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Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Little Tam Lin for the Holiday, Please

An old, spooky, sexually ambiguous and seasonally appropriate Scottish ballad, as sung by Fairport Convention. Watch out for the faerie folk tonight, everybody. And happy Halloween! (For a more civic-minded approach to Halloween--an approach I heartily endorse--check out Tim Burke.)

I forbid you maidens all that wear gold in your hair
To travel to Carter Hall for young Tam Lin is there

None that go by Carter Hall but they leave him a pledge
Either their mantles of green or else their maidenhead

Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee
And she's gone to Carter Hall as fast as go can she

She'd not pulled a double rose, a rose but only two
When up there came young Tam Lin says "Lady, pull no more"

"And why come you to Carter Hall without command from me?"
"I'll come and go", young Janet said, "and ask no leave of thee"

Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee
And she's gone to her father as fast as go can she

Well, up then spoke her father dear and he spoke meek and mild
"Oh, and alas, Janet," he said, "I think you go with child"

"Well, if that be so," Janet said, "myself shall bear the blame
There's not a knight in all your hall shall get the baby's name

For if my love were an earthly knight as he is an elfin grey
I'd not change my own true love for any knight you have"

Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee
And she's gone to Carter Hall as fast as go can she

"Oh, tell to me, Tam Lin," she said, "why came you here to dwell?"
"The Queen of Faeries caught me when from my horse I fell

And at the end of seven years she pays a tithe to hell
I so fair and full of flesh and feared it be myself

But tonight is Hallowe'en and the faery folk ride
Those that would their true love win at Miles Cross they must buy

So first let past the horses black and then let past the brown
Quickly run to the white steed and pull the rider down

For I'll ride on the white steed, the nearest to the town
For I was an earthly knight, they give me that renown

Oh, they will turn me in your arms to a newt or a snake
But hold me tight and fear not, I am your baby's father

And they will turn me in your arms into a lion bold
But hold me tight and fear not and you will love your child

And they will turn me in your arms into a naked knight
But cloak me in your mantle and keep me out of sight"

In the middle of the night she heard the bridle ring
She heeded what he did say and young Tam Lin did win

Then up spoke the Faery Queen, an angry queen was she
Woe betide her ill-fought face, an ill death may she die

"Oh, had I known, Tam Lin," she said, "what this knight I did see
I have looked him in the eyes and turned him to a tree"

Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Morning Videos: "Rock With You"

Last year, it was Michael Jackson's most outrageous, most ostentatious (and, in retrospect, considering what happened became of his career afterward, most ominous) video production. This year, let's go with something closer to his original charm.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I'm Less Than 30% Elitist! (How About You?)

Via the wonderful Camassia, I learn that Charles Murray is warning us all about the new elitists out there, and that one helpful blogger has turned his warnings into a handy quiz. Let's take it, shall we?

Q. Can you talk about "Mad Men?" A. I know the name of the main character, and I know it takes place in New York in the early 60s. That's about it, so "No."
Q. Can you talk about the "The Sopranos?" A. Again, I can name the main character, and I know it takes place in present-day New Jersey. So again, "No."
Q. Do you know who replaced Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right?" A. Oh come on, ask something hard.
Q. Have you watched an Oprah show from beginning to end? A. Never once.
Q. Can you hold forth animatedly about yoga? A. I've learned a couple of positions from my wife, who is passionate about it and takes local classes our YMCA, but really, the answer is "No."
Q. How about pilates? A. Also no.
Q. How about skiing? A. Nope.
Q. Mountain biking? A. No. Street bike racing or bicycle commuting though, I can definitely hold my own
Q. Do you know who Jimmie Johnson is? A. No.
Q. Does the acronym MMA mean anything to you? A. No.
Q. Can you talk about books endlessly? A. Absolutely.
Q. Have you ever read a "Left Behind" novel? A. No.
Q. How about a Harlequin romance? A. I'm not sure. I was fourteen or fifteen, and the main character was a woman whose husband didn't understand her, and there was plenty of panting and heaving breasts. I bet that counts as a "Yes."
Q. Do you take interesting vacations? A. Well, I think they're often interesting, because I find my colleagues and family and friends--in Washington DC or Kansas City or Dallas or Portland or Salt Lake City or Seattle or St. Louis interesting. I kind of suspect that the answers Charles Murray is looking for would oblige me to answer "No," however.
Q. Do you know a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada? A. I've only ever driven through them.
Q. What about an exquisite B&B overlooking Boothbay Harbor? I had to Google "Boothbay Harbor" to find out where that was.
Q. Would you be caught dead in an RV? A. I'd rather not die in one, but while growing up our family traveled in ours all over the country. Does that count?
Q. Would you be caught dead on a cruise ship? A. Melissa and I took one cruise back in 1997, when the family business was doing pretty well and my parents sprang for a trip for their married children, but to be honest, it really wasn't our cup of tea. The whole experience seemed like a conspiracy to keep us eating and buying tourist crap, and we never spent a decent amount of time in any port; however can you explore the art galleries in St. Maarten if you have to be back on the ship by 2pm? So basically, I'll have to answer "No" to this one.
Q. Have you ever heard of of Branson, Mo? A. Oh give me a break. We lived in Arkansas, dude; we took the kids to Silver Dollar City and spent a couple of days in Branson. Still have a t-shirt from there too.
Q. Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club? A. No.
Q. How about the Rotary Club? A. No.
Q. Have you lived for at least a year in a small town? A. How small? We spent two years spent in towns of under 10,000 in Mississippi and Illinois, and three years in a town of 50,000 in Arkansas. And now we live in Kansas. By the measurements of many of my students here, we still have never lived in a truly "small town."
Q. Have you lived for a year in an urban neighborhood in which most of your neighbors did not have college degrees? A. If the inner suburbs of Wichita count as an "urban neighborhood," then yes, we've spent the last five years living in exactly such a place.
Q. Have you spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line? A. Oh don't get me started.
Q. Do you have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian? A. Several.
Q. Have you ever visited a factory floor? Yes.
Q. Have you worked on one? A. If a chicken-processing plant counts, then the answer is "Yes."

I suppose Murray might want to dispute some of my answers, but by the strictest reading of the quiz, I give only 8 "elistist" answers out of 27, meaning I am less than 30% out of touch with the common man. I knew it! I am, to quote Murray, not only someone who loves my country, but I am (or at least 70% of me is) "of it" as well.

There is, of course, a serious point to speculations about elitism; I wouldn't be so fond of populism if I didn't think so. But Murray is, by and large, just riffing off the complaints of the Tea Party and bunch of half-baked generalizations that, were they really thought through seriously (such as: "What are the cultural consequences of global capitalism's undermining of the options for social advancement which blue-collar factory jobs once provided for the urban working class?") could be part of strong critique of America's religiously and regionally stratified society...but in his hands, barely amount to more than what you might see in one of David Brooks's weaker columns. ("This just in: Harvard graduates are woefully uninformed about Carrie Underwood's dating habits.") The truth is, of course, that I'm a member of the "elite," as almost any member of the academy invariably is, and yet I can pass his quiz with (mostly) flying colors. If nothing else, that ought to be proof to him that whatever the real force of the confusions and animosities which have helped make the Tea Party possible, using their lazy rhetoric as about who the "real Americans" are as a guide for thinking about elitism in America today is a less than brilliant idea.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

If There Was Ever a Good Reminder of the Necessity of the Serial Comma, This is It

Merle Haggard, once married to Robert Duvall and Kris Kristofferson? The mind reels. Someone teach our copy editors some grammar, please.

(Hat tip: Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Aeon Skoble)

Friday Morning Videos: "Land of Confusion"

Last year, it was when Genesis was just breaking into mainstream pop. This year, it's when they dominated it.

Great, cruel, sophomoric, vicious stuff. You all remember Spitting Image, right? No? Well, you probably don't remember Max Headroom either.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Kristen's Favorite Sesame Street Skits

This new Sesame Street number from a few weeks ago has been making the rounds on the internet, and I have to admit, it's a catchy tune, and it says something worth saying as well. But as our youngest daughter, Kristen, is a four-year-old Caucasian with dishwater blond hair, it's not a skit that especially pulled her in when I showed it to her. She was more interested in some classic Sesame Street Muppet bits, which I was more than happy to show her. Pretty quickly, we developing a bit of ranking, based on how completely the bit in question sent her into paroxysms of laughter on the floor.

Number #5: Put Down the Duckie.

(Wasn't there also a version of this with Gladys Knight and the Pips?)

Number #4: C is for Cookie

(For some reason, she found the vague background monster chorus in this bit absolutely hilarious.)

Number #3: Rubber Duckie

(The classic. Kristen pointed out to me that she owns many small duckies, rather than just one large one.

Number #2: Cooperating with the Count

(As soon as the Count appeared, Kristen identified him as a vampire. Apparently the mass media has done its job well.)

Number #1: The Alphabet

(We're probably never going to be able to practice the alphabet again.)

As Goes Reid, So Goes America (Maybe, Unfortunately)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Some excellent reporting, and thinking, on display in Nicholas Lemann's long profile of the Reid-Angle showdown in the latest New Yorker. Lemann has some sharp and funny things to say about Sharron Angle, but mostly his piece is a close and, it must be said, often uncomplimentary study of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Lemann's admiration for Reid's politics is undeniable, but Lemann himself also can't deny just how thoroughly Reid embodies a particularly simple and unsophisticated--even, shall we say, rather vulgar--old-school redistributive liberal politics. He lays out story after story of Reid's famously, even notoriously, hard-scrabble upbringing and personality--raised by a couple of borderline-abusive drunks in an isolated Nevada mining town, hunting for rabbits to meat on the table, starting fistfights with other kids, his father, and his future father-in-law--as well as the roots of his often resentful toughness and thoroughness--the law school dean who told him to give up and drop out, his rough confrontations with gaming officials at the start of his political career--and the conclusion is inescapable: to a degree, Reid exemplifies the outlook of a certain set of poor, rural, pseudo-populist, contemptuous-of-easy-wealth, lacking-in-sensitivity (and how!), unapologetic boot-strap climbers that helped give us FDR and the New Deal (as well as, in Louisiana, Huey "Every Man a King" Long). Lemann sums up:

[Reid] took personal umbrage at George W. Bush. “I have made no secret of my antipathy toward the second President Bush...an ideologue who has done incalculable damage to the government, reputation, and moral standing of the United States of America”....Late in his Presidency, Bush summoned Reid to the White House and tried to appease him. “I never went to Kennebunkport as a kid,” Reid recalls. “I never went anywhere. And I’ve got no blue blood in my veins, just some desert sand. So as he and I sat there in the Oval Office, I said little in return.”

Other than a few close relationships, like the ones with his wife, Landra, and with Mike O’Callaghan, what most reliably draws warmth from Reid’s tempered-steel heart is New Deal liberalism. He likes to say that his parents’ religion was Franklin D. Roosevelt; practically the only good thing that ever happened in the life of his father was joining a union. “The American government is the greatest force for good in the history of mankind”; Social Security is “the greatest social program since the fishes and loaves.” Sig Rogich, a Nevada adman who worked in George H. W. Bush’s White House, and who, like most establishment Republicans in Nevada, is backing Reid over Sharron Angle, told me that during many evenings at his house he and Reid have relaxed to old Woody Guthrie songs on the CD player—“poignant songs about society and the poor.”

I have no idea if I'd like Reid in person, and I kind doubt he'd like me; I'd be too soft for him, and it doesn't seem like he has room in his life for a great many friends anyway. But I basically support him. Part of the reason for that is simply tribal, but not all of it. There's also the thankless (and sometimes nigh-incomprehensibly contorted) process of getting health care reform through our dysfunctional Senate. Actually, I suppose, the two are tied together--I happen to believe that efforts of make at least some minimal health care coverage more broadly available (which, whatever my many complaints with it, the Affordable Care Act does accomplish) is a religious duty, a duty which Reid faithfully performed. But there is, to my mind, a great misfortune in all of this, one which Reid also exemplifies quite well. The health care reform debate, to my mind, offered the opportunity of a serious engagement with the particulars of our state and corporate capitalist system--an opportunity for us to really ask ourselves what should be handled socially and what should be handled privately, and what forms of public and private associations could handle such things, and what level of public handling (local or state or national) would best. And of course, we didn't get anything like that, or hardly did. The Obama administration never truly pushed for a public option, or really any kind of single-payer plan; private insurers and other corporate interests were compromised with from the start; the democratization or diversification of health care coverage was never as important as streamlining the bottom-line--and, of course, such overriding cost-controls are always best done in a top-down way, or so our managerial culture assures us. And so health care, like financial reform, like so much else, becomes boiled down in our national political debates to a crummy either-or choice: either centralized regulation and provision to supplement and restrict (but never truly challenge) the market, or the cutting-back on or outright abandonment of regulation and provision entirely (leaving the market free to spread its opportunities around, at least insofar as the powerful corporate players in the market allow it to, which they usually don't).

Reid, I strongly suspect, sees nothing wrong with this choice whatsoever; he's on the liberal side, and that's good enough for him. And to be sure, when times are good and the market is booming, that's good enough for plenty of his fellow citizens as well. But times aren't always good--and it is especially when they aren't that one really poignantly wishes that someone had some other way of approaching social problems in their repertoire. Lemann doesn't share this wishing, I believe...but I think it comes out, all the same, in his conclusion:

Recessions weren’t supposed to happen in Las Vegas; even the September 11th attacks created just a brief downward blip. Over twenty years, Las Vegas became the conspicuous-consumption capital of the world. Then, beginning in 2007, and escalating in 2008 and 2009, Nevada went spectacularly bust. Last year, the state lost population for the first time since the Great Depression....Reid reacted to the bust just as you would expect. He helped extend unemployment benefits, gave special aid to schools so they wouldn’t have to lay off teachers, secured money for potentially job-rich alternative-energy projects in the desert, and funded foreclosure-prevention counselling. One of the less nationally heralded pieces of Obama Administration legislation was the Travel Promotion Act of 2009, which creates a publicly funded vehicle to advertise abroad for tourism to American destinations, such as Las Vegas. Reid made that happen....

People go to Nevada to loosen the bonds of traditional society and try something new. What has happened there over the past twenty years is a particularly American version of the economic cycle. European governments get into trouble by overloading on pensions and other expensive benefits; American governments get into trouble by practicing a kind of casino liberalism, in which credit flows too easily, everybody goes too deeply into debt, and if the growth ever stops, everything crashes. Now Nevadans are being presented with a great clash of social visions: help from Washington with Reid versus less of Washington with Angle. The stakes are real, not rhetorical. Reid’s reëlection campaign is about the role of government in the United States. Obama’s reëlection campaign will be about that, too.

If I could really believe that the last two years had led people to maybe, just maybe, actually rethink what it means to create the conditions for "casino liberalism," and perhaps come up with alternatives to it, then this election would excite me. But it doesn't. The options for rethinking our state and corporate-dominated liberal capitalist economy--whether distributist-localist or socialist-anarchist--are out there...but from what I can tell, the Tea Parties aren't talking about them, and the Democrats sure aren't either. Instead, it's "protect Social Security and Medicare!" on one side, and "Repeal Obamacare (but leave Social Security and Medicare alone)!" on the other, as if those were really the most meaningful constitutional issues which the past two years have provided for us. But such appears to be our fate.

Lemann sees the the Reid-Angle contest as a thoroughly national one; a referendum on the Obama administration. George Will says the same thing about the West Virginia senate race; E.J. Dionne says the same about House races in Ohio. It's the same all over. No doubt some people are terribly excited about what will happen in voting booths all across the country in twelve days, but I don't think there's much basis for that excitement. Patrick Deneen said it well:

Anti-Washington fever will rise to dizzying heights in coming days. The chattering classes will conclude that Americans have a firm idea of their destiny, choosing one party over another in coming days. Few will understand that the source of our loathing will be the division within ourselves. The divided government we will embrace is the division in our souls: two versions of democracy. In the one version, democracy is rugged individualism. In the other, democracy is a gentler concern that no one should be left behind. Both are fantasies born of bad modern anthropology.

I want to pursue ends towards which a different anthropology might direct us. But with parties led by people--good people, no doubt, who come to their positions honestly, whatever we may think of the history or personality by which those decisions were made--we have the option of retreating, or fighting. Retreating has some real appeal to it, even if such a lack of civic concern probably isn't very healthy in the long run. But for those of us, for whatever reason, unwilling to retreat, there are the choices before us, and all the usual political calculations. If I were in Nevada, my calculations would lead me to Reid. Maybe. Unfortunately.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Simply Stunning

So I'm sitting here grading midterms and papers, and I need some background music. I start playing around with the beautiful, addictive plaything called the internet, then start getting specific: I want some jazz. No, some classic jazz. Pre-bebop and pre-cool classic jazz. Pre-bebop and pre-cool classic piano jazz. Which basically means, I want to hear some Oscar Peterson, some Fats Waller...and really, ultimately, some Art Tatum, arguably the greatest stride and jazz pianist of all time. And look what I managed to find?

His Tiger Rag is even better. Pure, effortless, amazing genius. Wish grading papers could come so easily.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Just Try To Keep Me Away. Just Try.

Exactly one month from today, I'm there.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday Morning Videos: "Your Love is King"

Sultry, mellow, bluesy jazz and pop: your name is Sade. A smooth operator, indeed.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Professional Goal? To Be an Eccentric Genius Professor

I took classes from a few crazy, fabulous, genius eccentrics during my college years. Well, maybe not "fabulous" eccentrics and crazies, but definitely folks that at least bordered upon your stereotypical absent-minded/obsessive/peculiar/dysfunctional/delightfully weird/what-have-you model of the tenured academic. Some of them I was even good friends with.

There was the wonderfully kind and eminently distractable old-school political theorist, who would start wearing a Tom Baker/Dr. Who-style scarf everywhere he went as soon as frost hit the ground, and who would lecture for an hour and a half on three lines of The Federalist Papers one day and the next day spend an equal amount of time speculating about the theological destiny of the Maori people and telling us about his figs. There was the fellow who lived and studied for years in Europe and whom, as far as I could tell, had never fully recovered from the time change upon returning. Perpetually late--sometimes by as much as 20 minutes--we'd patiently wait for him to rush into class, clad in gym shorts and a windbreaker, breathless from wherever he'd just run from, clunk his omnipresent convenience store jug of Dr. Pepper on the desk (I swear it was a half-gallon in size) and proceed to lecture, stopping only occasionally to slurp. They were two that really stand out. There was also the fellow who'd remove his shoes and sit in a cross-legged yoga pose on his desk while conducting class, but he was completely normal otherwise. Oh, and then there was the political science professor who had a nervous breakdown and left in the middle of class one day, beginning a "sabbatical" that lasted a few years, but that was really more of a kind of sad case than anything else.

These were great people; I learned a lot from them, particularly the barefoot guy on the desk. They inspire to find and cultivate my own personal weirdness in the classroom. And apparently, if Robert Klose is at all correct, I need to get busy with it, because campus crazies are an endangered species:

What has become of the eccentrics in the ranks of our professors? From time to time, when I run into a colleague from another institution, I ask if he or she knows of any such individuals. Almost always, the answer is either "no," or a lengthy pause of consideration before offering up a bland example of an octogenarian who drives a motor scooter....

I recently unearthed one of my college notebooks. On the inside back cover I had caricatured each of my instructors from that particular year. One glance and I immediately recalled the inspirations for my artwork....Professor Gleason was a bumbling biologist whom, due to his generous and ovoid physical proportions, we students had nicknamed "The Egg." He seemed to be totally baffled by his own course material, and managed quite capably to convey this bewilderment to the class, so that none of us knew what the hell was going on....One day he took us down to the banks of the Hackensack River for a field trip. We helped him get the large motorboat into the water, and then the ten of us students looked on from the bank as he worked away at the engine, yanking the pull repeatedly to get it to start. He hadn’t noticed that the boat had begun to drift away, and we had no intention of alerting him. We all watched in silence (and with rising anticipation of a canceled class) as The Egg worked at the engine, his crablike arms too short to extract the pull all the way. Within ten minutes he had drifted out of sight. So we went home....

I miss these people. Or better said, I lament not having colleagues like them in my teaching environment. Where have the outlandish characters gone? My sense is that the nature of the university beast has changed and has had a leveling effect on the spectrum of personalities. As higher education has striven to define itself as a business ("Students are our customers!" chirps a perky poster), there is less tolerance for professors who might--heaven forbid--embarrass the institution and drive the paying public away. The result has been a more rigid screening of applicants for conformity, or, in the lingo of current hiring practices, "institutional fit....Our eccentrics and dreamers and mental drifters have been replaced with pragmaticians who have mapped their courses out with all the precision and predictability of masons building a wall. Nothing is left to the imagination, and even their attempts at humor abrade us specifically because we know they are trying to be funny for our sakes. How much more wonderful it is when a professor makes us laugh because his world is odd, his steps sometimes unsure, his glasses eternally lost upon his head, the toilet seat propped under his arm.

This paean for a lost (or, at least, most disappeared) world of eccentricity fires me up with determination. Not, to be frank, my habits are such as to lead to much absent-minded tomfoolery. I mean, what are my nutty resources, anyway? I am late sometimes. Once I missed a whole class; that was embarrassing (I sat at my desk, checking the clock, somehow certain the class was scheduled to begin at 1:30pm, even though no Friends University class has ever started then). And I've gotten distracted to the point of completely failing to deliver any kind of lecture at all on a few occasions (questions about Star Trek are particularly good for derailing me); I know at least some of my students have filed that knowledge away. What else? Oh, well, I'm terrible with names, and in a weirdly focused way, such that with some students I just never get them right, continuing to refer to them as "Anthony" or "Heather," even though they'd just introduced themselves by their actual names. There are all the jokes about me riding my bike in the rain, of course. And I always wear ties; that stands out. Oh, and the Santa Claus hat during fall semester finals. But no, none of that is truly eccentric; I need to come up with something better. Something involving a toilet seat, maybe. Thank goodness my job here is likely secure enough that I'll have years to work on it.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Beautiful and True

David Hajdu is unfair to Paul McCartney here, but much of what he says is absolutely right:

We know how old John Lennon would have been this Saturday—70—but who he would have been, we can only imagine....Lennon, in his savviness and cynicism, understood how the celebrity culture carries risks of early death—literal death, creative death, or death of the spirit—at the same time it glamorizes that death. "The biggest prize is when you die--a really big one for dying in public," he said in the Playboy interview he did a few months before he died. "Okay--those are the things we are not interested in doing."

He never wanted a death cult, nor a cult in life; Lennon wanted to live, like the rest of us--very much like the rest of us or, more precisely, how he imagined non-celebrities to be living. The life he sought in his last years was essentially a model of middle-age domestic tranquility, a dream vision of ordinariness enacted by an extraordinary man. He rambled around the rambling apartment he shared with Yoko Ono and their young child, Sean; he baked bread; he strolled his son around Central Park and took him to the YMCA for swimming lessons; he watched television and listened to Bing Crosby records. Apart from his having an avant-garde artist wife to handle the business affairs and his having gotten out of the house sometimes to make hit records, Lennon was essentially living the same life as my Aunt Rose.

He seemed to find contentment in an almost parodically conventional grown-up life, a proto-Reagan-era paradigm of domesticity, though his case is radicalized, arguably, by the fact that he was a male rock superstar rather than an Italian-American seamstress like my aunt. That was the last Lennon, apparently the Lennon whom John most wanted to be.

The Beatles changed just about everything. But is comforting, if also sad, to remember that in the end, they couldn't change truly everything. As he grew older, John needed a home. He found one. The most memorable work he and his collaborators created was mostly that of their youth, and that's fine; I did some pretty cool things when I was in my twenties too. But I've got older, lost most of my ambitions, settled down, attached myself to a home. John did too. Nice to know there are good models to follow out there, however happy or said they turn out to be in the end.

Friday Morning Videos: "Opposites Attract"

A year ago it was Paula Abdul, "Straight Up," which was actually pretty awesome. This one, by contrast, makes me want to claw my eyes out. I post it because we need to be reminded of all the reasons why we are actually grateful the 80s eventually ended.

Well, the day can only get better from this point on.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Thoughts on Kuttner's (and Obama's) Peril

Back in September our local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America met, as we do every month, to talk about a book or an essay or two that we've all read (or attempted to). That month the book was Robert Kuttner's A Presidency in Peril, and I wasn't able to be there (because I was doing this). Perhaps that's just as well, as the book focuses primarily on what Obama might have been able to do, but didn't, in regards to reforming Wall Street and restructuring our economy when he took office in 2008...an immensely important topic, to be sure, but the ins and outs of the highest levels of corrupt finance capitalism aren't something I want to spend a great deal of time reading about. But one chapter of the book focuses explicitly on the politics of health care reform, and there my interests are fully engaged. So herewith, though it's too late for our book group, some random thoughts:

Kuttner finished his manuscript and turned it into his publisher before the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act became a reality in March of this year; in fact, the last act he has in that long, frustrating, convoluted drama is the election of Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat back in November. So his comments about health care reform are tied up in one of his larger claims--namely, that Obama unnecessarily created damaging political confusion by deciding to address health care reform immediately (in Kuttner's view, mistake #1), to rely upon the leadership of Congress (mistake #2), and to bring on board powerful health industry interests, like insurers and drug companies (mistake #3) (pp. 224-225). In Kuttner's view, what the people who elected Obama most wanted of him, and what the economic crises of 2008 and 2009 most clearly demanded of him, was comprehensive financial regulative reform, particularly one that reflected the populist frustration with failing and mismanaged banks which required expensive bailouts, and carried with it a punitive edge to appropriately identify and punish those responsible for that mismanagement and failure. Kuttner, in short, believes that pursuing the complex, multi-faceted issue of health care reform, and particularly the way it was pursued, invited all sorts of misunderstandings and mistakes, and dealing with such opened the door to compromises that both worsened the final law and made it ever-easier for its opponents to spin it as an irresponsible and unconstitutional socialist boondoggle. Perhaps his tone was colored by his suspicion that the election of Brown meant the complete end to the effort, but I suspect that even if he'd known that Obama and the Democrats would get a bill passed in the end, he'd still argue that the resulting law wasn't worth the cost.

What was the cost? For Kuttner, it was an opportunity to articulate a "progressive populism," a theme which he has recently made explicit in arguments in his own magazine, The American Prospect, particularly with those who believe that any kind of populist argument is an intellectual dead end. For Kuttner, while not entirely disagreeing with those who point to three-time presidential loser William Jennings Bryan as exemplifying "a know-nothing spasm of class resentment," believes that:

there are times when economic progress precisely requires displacing the malign influence of economic elites. What these broad-brush critiques [of Bryan] invariably miss is the fact that there is an ugly version of populism that scape-goats foreigners, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, and others, and a constructive one that correctly identifies powerful economic forces that are blocking reform. Bryan had elements of both. But Roosevelt and Truman offered a progressive brand of populism, which was successful politics as well as economics (p. 221).

Kuttner takes it as an article of faith that "when progressive reformers fail to address popular grievances, the right fills the gap"; for him, the rise of the Tea Parties, and indeed all the usual resentments one finds whenever individuals with progressive ideas win elections, come down to economic and class concerns that have to be addressed somehow, by someone: "if progressives don't tell a coherent story about the culpability of rapacious elites and work to restore some balance to the economy, right-wing populists are happy to supply the narrative" (pp. 212, 221). This is much to simplistic, to be simplistic about it. Yes, of course, there is something which gets labeled "populism" that associates the causes of socio-economic and cultural dislocations and frustrations--I think usually wrongly--with foreigners and untrustworthy Others, and there is another thing called "populism" which associates those same things--I think usually rightly--with the destructive effects of finance capitalism. But to suppose that "the people" have "grievances," and will take those grievances in one direction or another, depending on who sells them the most enraging story first, is condescending in the extreme.

I don't dissent for a moment from Kuttner's indictment of Obama's unreflective relationship with (even dependence upon) Wall Street experts and corporate industrial leaders. I don't expect him to be a Christian socialist and start criticizing people with great wealth (though I wouldn't mind it if he did), but I did expect him to recognize the need to pursue some truly genuine alternatives in how money is managed, how banks are regulated, and how medical costs are distributed in this country...and while the jury is still out on how many of the reforms which the past two very busy years have brought the country will ultimately function (assuming they do), the preliminary conclusion is obvious: Obama has not pushed populist reforms, but rather pretty mainstream, technocratic liberal changes, ones which accept the consequences of late-modern finance capitalism and mainly just hope to make it slightly easier for some otherwise usually excluded people to make the most of the economic opportunities which that system presents. I've said this before (multiple times, in fact), so I have no disagreements with Kuttner's presentation of the health care reform mess, correct?

Correct...but also incorrect. He correctly notes that the twilight struggle over a Medicare buy-in plan, or some other sort of public option, was the last real moment in which health care reform could have claimed to have been anything more than just a much-needed welfare program, and instead be something about putting health care collective into the hands of the people. Obama supported it, weakly, in principle. But he didn't strongly believe in it--and when Lieberman (for whom my contempt remains) "pronounced it a deal-breaker, in part because the liberals liked it so much and the insurance companies didn't" (p. 231), he was more than happy to see it go away, just so a bill could pass. (There has been some push-back on this story, but Kuttner's account of seems solid.) So, yes, Kuttner's right about the president's unwillingness to rally behind even the slightest serious populist policies while pushing health care reform. But Kuttner has little grasp of why those populist policies are what they are. "Populism," for him, is the poor-vs.-the rich, and really not much else. This is why he is capable of looking at Bryan and seeing in him half good-populist, half bad-populist. But Bryan is, in fact, an exponent of a far more comprehensive appreciation of what it means to stand with "the people" then Kuttner can imagine.

The core of Bryan’s arguments in the 1890s and early 1900s was form of “producerism.” He advocated policies which would privilege farmers and local manufacturers; his defense of the culture of the working man (and, yes, that did mean he had a specific gender and, to a lesser degree, racial picture of who that "working man" was) was all bound up with the defense and empowerment of small, mostly self-sustaining communities which such working people could be a part of. His condemnation of monopolies and trusts, his desire to regulate the railroads--all that and more was grounded in his conviction that real autonomy and equality depended upon a socio-economic structure in which the power over loans, prices, wages and currency was kept in local and public hands, rather than concentrated in private (and therefore invariably distant and elite) ones. This reveals the essentially conservative element of populist arguments--and the way in which a populist like Bryan, in combining what Kuttner calls both the good and the bad forms of populism, was in fact being as true to the complicated needs and hopes of majority of people. Ordinary people--in which I include myself, and probably most of those who read this as well--are by and large not happy with their livelihoods, and the productive heart of their communities, being taken away from them by decisions made by distant political and corporate elites; they would prefer to conserve their way of life against the ravages of distant, privileged others. This concern for conserving locality, and demanding collective reforms to make it possible--the demand for public ownership of the railroads in the 19th century, and the hope for a truly public guarantee of health care in the 21st--was arguably somewhat lost in the Democratic party which Byran briefly led throughout the 20th century; in the hands of the Progressives and New Dealers, Bryan's moralistic crusades against railroads and banks became procedural, concerned with regulating the heights of finance capitalism, rather than chopping them down and redistributing them.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Byran’s populist concern with agrarian virtues and producerist communities would have been streamlined into a top-down, welfare-based, bureaucratic proceduralism evenutally, and thus easy for thinkers like Kuttner to recast his rhetoric into a divisible populism, one side of which--the "angry" or "conservative" side of it--can be set aside, leaving the good, "liberal" side of it untouched. But even in saying that, it remains that not all proceduralism is automatically individualistic, abstracting people from the traditions of their local community. For example Social Security, in some ways the classic redistributive program, has in its liberal way done more than practically any other government or non-governmental program to make it possible for many more elderly people to continue to own their own homes after retirement, a key element in protecting the ongoing integrity of residential neighborhoods, which is certainly both a conservative and populist aim all its own. Similarly, it is a real possibility and hope that the Affordable Care Act (assuming the numerous incoherencies and injustices which its funding streams depend upon can be hammered out), though relying upon private insurers, will nonetheless serve as the foundation for the public and egalitarian transformation of health care in the United States. Kuttner is right to call for Obama to recognize what his agenda, in failing to be fully populist, is missing out on. But for his part, he needs to recognize that socially just and egalitarian policies need to respect the whole, communitarian populist insight, not just the one supposedly resolvable with a check.

Why I Hope Westboro Baptist Church, the ACLU, and Dahlia Lithwick Get Their Butts Kicked By the Supreme Court

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Here in Kansas, we are unfortunately very well acquainted with Topeka's own Westboro Baptist "Church" (I put "church" in quotes because whatever their actual name or legal status, what they clearly are is a small, inbred, weirdly self-aware yet profoundly pathetic cult). State Democrats and Republicans alike have been active in trying to shut down or at least place limits upon the church's ability to conduct ugly protests at and around military funerals and other public--and often personally solemn--occasions, and their actions were joined by national politicians on both sides as well yesterday, when Reverend Fred Phelps and his tiny, deluded flock came before the Supreme Court as part of the case Snyder v. Phelps. But of course, once a case reaches the highest levels of the nation's judicial system, questions of police barriers and respectful distance and all the rest of the matters which have been subject of legislation, though still relevant, shrink in importance; what matters, ultimately, is the interpretation of fundamental constitutional principles: does the First Amendment protect protesters at a funeral from liability (Snyder won an award of nearly $11 million in punitive and compensatory damages after suing Phelps and Co. for picketing near the site of the funeral for Snyder's son, who dies while serving in Iraq) for intentionally inflicting emotional distress on the family of the deceased? Or, in other words, does the First Amendment provide cover for pretty much any, perhaps even all, emotional harms?

It's a given that nobody, I mean nobody, likes or agrees with what the WBC people choose to do. (Their appearance at the Supreme Court yesterday, complete with their ridiculously inflammatory signs and claims, was, by all accounts, a scary, perverse circus show.) But given the scholarly and institutional forces reluctantly lined-up on behalf of WBC--the American Civil Liberties Union, The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, most major media companies and outlets, and more--and given that this (in many ways obviously "conservative," whatever that may mean in this case) court nonetheless recently ruled 8-1 that prohibitions of graphic and offensive videos of animal cruelty are protected by the First Amendment, I think it rather unlikely that WBC will lose this case. Which frustrates me, because I'd like to see them--and the great majority of their First Amendment absolutist supporters--get seriously spanked.

Dahlia Lithwick, whether you love or hate her thoroughly opinionated reviews of Supreme Court arguments and decisions, is a tremendous judicial reporter. She notices things which so many others miss. But in her coverage of Snyder v. Phelps, she couldn't see what the overwhelmingly majority of people of her class and profession and outlook also don't see: that speech--and I mean here, specifically, the individual right to express themselves--is, frankly, only a second-order good, not a primary one. After insightfully detailing the oral arguments, she sums it up pretty simply: people are being caught up in the fact that what WBC does is hateful, and hate is not to be trusted; it gets in the way of the basics. "They are struggling here with the facts," she concludes, "which they hate. Which we all hate. But looking at the parties through hate-colored glasses has never been the best way to think about the First Amendment. In fact, as I understand it, that's why we needed a First Amendment in the first place." This is not an unusual conclusion; it's a standard liberal, individualist, pluralist one. Adam Cohen repeated it in Time Magazine: "it is important for the court to rule that this kind of expression lies within the First Amendment. We defend it not because these ideas are particularly worthy of being protected, but because all ideas, even the most loathsome, are." Or forget today's journalists; just go back to John Stuart Mill: "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind" (On Liberty, chp 2). Start tossing around that kind of language, take it absolutely seriously, and the result will be...well, among other things, it will be Supreme Court decisions like Federal Elections Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, or the notorious Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, in which speech--your right to say it, your right to buy it, your right to hear it, your right to sell it--is considered essentially sacrosanct, irregardless of the emotions--or the inequities in power and access--involved. Comfortably liberal commentators like Lithwick may not see the connection between defending a fundamental right to speak offensively and defending a fundamental right to all the advertising anyone with deep pockets can possibly buy, but the connection is there. Which is another reason why this court will be unlikely to side with Snyder against WBC's hate. Too bad.

I'm not attacking the First Amendment here; I simply disagreeing with one particularly common, frustratingly extreme way to interpret it. Defenders of current law can, of course, come forward to point out the many exceptions and further considerations that might complicate my wish. It is true that we have a variety of precedents, restricting speech when a speech act poses a burden upon the necessary, ordinary business of others, or when it presents a threat to the preservation of public order through inciting violence or intimidation. But this case doesn't involve any of that; it involves someone claiming emotional harm due to the speech (which, it must be said, he only learned about after the fact through television reports; local laws prohibited the Phelps from carrying their signs into the funeral home or along the funeral procession route). And the fact remains that the law, and very likely the Supreme Court, just won't take "hate" or "emotional distress" seriously as a good worth defending, or at least worth balancing against the imperative of defending even loathsome opinions. But they should.

The basic argument is one of pluralism, and defending minorities. If someone can sue another person for ruining their day by claiming that they're a fag, a slut, or whatever, then doesn't that give those in possession of majoritarian understandings of those terms enormous financial power over those who are not? Possibly. Or, then again, possibly not. Wouldn't it be reasonable to argue that the pluralistic world of opinions in which we inhabit isn't, in fact, one single uniform undistinguished marketplace of ideas? That, perhaps, some arenas of action and expression, both spatial and temporal, aren't actually quite part of the public square? The truth is, of course, that we already accept and acknowledge that fact; this is why church's are allowed to own property from which they can ban certain acts of speech which they find offensive to the beliefs they promote and contrary to the peace of mind of those who attend that church. Why can't funerals--and I don't just mean the actual graveyard; I mean the whole mediated environment within which a funeral is conducted--be similarly seen as property isolated from the vigorous expression of individual opinion? Because, to do so, would be to invest public space with some sort of meaning...some definition of the good? As in something like this:

The process of burying one's dead partakes of a space and activity that have a meaningful purpose, a purpose which includes the emotional wellness of the bereaved, but also the social benefit which comes through such respectful bereavement; this is exemplified by, among other things, the respectful treatment graveyards receive when city planning takes place, the fact that we countenance police involvement as escorts for select funeral processions, and indeed the respectful behavior of motorists in pulling over or slowing down as those processions go past. As those emotional and social purposes are undermined by those who would use the occasion of a funeral to attract attention to their particular ideas, it would be wise to limit the applicability of First Amendment protections to those would engage in such disruptive or even just demeaning actions in these kind of spaces. The claim that funerals, by being announced in news outlets, therefore involve "public figures" regarding whom different constitutional rules apply is silly argument--the whole point of the funeral is for the public body to make possible and thereby experience, even indirectly, the good which bereavement provides to the whole. Surely most public figures, and most public paces, should be open to diverse individuals' exercising the full range of their protected First Amendment rights...but not all of them should be.

Could such language come from Chief Justice Roberts? I doubt it. Maybe from Scalia, but even there I don't think so; he and Thomas may like playing around with natural law and originalist ideas which don't hold with Millian liberalism, but in the end what I'm asking for here is something significantly more communitarian and Aristotelian than our current constitutional order is likely to be able to admit. And I don't know: will that likely result make me despair, make me think that, once again, the primary of the individual, and the abuse and inequality and alienation which that frequently makes possible, has been wrongly defended? Perhaps a little bit...but overall, I'm a member of a liberal society, and being liberal--being respectful and careful when dealing with the many differences and points of potential conflict between individuals, and trying to treat them all as fairly as possible along the way--is a good thing to be. I just don't think it's the best thing to be, not in all cases, not even in most cases...and at the very least, when it comes to funerals and the feelings of those who are putting loved ones into the ground, certainly not in this case. There are higher, better, more meaningful, more communal goods available in this case. Would giving priority to those goods in Snyder v. Phelps open up oppressive possibilities in the future? If we were talking about the heavy hand of the state, then I'd consider that a possibility (by no means an obvious one, but a potential one, I agree). But we aren't actually talking about that; we're talking about torts, and damages, and the rules allowing for such. Some people will not find their bereavement harmed by offensive lunatics making asses of themselves 50 yards away. But some might. And maybe bereavement is an important enough good that, in such cases, the community ought to let the laws serve the interests to those being targeted by ugly speech, rather than those doing the speaking. After all, in an attention-driven 24-hour media environment, they will likely always be able to speak more than enough.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Drop that Nugget. Right Now.

Because it's disgusting and possibly a sin, that's why.

Say hello to mechanically separated chicken. It’s what all fast-food chicken is made from--things like chicken nuggets and patties. Also, the processed frozen chicken in the stores is made from it. Basically, the entire chicken is smashed and pressed through a sieve—bones, eyes, guts, and all. It comes out looking like this.

There’s more: because it’s crawling with bacteria, it will be washed with ammonia, soaked in it, actually. Then, because it tastes gross, it will be reflavored artificially. Then, because it is weirdly pink, it will be dyed with artificial color. But, hey, at least it tastes good, right?

I'm informed that this is essentially the process that gets us packaged meat slices, like Buddig ham and whatnot as well. I'm going to go vomit now.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Stephen J. Cannell, RIP

Stephen J. Cannell, the goof-ball/mad-man/populist architect of some of the greatest, smartest, wackiest, dumbest, best lowbrow television of the past 30-plus years, died yesterday evening. He was 69. I don't know how those who loved him and knew him best will remember him, but I'll remember him for this:

and this:

and this:

and of course, this:

Rest in peace, my joyfully adolescent friend. 21 Jump Street was no M*A*S*H, but we all need some fun, once in a while. Thanks for giving us a whole bunch.

Friday Morning Videos: "Borderline"

Keeping with the new pattern, a year ago, on October 2, 2009, it was Madonna's "Vogue". Great tune, cool video. But still, honestly, I wonder: why'd she have to go changing in the first place? I like her earliest stuff best.

I'll Admit It. I'm White....

...or, I guess that's not an excuse any longer, is it? Assuming it ever was. Anyway, I only recognized about four of the songs in this medley. Yep, I'm pathetic. Enjoyed the music though, anyway.