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Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Dude, I Don't Have a Jet Ski."

It starts out as just another one of those delightful bits of perverse fake lip-reading...but then, a little past the 2 minute mark, it turns into some much, much greater. I think we've found the greatest work of greatest parodic work of political art since the heyday of JibJab. Watch, and don't hurt yourself when you fall on the floor laughing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Why I'm Not Troubled by My Decision Not to Vote to Re-Elect Obama

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

About three weeks ago Conor Friedersdorf, a libertarianish blogger for The Atlantic, put up a post about how even those who support most of President Obama's policies, even those who see him as a much better choice for president than Mitt Romney, should refuse to vote for him. His reasons were pretty simple and straightforward: that Obama, through his toleration of (and participation in!) the expansion of extra-constitutional executive powers, through the murderous drone war which he has promoted over the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and through his willingness to fight terrorism through such explicit means as targeted assassination of targets (not excluding American citizens), ought to be beyond the pale for liberal and left-leaning voters. His actions, in short, are "dealbreakers."

Friedersdorf's post generated a storm of controversy. There were plenty of accusations that his version of the Obama administration's actions were tendentious and misleading, and that his construction of "dealbreakers" when deciding who or what is worthy of a vote was highly simplistic; he acknowledged the point of some of these criticisms, and hedged his position (slightly) in a couple of subsequent posts. But if his aim was to get presumed Obama supporters to argue about whether his (in some ways disappointing, in a few ways arguably appalling) record legitimated their voting for someone else or else not voting at all, he succeeded. One of my favorite political blogs, Lawyers, Guns, and Money (though guys, a quick note: if you were getting a new masthead, couldn't you have at least made use of a proper serial comma?), went ballistic, putting up post after post after post after post after post after post denouncing Friedersdorf's position, sometimes taking on other, perhaps less partisanly united leftish blogs like Crooked Timber along the way. It was a busy week, to say the least.

I'm not going to vote to re-elect President Obama. I hope he wins the election, because if he doesn't that will mean Mitt Romney will be president, and I like and agree with more of what Obama is likely to try to do in his second term than I do with what a President Romney would likely do with his first. But right now I just don't feel any personal inclination to support him with my vote, and I'm not troubled by that in the least. I laid out some of my reasons for this decision five months ago, and my thoughts haven't changed much since then. But because I promised David Watkins, one of the LGM bloggers, that I'd reply to at least some of their furious assault on the leftists-not-supporting-Obama camp, let me see if I can restate some of my thoughts differently. I'll start with David's central contention, in my (and many others') favorite post in the whole LGM blizzard, and see where that leads.

David wrote:

The moral purpose of democracy is not to keep my hands clean and feel good about myself, no matter how much politicians and other demagogues claim otherwise. The moral purpose of democracy is the reduction of abusive power in the world....If he is “beyond the pale” for the purposes of whatever endorsement you believe a vote implies, so to is pretty much all of American politics at the federal level. Identifying yourself as “better” than the American federal state in some important moral way is just fine; you probably are. So am I! I don’t kill people, either. But to move from that banal observation to abdicating the duty to use the primary tool we’ve got to constrain its abusive power is to badly miss democracy’s point.

His conclusion being, of course, that to present any singular (or cluster of) moral issue(s) as a dealbreaker which must necessitate voting outside of the politically relevant dynamics present in this presidential election--which for left-leaning voters presumably must mean either not voting for anyone for president, or voting for a third-party candidate, rather than Obama--misunderstands what democracy is about.

Two points in response. First, I disagree that the "moral purpose of democracy" can be contained within the narrow definition which David proposes. I see a number of diverse purposes to democracy, any number of which could be simultaneously described as "moral" depending on which conceptual plane (individual? civic? materialist? idealist?) one was operating upon. Personal expressive purposes have their moral content, as do collective identification purposes. To say that controlling the abusive power of the state is democracy's "primary" point is to cast politics into a utilitarian calculus (David betrays this move of his when he describes democracy as a "technology"). To employ that kind of calculus--probably slightly more people with health insurance! probably a slightly greater chance of preserving the social safety net! probably a slightly smaller likelihood of undeclared, murderous, and financially ruinous wars!--is obviously a completely defensible decision to make (I may ultimately be on Friedersdorf's "side" here, but I would never agree with him that it is somehow "immoral" to vote for Obama--but then, I don't think it's necessarily a sign of immorality to vote for Romney either), but it is nonetheless a prior decision about one's preferred moral calculus, and in no sense an obvious ethical imperative contained within the history of democracy.

Second, I would note that David makes it clear that he's talking about the presidential election; his point of reference is the "federal level," or in other words the national government. So, then, does he think that the "moral purpose" of democracy is different when you're voting for Congressional candidates, or for governors, or state legislative candidates--or, as I just suggested, local fluoridation? Perhaps he does; again, employing a legitimate utilitarian calculus, he might argue that there is a sliding scale present in how we balance concerns with abusive power versus other, less state-centered and more aesthetic, personal, or communitarian concerns. I'd in fact probably agree with his defense of such a scale; I'm much more comfortable with identitarian political decisions when I'm thinking about who I'd like on city council or what values I'd like my state to exhibit than I am with similar moves on the national level (as evidence, consider my confession that I'm a Mormon who has no interest in voting for the first member of my tribe to make it to such a prominent political level!). Nonetheless, should David admit to such a scale, then he's admitted that "democracy against domination" logic that he wants to invest the presidential election with is, at best, a contextual logic, one which operates not as a general rule, but in light of other variables, possibly objective (the office being voted upon, the level of government which that office inhabits), and possibly subjective (judgment calls about the relative benefits and harms which are presumed to be within the scope of the powers of the office or level of government in question).

All of this is relevant to a theme which (upon my reading anyway) recurs regularly throughout the above LGM posts and the long threads which followed them: the deep conviction that, in the struggle on behalf of liberal, progressive, and/or leftish causes, there are no battleground states, there are no caveats or qualifications particular to certain contexts or jurisdictions--there is only the general ideological battle, and you are either committed to it (meaning that you are, for better or worse, locked in by your own beliefs to the dominant political dynamics--the party structures, the available candidates, the campaign finance rules, etc.--which are available to this particular group of voters, which for the LGM bloggers obviously means President Obama and the Democratic party), or you're on the wrong side. There seems to me to be some deep Ralph Nader regret motivating this theme; at least a couple of the LGM bloggers, David included, cast votes for Nader in 2000, and have taken that lesson horribly to heart. Suffice to say, I've never felt that kind of guilt for my Nader votes. I knew what I knew then, believed what I believed then, and voted where I did then; if everything had been different, my votes in 1996 and 2000 probably would have been different, but it isn't, and so they aren't. To take the fact that the system allowed someone who I and many other leftists allowed--both intellectually and with our votes--to pursue policies that were stupid, immoral, and unwise for so long, and use it as an argument that somehow every vote and every democratic action, at all times and all places, needs to be weighted primarily against a particular kind of morally and ideologically constructed scheme of defense against state domination, is to completely ignore that obvious problem of aggregation, which Jacob Levy succinctly spelled out against David in a comment to his post. Very simply, you can't simultaneously affirm that every vote equals total responsibility for the ultimate results (that is, hold you nose and vote for the lesser evil, since one should imagine that every vote is the decisive, wherever you are and whatever the issue!) while also insisting that the only results which matter are those which are pertinent are those which involve what the two dominant candidates and parties end up doing or not doing (that is, forget about party or movement-building, or registering dissent, or anything else that won't in the short term have direct relevance to who wields power in which cause).

Both David and Scott Lemieux have responses to Jacob's point above, and while they both make some good points about the practical realities of nation-wide contests in today's America, with the general ineffectiveness of popular political signaling to larger parties and interest groups, they both seem to me to come down to a kind of in-group response: that their logic ultimately really only applies to "a group of like-minded about politics people," and that for voters with other sets of beliefs "the calculus is different." Scott is of the mind the democratic socialists are obviously included in his own left-liberal/progressive Democrati partisan group, but I'm not sure that's the case--again, depending on where you live, and what you're voting on. I can say, at the least, that it's not the case for a Kansas-dwelling populist/localist/Christian democrat/anarcho-socialist like myself.

So I will approach the election three weeks from today with every intention of supporting whatever Democrats I can locally and state-wide, since given the way Governor Brownback and his Koch-backed supporters have almost entirely cleansed the local Republican party of moderates, I have to support whatever practical resistance I can find. But nationally? Knowing that Romney has essentially a 100% chance of winning all six of Kansas's electoral college votes? In that case I look at Obama and the national Democratic party, and I see Bradley Manning still in jail, I see a president still dissembling when it comes to the horror of drone warfare, I see a refusal (in the face of mounting pressure) to rethink an invasive HHS mandate, I see no indication that there will be any grand social democratic economic push (just more neoliberal fine-tuning) in response to the continuing economic struggles of the poor and the lower middle class, and I don't see any interest in saying anything new about the war on drugs. Is that enough reason to not support the president? In a state where my vote won't help him do the many good things he might still be able to help make happen? When there is a candidate that represents, if not the correct response to all that I mention above, than at least a more correct response to most of them: namely Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president? I have to say, David, that I'm sorry, but you and your LGM colleagues just haven't changed my mind. (But please, keep fighting the good fight in Ohio--Obama needs your Democratic vote there far more than he needs my socialist vote here.)

The Most Important Vote I'll Make on November 6th

Three weeks from today, I'll be able to vote for my preferred candidate for president of the United States, for my regional congressional representative, for my local state house and senate representatives, and for various judges and city officials. All of those votes are relevant to my life--but the most important vote will be the one on whether or not Wichita should add fluoride to its drinking water. Do I think this is the most important vote I'll make on November 6th because fluoridation is a vital public health issue, and supporting it is a demonstration of good government and smart public responsibility? I do, in fact, think all those things about water fluoridation--but that's not why I think it's the most important part of my November ballot. No, I think it's more important than all those other candidates and issues I will vote on because this question, unlike all other choices I'll be faced, is self-government in action. And self-government is what living in a free society is supposedly all about.

Drinking water is a public resource, and obviously a precious one. Too many people decline to worry much about public resources, whether it be drinking water or sidewalks or sewer lines. In particular, those who are tempted by libertarian ideologies (and we have a lot of that here in Wichita, unfortunately) too often feel justified in forgetting that they live in communities, as opposed to privately contracted enclaves. But however much we may feel as though we are fully independent, sovereign selves, we aren't. We live in a social order, and freedom doesn't mean untrammeled individualism; rather, it means taking it upon ourselves to collectively govern that order. Now we usually do that indirectly, through electing representatives whom we trust--ideally, anyway--to act as our delegates in making decisions and writing laws. But sometimes it is both right and good for us, in our communities, to make decisions about public resources both directly and collectively. And that is what Wichita is going to have the opportunity to do.

It is really a rather precious thing, when you think about it, to be able to take on through one's own voice, one's own words and actions, and one's own vote, the power of self-government. Too many of the people I meet, too many of my students, too often see it as a bother, an annoyance or a distraction. In truth however, it is anything but. It is the most positive kind of freedom a citizen can enjoy, far greater than hunkering down on one's property, cursing the government, and insisting on one's independent liberty. Direct democracy, through voting on public initiatives like this one, whether we love or hate the results, is a grand human accomplishment. For certain, it's not always the best way to govern. But when it comes to deciding about the water I drink and how I pay for it, I'm delighted that the city council declined simply make a decision one way or another (as just happened in Portland, OR, another long-time fluoridation hold-out), and instead gave me, and all my fellow Wichitans, a chance to directly govern ourselves.

Do I hope water fluoridation passes? Absolutely. Why? Because I trust the dentists and health professionals who defend it, I concur with the observations of those who have seen its effects, because the science against fluoridation strikes me as paranoid and slightly nuts, and because I don't see anything wrong with democratically deciding upon communitarian responses to public health issues, especially when their result will be to address social inequities. Some may call it "mass medication" or "paternalism"; I say that if it was paternalism--namely, required immunizations--that has all but completely wiped out certain once-devastating childhood diseases in the United States, then its track record is worth taking seriously. The scholar Sigal Ben-Porath commented that "paternalism offers an opportunity to share the responsibility for one's actions with the state" (Tough Choices: Structured Paternalism and the Landscape of Choice [Princeton, 2010], 41); if the state in question is a democratically governed one--and in regard to this issue in Wichita at this time, it is--then sharing responsibility seems to me exactly what votes like this are all about. But the larger point is simply this--that by voting on this issue, you're helping to govern. Whether we here in Wichita wish to share responsibility for public health through our public resources or not, this vote will allow us to directly, democratically, decide. That's why it, and not my vote for president, is the most important thing I'm going to be doing, three weeks from today.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Find Myself a Sunny Spot"

It was 1992, in Provo, Utah, and a student newspaper I contributed to, and a feminist club I hung around with, had a joint, great idea for a fundraiser: we'd bring the Crazy 8s, one of the truly awesome college rock-ska-funk bands of the 80s and 90s, to town! They had a gig lined up at the Zephyr Club in Salt Lake City that same week, and their manager was always looking for ways to get them more shows, so he said, sure: why not swing down and put on concert in that old Provo Armory which we rented out for the occasion? Well, that show and fundraiser ended up being a near-total bust, but I did score myself a couple of tickets to the SLC show, and my friend Bob Ahlander and I went up to see them. We were at the Zephyr until about 1am, and danced our asses off.

The Zephyr is gone now, and so is the Portland-based Crazy 8s band which I knew then. Not much of them is to found on YouTube; a hard-working reunion-revival band which carries their name and plays some of their old tunes, and a clip of their performance on Star Search back in 1985. But this sweaty, infectious clip of the Crazy 8s in all their early 90s reggae-rock glory--that's about as close as I can get to the summer of 1992. It's close enough, I guess.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Steamroller" and Much More

I'd never consciously listened to a James Taylor song before the two years I spent in South Korea on a proselytizing mission for the Mormon church from 1988-1990. I'm sure I'd heard his music before, but I hadn't paid any attention to it. But while a missionary in Korea--alternately confused, excited, frightened, and bored--the songs of JT, which I picked up from contraband music tapes and from a fellow missionary who had broken the rules and brought his guitar with him to Korea, absolutely went to my heart. After I came home to U.S., I bought his albums, and then, while an undergraduate at BYU, would drive up into the mountains, and just listen to them while staring at the stars. Kind of pathetic/romantic, I know, but true all the same. JT is the only major musical performer that I've ever paid serious money to see live in concert twice--and of those concerts, the best one was during his tour for New Moon Shine, which is exactly the tour which the following bootleg recording of JT and his band's dress rehearsal captures. I remember so much from that evening in the spring of 1992, which you hear here--"Down in the Hole," "Shed a Little Light," and most of all, an awesome version of "Steamroller," with Don Grolick at the piano and Jimmy Johnson on bass. It begins around 7:40, but seriously: listen to the whole thing.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Mocking Romney's Mormon Self-Sufficiency, and What That Misses

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Amy Sullivan has an article on The New Republic's website this morning, calling Mitt Romney "insufferably cheap," and arguing that the "frugal quirks" which have been well-documented in recent news stories--according to the Washington Post, Romney "duct-tapes the holes in his gloves....rinses and stacks the dishes at the sink before loading the dishwasher after family holiday meals....picks up his own dry cleaning, pulls his own suitcase, eats at burger joints, counts his change"--reveal a "pathological" personality, make Romney "sound like a complete loon," and "must make him a bit annoying to be around." I respectfully disagree with all those claims. Far from making Romney seem like a tightwad jerk, learning about Romney's devotion to personal penny-pinching--though only in some areas of his life--does more to make him seem to my eyes like an authentic human being I can relate to, than anything else that he's done or has been said about him in all his years in the public eye. I'm not going to vote for him, but for the first time, I feel as though I kind of like the guy.

It surprises me to read Sullivan express such vehemence on this point, because the larger story about Romney's inconsistent frugality is one that pertains, at least as much as to his personal habits and economic class, to his (and my) religious faith, and talking about faith and politics is one of the things which Sullivan has done long and well (even when I disagree with her). But in this case she misses the story entirely, despite David Campbell having opened the door to this argument in his contribution to the Washington Post piece. Campbell, the co-author of a sweeping analysis of American religious beliefs and their relevance to politics, and a Mormon like Romney and I, observes that in Mormonism "there is a strong egalitarian impulse....There’s no paid clergy, so you might very well have someone who is a schoolteacher as the bishop and within the flock investment bankers and neurosurgeons, but he’s the pastor and in charge. Beyond that, there’s this ethos of people being not just frugal, but also using foresight in their planning." That might seem like a rather banal observation, and so one that Sullivan--whose focus in her article is both the supposed weirdness of a wealthy and successful presidential contender "sweating the small stuff, as well as the presumed hypocrisy of a multi-millionaire who talks about job creation yet refuses to hire a contractor to do some landscaping which he figures he could do himself--could ignore while building her argument. But actually Campbell's comments--about both Mormonism's ethic of frugal planning, and its often-unexplored egalitarian implications--provide a valuable insight to Romney's mind.

Mormonism, as has been frequently noted, was for a decades a persecuted religion. It is also an American religion which found its lasting home, and developed many of its still-enduring practices and norms, in the at-the-time unsettled American West. The idealization of the sacrifices of 19th-century Mormon refugees and colonizers, and of the twin pioneer virtues of self-sufficiency and collective responsibility, remain vibrant throughout much of the Mormon church today. And for Romney, as the descendent of a branch of Mormons which actually fled to United States to Mexico to continue to live their faith, those principles of frugally sacrificing wants and comforts for the sake of securing long-range needs and goals would presumably being doubly-present in his thought. To be sure, this kind of frugality is hardly unique to Mormons; millions of people who lived through difficult times like the Great Depression and passed on those lessons to their children similarly embraced such homespun conservative and self-sufficient wisdom as "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." But what Sullivan misses is that, within the Mormon church, with its long-standing (and, yes, often ignored) encouragement of its members to plant gardens, to maintain long-term food supplies, and to eschew personal luxury (several of the prophetic figures in the Book of Mormon, following Isaiah, explicitly condemn fine clothing, and Joseph Smith himself, in one of his revelations included in our text the Doctrine and Covenants, urged church members to content themselves with plain clothing and those things they could make themselves), such frugal principles operate not as a call to cheapness, but to piety.

And not just a personal piety, but a cultural one: indeed, a counter-cultural one. And here is where Sullivan's accusation of Romney's inconsistency really missed the boat: she failed to recognize that the whole point of that frugality for Mormons, at least originally, was not to serve some sort of solely personal virtue, but to collectively bless the whole. The usually unstated but nonetheless clear reason for food storage was so that others--one's family or neighbors or the whole congregation or community--would have stores to fall back on and share when bad harvests or outside forces threatened. Mormon cheapness--of sacrificing luxurious pleasures for limited and practical needs, of forgoing expensive expertise and learning instead to do without or do it oneself--was a function of the Zion-building ideal, of a community jointly sacrificing (by, for example, supporting the local Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution, rather than ordering through the Sears and Roebuck catalog) for the sake of the employment and income and sustenance of everyone else. This kind of economic ethic, which was an important supplement to the collectivized economics which early Mormons practiced throughout the 19th century, obviously runs counter to the entrepreneurial, expansive, debt-addicted, and acquisitive ethos of American capitalism today--and especially counter to the rapacious financial practice of "economic restructuring" which made Bain Capital and Mitt Romney his hundreds of millions. As Laura McKenna and many other writers have noted over the years since the economic meltdown of 2008, being frugal--doing your own laundry, growing your own food, traveling cheap, saving old clothes and furniture--is the truly counter-cultural idea of our moment, because it resists the presumptions of consumer capitalism itself. And of course, if there is one thing that Mitt Romney, in all his variations, has never been, it's a cultural opponent of capitalism.

To be fair, our church isn't much of one either any longer; despite the Mormon welfare program and its many other gestures towards economic equality and community, the ideal of Zion is mostly long gone from our practices today. So it really may well be that whatever Romney's religious inheritance, his tight-fisted reputation has nothing to do with any kind of pioneer ethic, and have everything to do with just his own personal tastes and his father's frugality; certainly his performance at the Republican National Convention, which on its final day highlighted the faith experiences and numerous examples of church service which have shaped Romney as a person, nonetheless not only didn't connect that history with his faith's communitarian legacy, but actually, if implicitly, pushed the opposite thesis: that Mormonism is as American as, well, business. And on that basis, perhaps Sullivan's snarks at Romney's cheapness rightly connect with the inconsistency between his habits and his economic message of job growth. Ultimately though, mocking Romney for his sometimes ham-fisted attempts at self-sufficiency misses the bigger picture. First, that self-sufficiency and frugality, assuming they don't border on miserliness, are real personal virtues. And second, that Romney's own faith long insisted strongly on personal responsibility....as part of larger projects of sacrifice, conservation, local production, and mutual support. Romney's plan calls for selective austerity, but comparatively little by way of shared sacrifice. That's the real scandal.