses as possible, but a very difficult arrangement to build into a more comprehensive service platform. Layton said that Wichita hasn't been, for a city of its size, hasn't been as progressive as it needs to be, and he indicated that he, at least, is willing to think big about the long-term future of Wichita's infrastructure needs. I talked to him briefly after the meeting, and he said the same thing about bicycle paths: no specifics, but definitely an interest in seeing Wichita's transportation options, over time, reworked from the ground up. I liked him--he seemed smart, realistic, and open-minded; a good sign for those of us who strive to buck Wichita's car-dependency.

2. Before we put on the movie, I read to Alison another chapter from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. We started about a week ago, and she's loving it. She's seen parts of the first couple of movies, but Melissa and I have both tried to police her exposure to the films, so as to prevent her interest in the books being undermined before she gets a chance to experience hearing them aloud. (Besides, she's only six, and the movies obviously get more intense than is appropriate for her as they go on.) Anyway, we're having a blast. Alison is, because the book makes her curious, excited, and inquisitive--it's the longest continuous work we've exposed her to yet, and she's learning how to put plot points together, remembering details (or at least trying to) from one chapter to the next, and wheedling me to give her info about how things are going to turn out: in other words, all the great things which getting immersed in a story can do for you. And I am, because it reminds of all the things I loved about the books, when Melissa and then I were first drawn into Pottermania, and, as the years went by, brought our kids with us. Alison is the third of our four daughters that I've read the books to--though so far only through Prisoner of Azkaban, as in both Megan's and Caitlyn's case by the time we got to the fourth book, they were reading themselves, and unwilling to put up with my slow pace. Megan is the most determined reader of the girls so far; Caitlyn took longer to get through them all, and as for Alison, who knows? Besides being younger than either of the others were when they started, she may not develop enough of a passion for it to carry her through the increasingly longer books, even assuming we think she's ready for Goblet of Fire and what comes later. But that's not a concern right now. Right now, I'm just enjoying being reminded of how much clever, childishly fun detail Rowling can crowd into her simple plots, and why Harry and Snape and all the rest were so compelling in the first place.

3. Speaking of passing along geek traditions to our kids, we've also just started through the Lord of the Rings movies with our two oldest. Megan has, bit by bit, watched them all several times, sometimes with Melissa and I and sometimes without, but Caitlyn has only seen a couple of clips, here are there. We thought about imposing the same rules about reading books before watching movies that we have with Harry Potter, but as good a reader as Caitlyn is for her grade level (she's now nine), she's not like her older sister (now thirteen), and we figured that, so long as we watched them with her, we could give in to her intense longing to watch the films. So we've all embarked on the long march through the whole epic, something Melissa and I haven't done in five years. It's been a wonderfully geeky bit of family bonding so far, one weekend after another, with Megan quoting whole lines out loud while we throw pillows at her to get her to shut up, and Caitlyn hiding her head under a blanket when Saruman starts creating the Uruk-hai. And for me, well, it's been a blast to revisit some great, thrilling filmmaking. (I still think that the battle with the Uruks across the hillside at the end of Fellowship, and Gollum's first appearance climbing down a cliff wall in The Two Towers, are some of the most captivating sequences I've ever seen in movies of this type. I can't wait for when we make it to the big finale.)

4. I showed up late yesterday for the book discussion being hosted by our local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America at Riverside Perk, but I got a lot out of the good discussion taking place nonetheless. We talked about the book, The ABCs of the Economic Crisis, and about health care, public transportation, what Obama is (or isn't) trying to do, and more. They're a good group of people, and I'm happy to be a part of this motley bunch of liberals, progressives, social and Christian democrats, and more. I'm going to be lecturing to them and interested others tomorrow ("If Capitalism Can Go Global, Can Socialism Go Local?", room 200 of the Business and Technology Building, Friends University, 6:30pm all are invited!), as well as running a book club meeting myself next month, on G.A. Cohen's Why Not Socialism? I'm looking forward to it. It's good to be part of party, even a small one. In fact, they might be the best kind--at least as far as book clubs are concerned.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday Morning Videos: "Got My Mind Set on You" (Again)

No way will I stand for Youtube disembedding any former Beatles!

So, when I put this up last year, it was part of this brief series I was doing on pop stars from the 60s who, twenty years later, found themselves in the music video era. Some handled it well, some didn't. I claimed, on the basis of the above video, that George Harrison had maintained, even in the midst of all the usual MTV schtick, some of his dignity and sense of fun. In saying that, I was hoping no one would remember the other version of this video, in which someone in a bad George Harrison wig prances around underneath a talking moose. And, of course, I had commenters who called me on just that. And so, for completion's sake...

Holy cow, that was awful.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I Needed a Laugh

Lots of frustrating and confusing news out there this week, for an egalitarian and anti-corporatist like myself. Like this. And this. So I went looking for something that could make me laugh, and I found it. Took me back to college days, watching cable tv at friends' apartments circa 1991, and laughing my ass off at Joel (and later Mike), Tom Servo, and Crow.

I actually remember watching this episode, and this concluding gag in particular. I laughed so hard I was in actual, physical pain ("Big McLarge Huge!"). Sometimes you need that.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

As the Postmortems fly...

...I'm arguing with some smart, serious progressives: in this case, the good folks over at Shared Sacrifice.

They say, start over! "A bad bill is worse than no bill....The reason the 'reform' as it is currently looking to be enacted has become so unpopular is because it is a total giveaway to corporate interests with the American people being FORCED to pay for it individually and collectively. By going back to the drawing board they can show independents that they really do get the message and are ready to lead."

I say (in somewhat greater length than in the original Facebook entry):

"Look. I'm upset with what's being proposed. No--I'm not upset; I'm annoyed, because I wanted something I could love and believe in, and what I'm getting instead (assuming I get anything at all!) is something quite nice and needed, but not anything that actually reforms the status quo. I would love to believe that the American electorate is upset about the proposed reform because it is a giveaway to corporate interests. But I don't think that's the case at all. I believe a small (but significant) of Americans deeply hate the bill, and they're able pick up enough distrustful and worried and confused people to win elections, by pointing out things like the individual mandate, which the Democrats are collectively unable to make a case for, because the non-designed-hopefully-help-control-health-care-costs part of the reform which might have made the mandate palatable to individual Americans--namely, the public option, or at least something like unto it--was taken away. There is a case that can be made for the mandate, as part of a scheme to control costs and to level the playing field across the insurance market through exchanges, etc., just as there can be a case made for the whole bill--not as a proper reform, of course, but at least as a decent bit of social welfare. But will anyone in the House (meaning both the White House and the House of Representatives) make that case?

"Lieberman did his work well. The Medicare buy-in was perhaps the last chance this bill had to put it's stupid, corporate-addicted complications into a framework that could garner 60 votes and promise something more than just a wonky bit of redistribution (as valuable as that redistribution may be, assuming it ever becomes law, to about 30 million or so of the 45 million Americans currently without insurance). In killing that, however, it just became one more social welfare bill. And "one more bill," facing extraordinary, paranoid opposition, deserves better than a joke of a candidate like Coakley."

[Update, 1/20/10, 7:17am: a further exchange with my friend Matt Stannard:

The Brown victory underscores the need for progressives to become progressives. And that means we need to become unapologetic egalitarians--conscientiously pointing out that the Liebermans, Browns, and Emmanuel-Obamanians are corporatists, explaining why that's wrong and calling them out for it. If you're in the Democratic party, it's a lot harder to do that. We need to rally behind pols like Bernie Sanders, Tony Weiner, Dennis Kucinich, and build, build, build the Greens. We need to encourage all these groups that adhere to socialist theory and practice (SWP, SEP, SPUSA etc) to form a large coalition, multiplying their numbers from a few hundred each to several thousand--a good-sized socialist education corps. And we need to develop street theater and performative protest tactics that politically and aesthetically outshine the tea parties.

And we need to do it now. This is not a "reform versus revolution" question, at least not now. It's a question of immediately re-establishing an egalitarian message and presence in politics and culture.

My response? Well, first, he left out the DSA. Second, I'm personally not crazy about "street theater and performative protest," at least these days...though Matt has a good point in his comparisons to the Tea Party folks, and maybe I need to rethink my reluctance. More crucially, to his overall argument, my heart still says both yes and no. (I know, I know; my patented wishy-washiness, again.) Yes, real egalitarianism--not welfare and subsidies, but real social justice and community-empowering reforms--cannot be built through political victories, but through changes of the heart, through building up an ethos, and that means supporting movements and parties (speaking of which: don't forget the DSA!) who push these ideals, highlight their value, argue for them on their own terms. But no, such can't be the only implication of Brown's victory. We can't assume that all battles being fought by corporate liberals are equally irrelevant in the face of the need to build a "socialist education corps." This bill--which may have died last night, but I still think it yet lives--would, if it becomes law, build upon and extend corporate liberalism in the U.S....but for millions of people, the egalitarianism promised by such corporate liberalism is far from worthless. It can mean the difference between solvency and a medical bankruptcy. It can mean the difference between life and death.

The ideal socialist education corps should urge aspiring egalitarians to keep themselves free from aligning with any of the the compromises and give-aways that will obviously attend bail-outs and Wall Street deals, etc. But they shouldn't take from Brown's victory that, in this particular case, working with the ameliorists wasn't worth it, and still isn't. In the matter of health care, I disagree about bad bills being worse than no bills; even bad, colluding bills can be more egalitarian than what we have now.]

The Health Care Finale: More Than "Just Noise"

As I type this, Martha Coakley is probably losing the Massachusetts special election to fill Senator Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Her loss will mean Scott Brown's win, meaning the loss of the 60 votes Harry Reid had managed to hold together, somehow, for the Democrats, meaning that--in many people's view, at least--their health care reform package (which the Senate and House have both voted for, but which neither have finalized yet) is dead. Do I care? In one sense, very much. In another, not much at all.

Let's luxuriate in the head-smacking ridiculousness and awfulness of this situation for the Democrats first of all. And because John Stewart can do that better than any of, let's just watch him do it.

Now, when you get right down to it, I don't believe the worst is going to happen. Even if Brown does win (likely, but not guaranteed--we'll know in about six hours), Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and the whole Democratic party have compromised on too many particulars and fought out too many skirmishes to not just put the Senate bill on Obama's desk (as Representative Hoyer suggests, and as President Obama and his people may already be laying the groundwork for the House to so do) and give him something to sign. There are good reasons to think that won't happen, but I nonetheless suspect it will. Obama is not turning out to be nearly as clever a strategist as some thought he might be, but he still has the weight of the office behind him, and if he leaves the White House and really leans on a few key House liberals and Blue Dogs, he'll probably--at this point, anyway--get what he needs.

So that means, on January 27, during his State of the Union address, President Obama will be able to declare victory on health care reform, and we'll all be happy, right? Well, no. A lot of people will be, to be sure, and for excellent reasons. The proposed reforms in health insurance will save lives. The health insurance mandate and the subsidized exchanges through which they will be offered will put many more Americans into the same insurance pool, and thus begin the process of leveling at least some health care costs. The groundwork will be laid for the development of a more sensible health care system. Worthy accomplishments, all. But at what cost? The health care reform which Obama will sign does nothing whatsoever to rein in the power of the health insurance industry--in fact, on the contrary, to a degree the whole reform is built upon the infrastructure of the health insurance industry. Perhaps that isn't something to be concerned about...and, when weighed against the simple, egalitarian benefits that this generous slice of social welfare legislation makes possible, I would agree that it probably isn't, and I've said as much. But, as even Ezra Klein--as sensible and wonky a liberal advocate of reform that you can find anywhere--admits, it's kind of hard to remember all that, when you have to survey the wreckage along the way.

Some people choose to be a little bit blithe about that wreckage. Dismissing the hang-wringing about growing corporatism in America (whether under Bush or under Obama) as "just noise," Jonathan Chait says that those who have become disenchanted and frustrated with the deals struck and ideals abandoned in pursuit of health care reform smacks of "the spirit of the New Left--distrustful of evolutionary change, compromise between business and labor, and the practical tools of progressive reform. It is the spirit that rejected Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Al Gore in 2000." What we're looking at isn't wreckage, in other words: we're looking at sausage-making, and the proof is always in the sausage itself, not what was chopped up and squeezed out, correct? That's what Weber taught us, after all.

Well speaking of Weber, Matthew Yglesias--another dyed-in-the-wool, wonky, "sensible meliorationist liberal pragmatist" (his own words)--connects the Weberian argument that "the change you get is always more marginal than the change you were hoping for" with our present system, and admits (agreeing here with E.J. Dionne) the need for both types of critics. The same was said back before Christmas by Ed Kilgore, when, in the wake of the furor over the final, pathetic, rattling death of the public option (which I certainly contributed to), he argued that, as much as "progressive pragmatists" (again, his own words) like himself sometimes find themselves driven batty by immature leftists who don't know how things get done, the truth is that long-range ideological thinking and movement-building is just as important to the goals of the left as short-term strategic deal-making.

Fine, fine, we can all get along...except that it's the short-term strategic deal-makers--and, more specifically in this case, the corporate powers who define the financial and political and socio-economic frameworks within with all serious deal-makers, including Obama, clearly operate--who always win in the end, isn't it? So even when they win, the public square and democratic possibilities atrophy, and the possibility of health care (or anything else) of being treated as a truly public good--as opposed to a commodity that, at least while good welfare thinking reins (which, of course, it doesn't always, and we should be happy when it does), ought to be redistributed and made available along somewhat more egalitarian lines. Whatever bill Obama signs over the next week or so--and again, I'm fairly confident there will be something for him to sign--will have many solid and admirable benefits insofar as justice and fairness are concerned. But they will have been achieved at least in part through a system that excels the most in creating corporate-friendly (or at least corporate-negotiable) bureaucracies on a national scale, not democratically conceived programs which are designed to empower us; not only as individuals who get sick and need to be able to pay for our care, but as a people who take responsibility for each other. Do I sound like a Naderite is saying this? Probably. I suppose that, as much as the bloom has come off the rose for that old rabble-rouser and ambulance-chaser, I still am.

Well, polls close in Massachusetts in five and a half hours. We'll see how the final act will play out soon enough, I suppose.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Morning Videos: "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" (Special Compare and Contrast Edition!)

Okay, here's a video (two actually) that I've been holding onto forever, wondering when or if to include them in the FMV series. It's just so weirdly self-important and compellingly despicable, if that makes any sense. Anyway, here I am, finally sharing it with you all. The XTC song as a whole rocks, that's a given. In turning the song's lyrics about an inspiring figure taken down by the powers-that-be into images, the makers of the video played around with allusions to the crucifixion of Jesus and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Fair enough, but the directions they took in were, well, let's just say disturbing.

There are two versions of the video; the first is the one most likely to have been seen by American audiences. It's fairly outrageous, but at least appears to have some overarching focus to it: if anything, it makes kind of a consistent, anti-Catholic, the-Vatican-is-pulling-the-strings interpretation of the song somewhat coherent. The second is just over the top, blatant and unnerving. You've got explicit Kennedy-as-Christ comparisons in there, along with the Bay of Pigs and creepy shots of a Marilyn Monroe look-alike and a host of other conspiracy tropes, some of which I can't even make any sense of, not to mention a nothing-hidden recreation of Kennedy being shot (the first version never actually shows it). I don't know. Which do you find more offensive? Personally, I can't make up my mind.

1st version:

2nd version:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Please Support Paul Farmer's Good Work In Haiti

I have nothing wise, politically or religiously or otherwise, to say about the horror that hundreds of thousands of people are going through in Haiti right now. All I can add, to those who have already mentioned it, is my words to encourage you all, if you haven't already, to donate something, anything, to the incredible, deeply humane and wise work that Paul Farmer and his organization, Partners in Health, are doing in Haiti--the same holy work they've been doing for years. Paul himself (whom I wrote about here) was recovering from knee surgery in Florida at the time of the quake; he was planning on traveling back to Haiti with Bill Clinton when the news of the devastation hit. No doubt he'll be back to Haiti soon enough. Please help him return with the supplies the Haitians desperately need, now.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Capitalism, Socialism, and Localism, Completed

I finally got my syllabus for this monster course all pulled together. (And I only missed having it ready for the students for the first session of class by a day!) I can't think of when I last taught a class where I considered--and rejected--as many different possible reading assignments. My thanks to all who helped me out before. Here's a brief rundown of what I ended giving my students to read (arranged alphabetically, rather than in the schedule I'll be lecturing on them):

Wendell Berry, various essays from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community and The Art of the Commonplace

G.A. Cohen, Why Not Socialism?

Herman E. Daly and John C. Cobb, selections from For the Common Good

F.A. Hayek, selections from The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism

Robert L. Heilbroner, selections from The Worldly Philosophers

John Maynard Keynes, "The End of Laissez-Faire"

Karl Marx, "On the Jewish Question," selections from Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and The German Ideology, and The Communist Manifesto

Deidre McCloskey, selections from The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce

Karl Polanyi, selections from The Great Transformation

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, First Discourse, Second Discourse, and Discourse on Political Economy

E.F. Schumacher, selections from Small is Beautiful

Richard Sennett, selections from The Culture of the New Capitalism

Adam Smith, selections from Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations

Herbert Spencer, "The New Toryism"

Michael Walzer, "A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen" and selections from Spheres of Justice

It's almost certainly going to be way too much for them to read...but in the end, I was cutting stuff out, rather than trying to fill out the semester. As I said before, a difficult class to shape, figuring out what to include and what not. Hopefully someday I'll have the opportunity to teach on this topic again; by then, I'll have some experience to fall back on.

Sobering and Profound

Tim Burke has some careful and wise thoughts to share, at the beginning of yet-another new year of argument, accusation, and (rarely) agreement:

I can remember thinking that John Edwards seemed like a decent enough candidate in his first run for the Presidency, but I can’t even begin to remember why I thought that: some vague impression of his electability, a few catch-phrases here and there that mimicked positions I could charitably imagine having a resemblance to what I’d like to see happen, and yes, some sense that he seemed like a capable, decent leader. In retrospect, obvious bullshit, all of it. I can remember telling a few friends in 2000 that Bush seemed to have some interest in governing towards the middle, because of a few little rhetorical flourishes, and I thought that again when he gestured in that direction right after 9/11. Again, bullshit....

If I’m setting out to buy a dishwasher or a video game, I feel pretty good that crowdsourcing is going to help me find a decent product, that the flow of information online will give me a peek at the actual experiences of users. I feel like I’m pretty experienced at spotting obvious shills, in part because they typically describe products or services in phony language or improbably complimentary terms. I get burned now and again, but not very often. Politicians and public life, not so much, none of it, because almost all of us are engaged in one way or another in adorning the lies and tale tales of the political elite, in pushing a line or selling a product.

Just about every blogger I read and respect, and I include myself, has a politics that is an a la carte assemblage of positions and favored projects strung together loosely by attitude and affect. Most of the people I like are too smart and wary to be active, aggressive shills for any particular candidate, but there’s still a lot of qualified nods for some leaders and lip-curling disdain for others, based largely on whether they’re telling the lies that we like or the lies that we hate, whether they match up at some moment with some random item on our personal checklists of things-we-like....[E]ven people that like to imagine themselves as tough-minded independents and skeptics tend to invest in politics the way that audiences invest in the narrative of a contestant on Top Chef or The Amazing Race.

And then beyond that conversation is a vast domain of other readers and writers busy spinning and confabulating in a far less guarded way, a heaving ocean of shillery.

We lie to us, we know we’re lying, we know we know we’re lying, but we keep on lying anyway, and we keep on pretending to believe ourselves....

For our own velvet revolution, for at least a possibility of moving the ball forward past this stagnant, curdled moment in American life, I think what we’ll all have to do is take the risk of authenticity, to develop a grown-up taste for the rough edges and honest imperfections of lives as they are lived. In our politicians, in our public figures, in ourselves.

As is commonly said, read the whole thing.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Harry Reid is the Mormon of the Year

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

It's a tad late for these kind of year-end awards, but for those very few readers of this blog who care, Senator Harry Reid has been chosen by my former blog-residence Times and Seasons--not (any longer, anyway) the most visited and read Mormon blog, but almost certainly the most established and respected--as the Mormon of the Year. This was absolutely the right decision on their part--and as T&S is choosing not to open comments on the post, let me explain why right here.

If you care about or follow the business of the Bloggernacle at all, you're probably already thinking that you don't need my explanation: I've already described Reid as a "Mormon hero", after all. But that praise had a very specific referent: the legislative act he accomplished--uniting 58 Democrats and 2 independents behind a heath care reform bill that they all agreed with in principle but which contained enough controversial particulars for each and every one of them to have a reason to vote against it--was a remarkable, even heroic accomplishment. (Whether the bill, or the law which will eventually result from it, is remarkable, much less heroic, is a different question, about which I have significant doubts.) More importantly, T&S itself didn't choose Reid on the basis of his having accomplished anything remarkable or heroic (though no doubt many who read about their award will think that is the case); on the contrary, it chose Reid for one very simple reason: he made news.

Every year people whine about these year-end awards, and reasonably so: people look at Time Magazine's awards (Ben Bernanke, with Stanley McChrystal, Chinese labor, Nancy Pelosi and Usain Bolt as runners-up), and they see in that an endorsement of a particular approach to the American economy which they either love/hate, or perspective on the war in Afghanistan, or an embrace of globalization, or a comment on reforms in the House of Representatives, or silly affection for the 100-meter dash. Why not whine? It's all subjective, after all. But in the midst of all those subjective judgments, some invariably stand out, if only because more people, more money, more events, more possibilities are involved. Bernanke was at the heart, for better or worse, of changes in the American economy over the past year. Harry Reid, similarly, has been at the heart of the single largest act of social welfare legislation in more than 40 years. And, of course, he's Mormon.

Whatever else Big Love-inspired jokes may convince you, Mormons are, statistically, a terribly insignificant minority in the United States; depending on what methodology you prefer, the number of people in America who publicly self-identify as members of the Mormon church ranges from anywhere from 3.1 to 5.7 million people--or, in other words anywhere from a little over 1% to a little under 2% of the American population. Common we are not. The Senate, of course, is hardly a equally representative institution, but discounting such Mormon-rich states as Utah, Idaho, or Arizona, that still makes it surprising that a Mormon--and not just any Mormon, but a Mormon Democrat, which is an even more vanishingly small minority--could rise to the top of the Senate majority...and then lead it through perhaps the most contentious and fraught legislative season in years.

He is, in short, big news: news because of what he's done, and news because of who he is--a practicing and self-identifying member of a very small church which a political reputation that would seem a much more likely fit with implacable health care reform opponents like Senators Orrin Hatch or Bob Bennett, rather than a desperate and often rhetorically clumsy legislative operator who sees health reform as his crowning achievement. Last year T&S chose Mitt Romney, which was also appropriate: despite having washed out of the Republican presidential nomination campaign by early March, there was no other member of the church who made as much significant news as he did in 2009. This year, by contrast, no other member of the church--no, not even everyone's favorite new media star/savant/nutcase, Glenn Beck, whose Mormonism is a source of delight to hundreds of thousands of my co-religionists, and a source of embarrassment to a few like me--has had a larger and more meaningful role in American public life than Harry Reid. As he looks forward to what will probably be a very difficult re-election battle (something which a lot of Democrats will likely be facing this November), he should take solace in every award he gets.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Friday Morning Videos: "Human Touch"

I don't know about you, but I'm having a miserable time trying to get 2010 started. It's bitter cold out, the usual post-holiday let-down around the Fox household has seemed worse that usual this year, my syllabi are all a mess, the book orders weren't placed correctly, and spring semester starting in a few days...I'm just really having a hard time feeling that promise which a fresh calendar is supposed to bring.

Fortunately, Rick Springfield knows how I feel. He's been there. Coming out of suspended animation, dealing with aliens and morlocks, wearing velcro and spandex...man, it's not easy to adjust to a new year.

You know, in particular reference to Rod Stewart last week, I'm beginning to think that maybe there should just be a law that forbids all white people from dancing, ever.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Friday Morning Videos: "Some Guys Have All the Luck" (Again)

Welcome to 2010, everyone. This old favorite is another one that Youtube has disabled the embedding on, but fear not: Rod Stewart's atrocious, psychadelic boogie shall not be forgotten. Wherever you were last night, and however drunk you may have been, take comfort in knowing that you didn't dance this bad.