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Friday, June 25, 2010

Lazy Summer Friday Morning Videos: "Brandy"

As promised, here's the first of some wonderfully lazy (and honestly, you've got to work really hard to create music this fine and mellow and lazy) tunes to keep you occupied while I'm away. And as a bonus--they're all live. (Well, that is, they were live recordings at the time the videos were shot. Or at least mostly so. Give me break, people, some of this stuff is nearly as old as I am.) Looking Glass, take it away:

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Lazy Summer Blogging Break Begins

Today's officially the first day of summer here in the Northern Hemisphere, the solstice and midsummer and all that. So perhaps it's an auspicious day to begin some summertime wanderings. Later today I'll be leaving for a week to play chaperon/official mule at our church's local Girls Camp; as the father of four daughters, I long ago decided that this would be my fate every June, and to tell the truth, I don't mind it at all. Then the Monday after I return we'll be off as a family to Washington state, for a family reunion. This year, we're actually flying--something we haven't done with all the girls since about 2005. Should be an adventure. (I know they're looking forward to the flight...Melissa and I, not so much.) Point is, that'll keep me away from the computer for another two weeks, or nearly so. So, put it all together, I'll be on a blogging break until the second week of July, at least. And who knows? I've got a couple of big writing projects I need to finish this summer (one I knew about; the other has come up unexpectedly), so maybe once I'm back, I'll find that I'm enjoying the blogging break enough to keep it up even longer. Either way, though, I will return eventually, of that you can be certain.

In the meantime? I suppose if something crazy or brilliant happens I may log on and write up a post, but I wouldn't count on it. You can count on Friday Morning Videos to continue throughout the break, however. I've done my homework, and have some nice, lazy, easy-going, summer-appropriate snippets line up. Aren't you glad to know how much I care? Anyway, keep on having a good summer, everybody. See you when I return.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday Morning Videos: "Love My Way"

Sorry, I'm having a John Hughes flashback right now. Be patient; it won't last long.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Defining Red Toryism (Again)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

A month ago, Cato Unbound put up a mini-sympoisum on "the Red Toryism of Phillip Blond." It featured essays by Patrick Deneen and Jacob Levy, both responding in part to Blond's essay "Shattered Society", a version of which Blond gave as a speech when he visited Georgetown University earlier this year. An additional contribution by Reihan Salam and a further response by Blond himself were also promised, but never materialized, and now CU's gone on to another topic. (Though Jacob has posted his response to Patrick here.) I feel bad for not having written up some thoughts and sent them in sooner; Blond's Red Tory ideas fascinate me (as my many comments on them demonstrate), and wanted to throw my two cents in, discussing (again) what I think Red Toryism does, or at least could, mean. But hey, better late than never.

I don't have much to say about Blond's essay itself; his claims are essentially the same as those he advanced when he spoke at Villanova, and while I wasn't there, what I heard in the recording of his lecture was enough to give me serious pause, as my comments in this Front Porch Republic thread indicate. Very simply, Blond struck me as much more willing to engage in a foolish bit of caricature, to lump together all the things which he dislikes both philosophically and politically (the writings of Rousseau and the progressive leftism which in some ways counts Rousseau as an intellectual ancestor on the one hand, the liberal individualism of the modern capitalist marketplace on the other) however distinct they actually be, than he had been when he wrote his earlier "Rise of the Red Tories" essay, which is part of what sparked the fascination with him in the first place. I've finally gotten a hold of a copy of Blond's book, so perhaps will have something more to say about Blond's own arguments once I've finished it. But the caricaturing which Blond employed in his essay leads me directly to Jacob's contribution, since that is what he most immediately focuses on. Jacob's response to Blond (and, by extension, to Patrick as well) came in for some comment and criticism on FPR; let me see if I can build on that, clarifying (if only for myself) where I think Jacob's right and where I think he's wrong, and see if I can make a case for Red Toryism (which may not, it should be noted, be the same as Blond argument at all).

Let me begin with the phrase Red Toryism itself. The use of the "ism" implies a degree of ideological coherence: a package of theories, organized around and/or grounded by a shared set of philosophical or religious beliefs, that together present a normative argument for, and an idea of how to politically or socially advance, the conclusions, priorities and aims of those theories. This isn't the only way to think about "ideologies," of course, but it is mine, one that I've used a few times in the past. Jacob, however, wants to eschew ideological talk--he considers it a distraction, each and every one of them weighted down with too much "specific baggage." This is a reasonable point, but it is also an effective rhetorical move by which to begin his response, because it means that he wants to move away an intellectual consideration of the from the different ways in which people might plausibly organize and package together the various theories of politics and society which their foundational beliefs potentially support. In place of such (arguably ahistorical) intellectual considerations, he proposes that we look solely at different "isms" as "party-ideas"--and that, of course, means that we must ask first of all what parties are advancing those ideas. Looked at in such a way, he is able to more firmly associate Red Toryism with "Toryism simpliciter" the "red" part of the label being a mere "retro-fit (like 'pocketwatch') that only has to be invented after some other version has come around." Red Toryism is, therefore, just another iteration of the party-idea of Toryism, meaning conservatism more generally. And who are the conservatives? Jacob answers:

Conservatism is the party-idea of slowing the pace of change, of preserving order and returning to real or imagined lost virtues and communal ways of life. One part of conservatism’s base has traditionally been the armed agents of the state--the military and police. But the rest of its social base has an odd character. It is the alliance of the rural landlord and the rural peasant, of the established-church priest and his relatively poor flock. It is the party idea of resisting the changes associated with the urban middle class and working class alike, of protecting traditional ways of life (including, importantly, traditional hierarchies) against the disruptions associated with both markets and politics....

[C]onservatism is bitterly anticapitalist, much as it is anti-urban and for much the same reasons. The traditional rural elite finds that the creative destruction of the market threatens his status; the traditional rural poor resent that the city draws away their young to a godless and promiscuous life while also disrupting their stable economy. A local economy based on primary goods (farming, fishing) could be stable for generations, and then suddenly become uncompetitive for mysterious reasons of finance or long-distance trade, apparently decided far away by other people. Conservatism as a party-idea is in large part the attempt to defend against those disruptions — or to express resentment after they take place.

By setting up the argument along these terms, Jacob makes it plain that in arguing against Blond--and really, arguing against the very notion of Red Toryism in general--he is in fact arguing against "the party of the traditional elite," one which gains the support "of those they have traditionally dominated" by offering them an "alliance...against the tacky, educated, often-Jewish new money city slicker." And moreover, since "the aristocrat sets the terms of the alliance," it is a given that the avocations of the rural, the local, and the traditional, are really negligible in the debate: this is a debate between those who support the spread of personal liberty (the party of "liberalism") and those elites who benefit from the wealth it creates, but who also have no wish to see its opportunities shared by any who is not already part of their class.

Let me admit to the obvious: there is much truth to be uncovered by looking at Red Toryism solely through this frame. It is, of course, true that anyone sympathetic to preserving small communities and front porches, who praises the virtues of farming villages and local economies, is going to have to, one way or another, confront the fact that they are talking in terms of limits, restrictions, and boundaries, and obviously those who are already on the inside of those lines (whether cultural, moral, economic, or political) are in a position to benefit to the exclusion of others. There may, of course, be a host of reasonable arguments to support any number of such arrangements, but one cannot pretend that it doesn't at least potentially involve a certain level of self-righteousness, of territoriality, of close-mindedness and defensive superiority...all of which are exactly the faults so stereotypically--yet also, to be sure, often accurately--attributed to the aristocrats, elites, and upper-classes that make up the pantheon of reviled Fat Cats throughout history. So does this mean that the jig is up: that people sympathetic to Red Toryism have to recognize that their talk of "paternalism and protectionism, [and] the insulation of the poor from market forces" is really just all about protecting the privileges of aristocracy?

I don't think so, and the reason why begins with the limits of Jacob's framing of his analysis. For he leaves another party-idea out almost entirely: socialism. Jacob does acknowledge the fact of this constellation of views, but as it "quintessentially represented the interests of the organized industrial working class, and disproportionately represented the ideas of professional intellectuals and urban artists," he simply does not take it seriously as an element of the Red Tory package. In this Jacob is, surprisingly, voices a perspective on the possibility of a Red Tory ideology that is actually a kind of simplistic mirror image of that which Peter Lawler has regularly advanced on the Postmodern Conservative blog: that Red Toryism is just a weird, incoherent longing by socialists or Marxists or various wanna-bes to see "Tory values" protected or promoted, all of whom fail to understand that putting socialist alongside anything conservative is simply oxymoronic. So for for both Jacob and Peter, Red Toryism is just a confused conservatism, only for Peter it is redeemable (because it is, after all, "Tory"), and for Jacob it isn't (because it isn't liberal). Both of these perspectives are, I think, wrong for essentially the same reason: they fail to appreciate that the Red Tory idea, properly understood, is a left or socialist conservatism, not a traditionalism that happened to oddly pick up a few egalitarian rhetorical tropes along the way.

No doubt Jacob could develop a strong argument against this reading of Red Toryism; after all, if we want to think about "party ideas," then the Red Tory idea was born in Canada, where Jacob now resides. The party which advanced it was a gang of various intellectuals and patriots who sought, in different ways, from the late 19th up through the mid-20th centuries, to borrow the progressive elements of Benjamin Disraeli's "one nation conservatism" and apply them to continent-spanning, mostly classless, and (at the time, anyway) primarily rural modern state. It grew out of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the Progressive Conservative party; it recognized the necessity of collective action in order to develop egalitarian policies which would benefit and empower diverse localities across the nation, and it assumed the continuity of a common cultural and religious base in order to articulate and harness the democratic support which such collective actions would need to maintain legitimacy. That ideal, quite plainly, never found a strong political basis as Canada became increasingly pluralistic (not to mention constitutionally torn over the place of Quebec in the federation), but its basic communitarian sensibility--a conjoining of egalitarian priorities with a determination to conserve the shared identity (and the various traditional supports that such depends upon) which makes them politically possible--endured in isolated instances throughout Canada, up to the present day. Is it "conservatism"? It is when you look at its professed cultural concerns, but not when you consider who was articulating that ideology, and why, in the first place. Is it "socialism"? Gerry Neal, determined to save Red Toryism from the wanna-bes which Peter mocked in his post, insists it is not:

Toryism...maintains that most basic social unit, the family, is itself prior to the individual, and that society is not a contractual construction of individuals, but a natural outgrowth of the social life that begins in the family. Families live together in neighborhoods, worship together in churches, and out of their cooperation form communities, which generate the customs, traditions, and prescription that form the cultural and social foundation upon which the political and economic edifice which is the country is built. Society is organic, because the institutions which comprise it, have their distinct functions which cooperate together to make the whole work, the way a body’s organs and systems work together....

Society, we are told by progressives and "Red Tories," has a responsibility to the widow and the orphan, to the poor, the sick and the infirm, and to the needy in general. They are correct in principle but err in their application....The welfare-state is not an “organic society”. It is an attempt to re-create by government the organic society which liberalism had sought to destroy. Organic society, however, cannot be created by government fiat. It must grow naturally, out of the everyday communal life that is generated by the cooperative efforts of families, churches, and neighborhoods.

This, then, is the proper argument to have about Red Toryism: not to sideline it by reducing it to conservatism or traditionalism in a simplistic sense, but to ask how, and if, it can propose socialist-egalitarian and culture-respecting policies simultaneously; how and if, that is, it can present a persuasive alternative to straightforward progressivism. Many people doubt that--and one of the reasons why is apparent in the failure of Blond's argument, at least as Jacob presents it, to actually explain what it really is that such culture-conserving policies could theoretically accomplish which progressive liberalism isn't doing already. After all, even if we grant (as I do, at least) that there is something intellectually appealing about the mix of vaguely localist, populist, and socialist values and concerns articulated by Canada's Red Tories and progressive conservatives a half-century ago, something that isn't by definition fatally compromised by the historic taint of the aristocratic landowner and the rich clergyman of yore (a possibility that, as I said above, shouldn't be denied, but has to be confronted and struggled with), there remains the fact that, in the 50 years since, Canada and Great Britain (which is where Blond's ideas arguably may now enjoy a political window of opportunity, though I personally doubt it) and the United States and, really, pretty much the whole of the Western world have become immensely more rich, diverse, complex, interdependent, secular, and individualistic--all of which suggests that Red Toryism, whatever its internal coherence, is less workable and less politically appealing that ever. The usual conservative response is to emphasize the variety of harms which all that liberal progress has visited upon Western states, and thus make cultural conservatism seem more necessary than ever. Blond does exactly that in his essay--and Jacob, mostly, and mostly rightly, makes mincemeat of him:

It is undoubtedly true that there has been a long-term decline in some of those organizations [meaning local governments, trade unions, cooperative societies, civic organizations, etc.]. But, again, there have been variations and cycles, and there is considerable reason to think that the last generation has been better than the one before. At least in the United States...church attendance has shown no measurable decline, and the density of counter-establishment civil society institutions (schools, media outlets, churches, and more) created by fundamentalist Protestants over that time has been stunning. This does nothing for my social capital, but it’s simply false to think that the last generation has seen some new collapse of the intermediate institutions of civil society. It seems to me that Blond is uninterested in such historical niceties, and that he is pronouncing the conservative’s eternal complaint.

For my part, I believe there are plenty of reasons for cultural pessimism, and consequently some room to speak of broad social disorder and decline. But Blond does not, at least not in the aforementioned article, put the emphasis on the proper set of causes--that is, the socio-economic ones, the (let's be blunt) Marxist ones, of social power and inequality. Both he and Deneen are eloquent about the "conspiracy between the state and the market," but neither explain, I think, very clearly exactly why the concentration of power which contemporary government bureaucracies and business corporations enjoy is so resist to the sort of freedom enabled through the application of liberal policies as to necessitate the development of a different, new (or old?) ideological approach. After all, as Jacob ably documents (and reiterates in his response to Patrick), individual freedom enables persons to "create and inhabit and maintain and perpetuate [civic] organizations and institutions"; so why isn't the answer just more liberal freedom?

As I have argued before when speaking of the place of Marxian categories when thinking through the question of localism and traditionalism, Marxism, and socialist thought more generally, concentrates our attention upon basic Rousseauian insights into the production of dependency and alienation in and through individualistic modern life. That's not the only place to find those arguments, of course, and just as surely one may not find them persuasive, but at least that way of thinking puts the proper questions on the table, ones that a liberal like Jacob and a communitarian like Blond (whether he would accept the label or not) can argue over, rather than making it a slam-dunk for those who would paint Red Toryism as a media stunt. As I put it then:

Marx...recognized the truth of the Burkean (though for him it was really more Hegelian, and therefore Rousseauian) insight into the connection between consciousness and communal, historical, material reality. Repairing the human consciousness did not mean a continuing project of subjective liberation, with the aim of making the burdens of modernity privately manageable, but rather addressing issues of power and and place and production that make the transformations of modernity--and most particularly the spaital ones, with solid traditions and properties and roles and locales evaporating into the thin air of free trade and the cash economy--into alienating burdens in the first place....The Rousseauian perspective says, okay, our original, grounded nature has been lost, we're in chains....Rousseau's response (to this problem, and thus Marx's too) preserves true conservative seriousness...it respects the need for embeddedness and connection by suggesting that we remake our chains--that we remake modernity, and resist those who would portray our restless condition as a fait accompli, the emergence of which was inherent to our natures. Why can we do that? Because within and through modernity the deep structure abides; we're just having difficulties actualizing it, because we've been so intent in fighting internecine battles within liberalism that we've ignored all the other ways in which we could be responding to the world.

Of course my language in that final sentence anticipates a reference to the old liberal-communitarian argument, which Jacob also notes:

[Blond's argument] is much the same [as the] complaint that surfaced in Anglo-American political theory in the 1980s and came to be labeled "communitarianism"...One of the most important pieces of writing from that era’s denouement was Michael Walzer’s "The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism"...and [in that article] Walzer saw, as Blond does not, that communitarianism is a permanent feature of and within the life of modern liberal societies, not a root-and-branch critique of them. Its value is corrective--to round sharp corners, soften rough edges, and slow rather than reverse changes.

I've used that very article multiple times before, and Jacob and I can continue to argue over what it conclusively demonstrates and what it doesn't (for what it's worth, I interpret Walzer's argument as foregrounding the question of substantial--meaning moral or cultural or metaphysical--commitments; liberalism can provide a substantive politics, but it can also be a way of involving oneself in a politics with a different, non-liberal substantive grounding). Either way, the point for this post is that Blond, in simply writing off Rousseau (as Jacob smartly puts it, "Blond’s depiction Rousseau has just enough truth in it to be wildly misleading"), Blond empties his attempted articulation of a Red Tory position of exactly that kind of substantively socio-economic critique that someone who truly wants to talk about how the alienating and undemocratic concentrations of political and economic power needs to be countered by promoting and equalizing communities simply must have.

As I said before, I still need to read Blond's book; what I'm dealing with here, and what I am using to frame my response to Jacob's trenchant criticism, is something less than Blond's complete Red Tory argument. Perhaps he has developed, or at least points the way towards developing, a persuasive "party idea" that democratically partakes of both conservatism and socialism equally, and does so without the help of Rousseau, Marx, or anything drawn from the actual egalitarian tradition that animated those who first articulated the Red Tory label a half-century ago. Perhaps--but I am doubtful. In the meantime, Jacob has obliged me to raise the philosophical bar for Blond's arguments even higher...but he hasn't convinced me that, whatever the limitations of his own articulation of this particular ideological vision, the vision itself isn't worth continuing to pursue.

If Any "Friendship Coach" Tries to Mess With my Daughters and Their Friends, I Swear I Will Kick Their Ass

It is, of course, pointless and silly to allow oneself to get worked up over another one the NYT's patented create-controversy-and-concern-out-of-a-no-doubt-minute-slice-of-upper-middle-class-New-York-life Style section articles, but I can't help myself: the bone-headedness expressed in this piece on "The End of the Best Friend" (hat tip: Aeon J. Skoble) just pissed me off to no end:

Most children naturally seek close friends. In a survey of nearly 3,000 Americans ages 8 to 24 conducted last year by Harris Interactive, 94 percent said they had at least one close friend. But the classic best-friend bond — the two special pals who share secrets and exploits, who gravitate to each other on the playground and who head out the door together every day after school — signals potential trouble for school officials intent on discouraging anything that hints of exclusivity, in part because of concerns about cliques and bullying....

As the calendar moves into summer, efforts to manage friendships don’t stop with the closing of school. In recent years Timber Lake Camp, a co-ed sleep-away camp in Phoenicia, N.Y., has started employing “friendship coaches” to work with campers to help every child become friends with everyone else. If two children seem to be too focused on each other, the camp will make sure to put them on different sports teams, seat them at different ends of the dining table or, perhaps, have a counselor invite one of them to participate in an activity with another child whom they haven’t yet gotten to know.

“I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for a child to rely on one friend,” said Jay Jacobs, the camp’s director. “If something goes awry, it can be devastating. It also limits a child’s ability to explore other options in the world.”

This is, on so many levels, such complete nonsense. Can I find anything to salvage from the piece whatsoever? Oh sure, the concerns about the way really close friendship pairs can form the basis for exclusion and vindictiveness are grounded in reality. And as children grow out of adolescence and into their teen-age years and romantic and sexual feelings enter the picture, discouraging young people from devoting themselves too much, and too early, to exclusive one-on-one relationships is I think frankly wise. (This is one of the reasons Melissa and I keep tabs on who our oldest is hanging out with, and laid down the law about no dating before she turns 16.) But these concerns, as legitimate as they are, have nothing whatsoever to do with the heart of the article. It's central thesis is that there are people who apparently feel quite responsible and legitimated in disrupting and separating two kids who find in each other exactly the support-system, the source of humor and joy, the mutually constructed social identity, that many of us want and need. And this is not condemned by the article (though, to the author's credit, some countering voices are brought in, to make the point that "close childhood friendships not only increase a child’s self-esteem and confidence, but also help children develop the skills for healthy adult relationships--everything from empathy, the ability to listen and console, to the process of arguing and making up"). But that is too little, too late. What we are given, overall, is a portrait of supposedly smart people extending their anti-bullying campaigns into that presumably suspicious realm of childhood friends, and we are to accept this as just another development, for good or for ill, of contemporary life. Well, bullshit.

Again, I know it's crazy to get worked up over another stupid style piece from our paper of record. But please, people--if through some bizarre accident there are actually people who read and take seriously both this blog and the New York Times, I plead with you to cut out this article (or print it out) and then ritually burn it. I am not speaking from offended memory here: I didn't have a best friend growing up, and really don't think I wanted one. Lots of kids don't. But on the other hand, lots of kids do; they need their pairs, their fellows, their gang, their peeps. I can see it in a couple of my daughters. Our oldest has many good friends, but no great friends, and she likes it that way; she is, at heart, a reader and a bit of a loner. But our second oldest, by contrast, is a social creature, as well as a rather commanding one, the sort of girl who might be tempted to see her friends as extensions of herself. The fact that she has found someone (a girl her own age, in a neighborhood down the street, someone she got to know through school and Girl Scouts) with whom she is "best friends," someone she can and does do just about everything with (or everything age-appropriate, anyway), has been both a source of happiness and a blessing to her, stabilizing and maturing her, as she has learned to share with and respect another person, and receive the same in return. If some "friendship coach" at their elementary school tried to break them apart on the playground, in the name of, I don't know, "diversifying their portfolio of friendships," or some such garbage, I would not hold myself responsible for my actions. Neither should any caring parent, I think.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Managerial Expertise, Yes! Vision and Leadership, Not So Much

There were two key passages in President Obama's speech last night, I think; one came near the beginning, the other near the end. First:

You know, for generations, men and women who call this region home have made their living from the water. That living is now in jeopardy. I've talked to shrimpers and fishermen who don't know how they're going to support their families this year. I've seen empty docks and restaurants with fewer customers--even in areas where the beaches are not yet affected. I've talked to owners of shops and hotels who wonder when the tourists will start to come back. The sadness and anger they feel is not just about the money they've lost. It's about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost. I refuse to let that happen. Tomorrow, I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company's recklessness.


For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we have talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires....[T]oday, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude. We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny....Each of us has a part to play in a new future that will benefit all of us. As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of good, middle-class jobs--but only if we accelerate that transition....

Now, there are costs associated with this transition. And some believe we can't afford those costs right now. I say we can't afford not to change how we produce and use energy--because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater. So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party--as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels....But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet. You see, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is our capacity to shape our destiny--our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we're unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don't yet know precisely how to get there. We know we'll get there.

What do I get out of these two passages? From the first, I get compassion, but a fairly narrow compassion, one that elicits a sense of determination more managerial than moral. What is at stake in the Gulf Coast right now, thanks to the unprecedented environmental catastrophe caused by the oil spill? An entire "way of life may be lost." How to conceptualize an enormity like that, address it, and respond to it? Obama chooses to do what, frankly, is the obvious thing to do in our complex, late capitalist world: issue checks. British Petroleum will be required to "set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company's recklessness." That some of the harm felt in the wake of this catastrophe may not be able to be strictly accounted for in terms of declining revenues and property values, that it may have at least as much to do with health and stability and beauty and history...well, unfortunately, BP and the government can't do anything about that. Which means, really, that neither agency can really get a handle on what it means to speak of a "way of life" at all. Ways of life are developed, one must suppose, by ordinary people over the ordinary course of time, something that has to happen completely separate from (though in the midst of) the foremost imperatives of our present economic and legal regimes: totaling up costs, assessing fines, and mailing out the compensation bonuses.

I'm not arguing that such an approach is wrong. On the contrary, while I recognize that the principle of damages and compensations, torts and liabilities can be abused, I'm more or less completely in favor of such, and will remain so as long as we live in the midst of economic and legal regimes which treat the natural environments within which people live and ways of life develop as property that corporations can buy, sell, develop, and abuse, within minimal democratic accountability to the communities their decisions affect. So yes, make BP pay! But at the same time, such an approach is profoundly limited. As my friend Nate Oman points out (though he comes at this from a very different direction than I), relying upon complaints and judgments fails to provide even the stability which private insurance supposedly can, and creates a "feast or famine" mentality which has problems all its own. Most importantly (and here I disagree with Nate's argument), talk compensation for corporate recklessness is, at best, a limited and secondary way to establish norms for civil discourse--by which I mean, the ability of people to talk to one another, learn from and lean upon one another, to take responsibility for and make authoritative decisions regarding the communities and environments (both civil and natural) within which they live. BP still has the power; they still have the deep-water wells; they're still the corporation (or one of them, anyway) which provides the jobs and the infrastructure and the wealth around which so much of life (again, both natural and civil) in the Gulf Coast has developed, and become dependent upon. All you're really doing is forcing the local boss (or bully, or big-time operator; take your pick) to shell out some extra change, to help you, the ones whose way of life was affected, to pick up the pieces (perhaps by picking up and moving on). Consider David Kurtz's thoughts:

The Gulf is not a pristine environment. If your only exposure to the Gulf has been on the beaches of Florida, you might convince yourself that the Gulf is a deep blue aquatic wilderness. But as you travel west, the beaches give way to the marshes of the Mississippi delta, which are crisscrossed by oil and gas pipelines, manmade canals, and flood control levees. Further west, in Texas, the beaches reemerge, but shipping canals, giant refineries, and petrochemical factories persist. Over the horizon, in the Gulf itself, thousands of oil and gas wells pump night and day....

The Deepwater Horizon disaster is as organic a product of human processes in the Gulf as Hurricane Katrina was a product of natural processes. Shipping, flood control, and natural resource extraction have taken a nearly century-long toll on the coast. The Gulf has been abused, exploited, fouled and taken for granted for so long and with such consistency that the shock and horror over this one incident becomes in its own way a salve for our consciences....The spill is...like the ruination an alcoholic leaves in his wake. You can clean up the mess, try to prevent it from happening again, and hope for the best. But as long as he's still drinking, disaster looms.

What would I have liked to hear from the president? Not necessarily more "anger"; anger is a limited rhetorical tool, and besides Obama clearly doesn't do it well. But, for better or worse, leadership in democratic politics (especially in mass polities like our own), is in part theatrical; it involves expressing themes and harnessing attention, so as to build passion and cultivate awareness, to enable citizens and voters to see themselves in an interconnected and responsible light. Moral breadth was called for. But in invoking the "way of life" of the Gulf Coast, and then making it, ultimately, about financial costs which must be paid, Obama made himself more narrowly into a smart, committed insurance actuary, rather than a leader trying to transform the debate.

Which is especially unfortunate, considering that the primary focus of the second (or actually third; talking about the mechanics of the clean-up came first) portion of this speech was exactly the aforementioned ruination which our society's oil addiction wrecks upon our lives. In that portion, he truly needed to holistically express the deeply entwined forces , expectations, worries and consequences which this disaster lays bear, not just for the Gulf Coast, but for the whole nation. But what I got from the second passage isn't much of this; what I got was mostly, again, technical determination and ambition, rather than a broad (encompassing both regrets and hopes) moral concern for what it really means to make wealthy, complicated, post-industrial society like our own capable of re-orienting its energy uses in profound ways. True, the president did talk about the "tragedy" in the Gulf of Mexico, and he did talk about the "costs" of transition. But mostly he was a booster, a calm and serious salesman of possibilities. Green communities, clean-energy jobs, American ingenuity, shaping our own destiny: all the usual highlights of America's famed self-confidence were there, expertly expressed. Ezra Klein and Bradford Plumer are far more conventional liberals than I, and even both of them listened to the president and heard mostly just the classic technical and managerial promises of pragmatic liberal governance: working hand-in-hand with business to make "clean energy profitable"; trusting that, with the right kind of public-private partnerships, "technology can come along and save us". Perhaps that's an unfair reading of Klein and Plumer, not to mention Obama. But the fact remains that, despite his very nice concluding words about the prayers being voiced for shrimping fleets throughout the Gulf region, Obama never demonstrated a conviction that his plans for an oil-spill free and less oil-addicted future might involve chastened rethinking, rather than just ambitious new thoughts.

I'm probably a broken record on this point, but at least I'm not alone. President Jimmy Carter, thirty-one years ago, took the high road, connecting the nation's at-that-time devastating energy crisis--a crisis which was generating profound despair and distrust about the fundamentals of the America's consumer economy, as well as opening a window to real rethinking of those fundamentals--to the need to struggle against a presumption of powerlessness, a presumption that the United States can't really govern itself, because the problems it faced were too complex and its people too selfish. It was a harsh speech, one that has been poorly (and unfairly) treated by history, one that had as it's most crucial element a degree of humility: specifically, a willingness to allow that America was doing some things wrong, and that resolving the crisis would have to involve change, not just going more or the same things in a more closely regulated, better funded, more determined way. If President Obama truly wants to change the debate, to introduce and reframe the many problems which this catastrophe as unveiled for the public at large, than he needed, I think, to show not just a mastery of all the ways in which people of good will and good ideas can come together to make business as usual a safer, fairer, better compensated and more trustworthy endeavor, as valuable as those things assuredly are. He needed to show, also, a recognition that "end[ing] America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels" really might involve altering, even repenting of, the way of life which sustains that addiction. But again, unfortunately, when Obama spoke last night of ways of life, he showed real compassion and devotion to repairing all the different compartments of it...but little vision of how it all comes together, and how the bad is dragged in along with the good. I wasn't looking for him to renounce or complain (Carter didn't either, at least not in his speech itself; I won't pretend to defend how he managed his affairs subsequently); I was hoping that he'd show some leadership in pointing out corrections which must be made, and not just repairs.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Will Political Theory (and Science) "Long Survive"?

Alan Jacobs, after making some pertinent, pointed, and appropriately smart-alecky comments about some recent, rather vague talk about how to "save the humanities" (make them more publicity-minded, more digital, and "bigger," apparently), throws out his own two cents:

I will say one thing about my own discipline: humanities centers or no humanities centers, I do not think that the study of literature will long survive as an independent concern within universities. I think by the time I retire literature will be studied only as part of two other disciplines: rhetoric and cultural history. And while that will be unfortunate in some ways, it won't be the worst thing that ever happened to literature.

Not being a literature person, I don't know how best to think about this prophecy, aside from noting that it would mean the end of jokes about English majors. But it does prompt me to wonder: will my own field--political theory, and even more broadly, political science--long survive? I think so, because I think we're in better shape than literature, when you look at how classes, budgets, requirements, and enrollments are spread across the American academy, from its self-important research one heights to its humble community and liberal arts college depths. But that certainly doesn't mean we'll flourish, at least not in the way graduate schools have been teaching their PhDs to assume the discipline will flourish over the past half-decade or so. Were I to put on Alan's prognosticating hat, and look forward to when I retire (say in 25 years, when I'm my late 60s), I guess I wouldn't be surprised to see, outside of a few select or otherwise well-insulated institutions, political theory essentially absent from political science departments--political philosophy and ethics, done by philosophers, legal scholars, and the occasional political scientist with a cross-appointment, could easily hollow out "political theory" as its own wholly unique subfield. And as for political science itself, I could see it as increasingly conjoined, both conceptually and in terms of actual departments--though probably not by name; I would imagine a lot of shared degree programs here--with either history (possibly to the benefit of Americanists, some comparativists, and what might be considered the more methodologically "conservative" of political theorists) or international studies (perhaps to the benefit of those who do international relations, other sorts of comparative politics, and comparative/non-Western and more "radical" political theory). Constitutional and public law will, I might guess, be sucked away entirely into various pre-law and masters of law programs, and public administration has been moving towards the business schools and the economics departments for a while now. So there you go: political science, circa 2035, might easily mean joint political science/history or political science/international studies departments, with theory courses being rarely taught, with most of that happening over in philosophy (which itself would likely have merged with religion and/or general humanities programs).

Pretty sad? Yes and no; it some ways, the end of political science as its own separate claim to social science thinking might make the study of politics and government a little more interesting to those who care to engage in it. But it any case, I'm just speculating here. Your thoughts, if any?

Friday Morning Videos: "Self-Control"

How many vaguely disquieting, borderline-masochistic, possibly auto-erotic sexual allusions or references can be packed into a single video? Now you know the answer.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Forget the Superbowl...

...and forget its commercials. The 2010 World Cup--which begins in South Africa this Friday--is the occasion for rapacious multinational corporations like Nike to pull out all the stops in order to get nearly a billion people to watch, cheer themselves hoarse, and spend money. And boy, do we ever:

I was obsessive over the World Cup in 2002. Possibly because it took place in South Korea, possibly because to the classic showdown in the final between Germany and Brazil, but mostly, I think, because of this awesome commercial:

Tossing around an oblong brown stitched faux-leather ball in American English just can't visually compete, I guess.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Oh man.

I was in a melancholy mood, and did what we all do when we feel that way: went searching for clips on Youtube. Man, the things you can find on there...like an early Elvis Costello tv appearance, singing his song the way it was meant to be sung.

Sometimes, you find exactly the clip you need.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Friday Morning Videos: "Goodbye to You"

Everyone remembers their "Warrior" song, but this was the single where Scandal really showed their stuff.