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Friday, November 29, 2013

A Master at Work

Eric Clapton's guitar track from "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," isolated. Beautiful.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Being Thankful for National Communities and Civil Religion, Sometimes

[Cross-Posted to Front Porch Republic]

Amongst those Americans who believe that the civic virtues which make both popular government and a fulfilling independence possible are themselves dependent upon, to a great extent, the preservation of traditions and an attachment to place--in other words, amongst those Americans for whom the call of "localism" has some substantive political and moral meaning--no one gets beaten up quite as much as Abraham Lincoln. No, he's not generally made out to be an absolute enemy to all forms of classical republican and participatory democratic virtue , but admittedly, the way in which Lincoln's legacy seems sometimes to almost define the deep meaning of American history can drive many a localist to extremes. It cannot be denied, I think, that Lincoln's response to the secession of the Southern states firmly (and perhaps also unavoidably) tied the forces of America's national government and economy to industrial capitalism, entrepreneurial expansion, and liberal universalism: all agendas which, whatever their many obvious benefits for millions of American citizens, both black and white, immigrant and native-born, over the past century and a half, were and remain today destructive of local attachments and places. The recent 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address--a speech which I think, like it or not, has become the most consequential and important that any American president has ever given--reminds those of us with localist sympathies that, to a great extent, Lincoln managed to bring out of (or--perhaps better--through) the blood and horror of the Civil War a kind of national evangelism, and that the content of that redemptive nationalist narrative is basically an ideologically expansive, rather than a humbly traditional, one. And so the frustrating legacy of Lincoln's actions at a long-ago time of violent and desperate dissension (which, thankfully, has never quite been repeated--and, hopefully, never will be in any of our lifetimes) remains.

On this Thanksgiving Day, however, I want to acknowledge a different (and, I think, more meaningful, if perhaps not ultimately more important in a political and economic sense) 150th anniversary. Today, November 28, 2013, is the 150th Thanksgiving holiday since President Lincoln, encouraged by both the indefatigable efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale and hundreds of other (mostly female) local activists throughout the country, as well as perhaps his own sentimental (even pious) hopes for the union, issued a declaration officially setting aside the last Thursday in November as a national holiday. (After President Roosevelt messed with the holiday some in 1939 and 1940, Congress settled upon the fourth Thursday, where it has remained ever since.) People can properly argue the pros and cons of the sort of civil religion which Lincoln's rhetoric, in the Gettysburg Address and elsewhere throughout the Civil War, ended up establishing throughout the nation, and I can jump into that debate and find sympathy for both sides, as I think is probably the case with most sympathizers with localism in our thoroughly nationalized and globalized 21st-century country. But when it comes to the establishment of America's Thanksgiving holiday--which I would argue is the formal high point in our yearly national liturgy, which unavoidably involves, in President Lincoln's words, an invitation to observe "a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens"--I am nothing but a complete enthusiast.

Holidays are important to me--important enough, at least, to be happy to argue at length about their significance. To sum up my beliefs about the matter as briefly as possible (read the longer version here): yes, I acknowledge that in our late modern world of individual subjectivity, personal and intellectual and even moral mobility, and--perhaps most importantly--disposable consumerism, it is hard to make the case that there is anything "traditional" about holidays. They can all, without exception, be attacked as "invented" occasions, making use of a "fake" history, concocted solely to address or celebrate or salve some political or social or religious interest. I would respond, though, that such inventing is never a totally and circumstantially "interested" phenomenon; rather, every holiday celebration is constructed through exactly the sort of "creative remembering" which actually (at least assuming one accepts the basic fundamentals of Gadamerian philosophical hermeneutics, or Polanyian tacitness, or even Oakeshottian common sense) describes the way in which all of us think about, and discern meaning in and through, the experiences that we are embedded in. In the matter of Thanksgiving, it was an occasion which connected Sarah Hale and many others to both a past and a particular place, and the meaning which she and others, as the 19th-century progressed and ultimately turned to war, found in that connection pressed upon them as something worth formalizing. She was not alone in feeling this way; by the time of the Civil War, 25 out of the then-existing 34 states had issued their own Thanksgiving proclamations. So the holiday, far from being invented by a placeless president to sanctify a devastating war, was an organic development, a collective and pious expression--or remembrance--of something which had genuine spiritual meaning nationwide.

Is that, in itself, a reason to challenge the holiday, at least insofar as its ties to the legacy of Lincoln are concerned? Why have national holidays at all? Shouldn't that collective and creative remembering be reserved to communities which share a locality and a history which every member can be a participant in?

Well, of course, local communities and individual states can and do articulate their own formal occasions of commemoration. And moreover, I can see the point of the complaint: accepting the existence of a nation-wide community capable of such a formal, civil remembering--that is, accepting the idea of an American national community, if only for the purposes of being able to collectively acknowledge a certain thankful relationship to God--will invariably add moral legitimacy to the national state. To which I can only respond: I'm not sure how any localist who isn't actually a complete utopian anarchist or individualist or libertarian--as worthy of interest as those approaches may be--can wholly deny the subsidiarian legitimacy of at least some national level of government. We are a mobile people (and always have been), and who is to say that the growing reliance upon--and the national reach of--the rhetoric and tropes of our civil religion wasn't itself an outgrowth of a mobile people who, perhaps unintentionally, were seeking to keep in mind, in the midst of constant transformation (to say nothing to the creative destruction entrenched by the economic liberty of the Industrial Revolution), some kind of attachment and identity? Civil religions, understood in this way (and as I have argued before), are perhaps inexorable; any even moderately free people will seek to build them. In which case, if we Americans are to have a national government (and while there are numerous philosophical, prudential, and constitutional arguments to be made over what shape and scope such a national state ought to take, I am unpersuaded that there are an equal number of good arguments against its existence entirely), then isn't it worth celebrating that this particular national state, 150 years ago, formally committed itself to as humble and localizing an ideal as, once a year, coming together with family and friends, and giving thanks for the productive work which has graced our lives together?

Note also that the nationalization and specification of this communal sense of historical thankfulness (however politically "invented" some may claim it to be), by invariably involving itself in larger processes both political and economic, created conditions through which certain virtues--certainly familiar ones, and perhaps in even civic ones--were promoted and allowed to grow distinctive, sheltered from the intrusions of the homogenizing marketplace and rival polities. Something as humble (though, for most of us, absolutely central to the holiday, even more than flag-football games at the local park) as the "traditional" foods we generally eat during the holiday are themselves an evolved expression of a particularly American sensibility--a middle-class, landowning, frugal, and community-sustaining one--which Lincoln's Thanksgiving proclamation gave conceptual room to, implicitly challenging alternative (and aristocratic) norms which still held sway in the dining rooms of many of the nation's elites in the 19th century. And, of course, the patterns of employment and commerce which developed around the holiday, enabled by national uniformity, were a large part of preserving its traditional and meaning-filled character as well. (There's plenty of time to feel obliged to find some sort of connection with your friends and family and your shared past when the stores are closed and everyone is home from work.) Now those patterns are collapsing right and left, with relatively few exceptions (and with some market libertarians, predictably, rebuking those of us who denounce this change as "puritanical, anti-commerce prudes" and instead cheering on "the growth in 24/7 shopping"). Very likely any talk of a legislative response to this deplorable development is a non-starter--but whether that is because the popular religious meaning that the holiday enables us to creatively recollect and formalize in our civil lives is exhausted, or because the state which proclaimed the holiday (and by which our many local communities have situated their own recollections of gratitude) is held in contempt by a large portion of the population, is not for me to say. Very likely, both.

Still, let me end on a thankful note: despite the corporate bosses that see it merely as another day to dangle sales in front of a cash-strapped and status-obsessed populace, Thanksgiving still exists, and my American family, at least, along with some friends old and new, from church and elsewhere, still all agree that its a fine day on which to commemorate and share and remember, with turkey and pie and games and laughter and perhaps even a prayer or two. My thanks on this holiday are for all those who have blessed my life. By doing his part, 150 years ago, to impress upon part of my national identity (along with much else that I will happily argue against) something as fine as a reminder to be, in my particular place, grateful to God above...well, I have to say that Lincoln is one of those.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving with the Bartlets

It's basically a given, among both dreamy-eyed liberal lovers of the show and Clinton-hating conservative mockers of it, that The West Wing was fundamentally a kind of civic myth, a vision of the federal government as we (or at least some of us) idly wish it could be: powerful and competent and intelligent but also human and humble and filled with humor. Sorkin's star has plummeted far enough that his style of drama now draws mostly mockery, and I mostly agree with that judgment--but still, I can remember watching this particular episode, "Shibboleth," thirteen years ago, and really pretty much adoring it for the thoughtful fantasy of American identity and responsibility which I knew it was. So here are some free clips:

It starts with Toby and Sam and Josh, being brilliant goofballs, as usual, picking on C.J.-as-straightman, as usual.

One of the primary plots of the episode is C.J.'s struggle to take on the ritual obligations of the Thanksgiving holiday that are visited upon the White House, which she comes to really enjoy, despite her own resistance.

Another plot consists the discovery in a storage container of a large number of refugees from China, who claimed to have fled their home to escape religious persecution.

As is always the case with Sorkin, he brings all these plots together, throwing out all sorts of short random scenes which serve to hammer home the merged themes of the episode. Which, in this case, is that America is a wonderful place, whose every action reflects its complicated, sometimes ugly, but always (on one level or another) glorious history, and which remains, in the end, a blessed land to which all those who love God and/or freedom will want to come.

Great Thanksgiving propaganda, and great television. And kind of a great story too.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "Hey Jude"

Blue-eyed soul joins with the authentic, muscular R&B article, and manages to make Paul McCartney's plaintive pop tune funky. Too bad I can't find a video recording of Wilson Pickett doing this song with Duane Allman.

Friday, November 22, 2013

U2: Where Pomposity Becomes Sublime

Haters will hate, of course, but screw them: when Bono gets his high-pitched growl going, and The Edge starts with his sparkling clean guitar lines, and Mullen lays down his subtle beats, and Adam's bass begins to echo in the background, one of the best--and surely the most earnest--rock and roll band of my lifetime shows they can still take command.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

It's All In the Cards, Man

Forget the big lightshows and spectaculars; the most awesome magic remains, as always, humble and brilliant and astonishing little tricks.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Greatest Presidential Speech of All Time

I have been, for over twenty years, entirely persuaded by Garry Wills's argument: that the Gettysburg Address, given by Abraham Lincoln on this day, exactly 150 years ago, was the great catalyzing rhetorical act in the--probably inevitable--transformation of the United States's imagination of itself from a localized republican culture which accepted diverse, and unequal, communities, to a nationalized republican one which demanded the equal treatment of all its individual members. One could argue that ever since the Civil War, ever since Gettysburg, we've just been working out the details, not changing our minds. In that sense, Lincoln's short speech was, by far, the most consequential and important ever given by a U.S. president: more than Washington's Farewell Address, more than Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, more than Reagan's First Inaugural, and more than Obama's More Perfect Union speech (man, whatever happened to that guy?). Those rhetorical acts were about telling us what we needed to do or not do, given what we are; Lincoln's defined what we are, for better and/or for worse. That it remains, a century and a half on, also a remarkably well-crafted and powerfully succinct speech only adds to its power.

Thanks to Ken Burns for putting this together (though I would have preferred more George H.W. Bush, and less Taylor Swift).

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "My Best Friend's Girl"

People sometimes argue about The Cars: punk, post-punk, New Wave, or what? On the basis of this early live performance, the answer is clearly: all of the above, with a nice dose of country swing and rockabilly for good measure. Anyway, what a band.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "Hot House"

This is supposedly the only existing film of Charlie Parker playing live--and jamming with Dizzy Gillespie to boot. Ignore the two well-intentioned but condescending white stiffs in the beginning; just get to 0:48, and let the music flow.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Miyazaki Meets Carroll

Brilliant beyond words; Justin Hillgrove is a genius. So all you Studio Ghibli fans out there: how many can you name? (It actually took me a while to realize I was looking at Ponyo.)

Thursday, November 07, 2013

What Some Kansans are Saying about Health Care

I haven't written a post about health care in America, and more particularly the Affordable Care Act, in a long time. I've mentioned it, sure, but usually in connection with the Supreme Court, or the Obama administration, or some other related topic--I really haven't tried to dig deep into the wonky details or the theoretical arguments over what kind of health insurance the American people need or deserve since 2010. And in that, I suppose I'm like most Americans: exhausted by all the policy arguments once the Affordable Care Act became law. Now, I keep up with the travails of the ACA in political campaigns and legislative scrimmages, and I'm aware of how President Obama has gotten himself locked into a lie of his own making with his claim (in retrospect, an obviously ridiculous one, at least to anyone who knows anything about how profit-minded insurance companies operate and respond to changes in the law, as Obama himself has now admitted) that "people can keep their current insurance coverage if they like it"--and of course, with Kansas's own former governor, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in the congressional hot-seat as representatives from both parties score points in the wake of the horrendous roll-out of the online state insurance marketplaces which the law requires, the jokes and complaints and attacks on her and the ACA are pretty common in these parts. But substantive discussions about what's going wrong and what's going right, and how get the current state of health insurance to where we want it to be? That's hard! Much easier to just call the person you disagree with stupid and let it go, right?

Well, recently I was invited to participate in a local symposium on health care, framed around the question of what the "just" or "merciful" distribution of insurance coverage would be. It was put together by some people associated with Northfield School of the Liberal Arts, a private academy which provides, from my observation, an education which is a wonderful mix of the deeply traditional and the experimentally radical. It brought together pastors, scholars, surgeons, health care professionals, and businesspeople from around Wichita, all of whom had the opportunity to make their case and interrogate one another. Of course, it was thoroughly Kansas crowd; most of those there were quite hostile to what they always called "Obamacare;" I think I may have been its only defender, and even that was expressed by way of a defense of its legitimacy, not its wisdom, about which I've never had high opinions. (It may be worth noting that the two actual doctors present were somewhat unique in both thinking that the ACA will ultimately be of little real consequence in terms of the availability of insurance or the long-term problem of rising medical costs--they think the whole national debate is rather hysterical and silly, in fact.) Overall though, it was a great evening of discussion and argument, one that left me both educated on some points and wanting to talk more about others. (The organizers of the symposium were very strict on keeping time!) So consider this my own attempt to get in one last response:

1) While I greatly respect the pious efforts of many of my fellow Kansans to employ scriptural and theological arguments in order to advance their particular perspectives on what justice and mercy actually mean, I find their positions both simply confused. There is a tendency--and perhaps this is emblematic of a certain kind of conservative white evangelical Protestant Tea Party thinking--among some of my fellow citizens to identify "justice" with the operations of the capitalist marketplace and the minimal rules (like property rights) which such markets require; in their minds, therefore, the original, limited government, 10th-amendment respecting Constitution was a more perfect instrument of justice than what we have today, with the government attempting to involve itself in the distribution of "mercy," which needs to remain the province of God. But the idea that attempting to impose rules over the distribution of access to health insurances is intruding upon either God or one's fellow man's opportunity or jurisdiction to act mercifully is, I think, an indefensible stretch, both logically and scripturally. Of the many holes which can be punched in this claim--that it presumes a kind of zero-sum approach to being merciful; that it makes unsupportively broad assumptions about the actual historical relationship between the Constitution, capitalism, and Christianity; and so forth--the most obvious is simply that, by that definition, free market distributions of goods also interfere with the provision and/or the experience of mercy. How? By doctors charging distortive fees for their services; by insurance company policies discouraging businesses from hiring people with pre-existing conditions; by hospitals giving incentives to medical personnel to specialize in ways which empty out the pool of providers of certain kind of basic services; etc., etc. If anyone has been building an idolatrous Tower of Babel when it comes to the matter of health care, it's not--or at least it's not just--the Obama administration with the Affordable Care Act; the shareholders and CEOs of Blue Cross Blue Shield and Aetna and Community Health Systems all got their first.

2) Related to the above point, there is the position that, while the involvement of the government in laying down rules regarding the provision of affordable health care services--or sometimes (Medicare, Medicare, VA hospitals, etc.) actually providing those services themselves--may not be idolatrous in some specific theological sense, it still depletes communities of the kind of affective, charitable responsibility which local Christian churches historically took responsibility for, and by rights ought to be able to continue to do so. This is an argument which I respect much more than the previous one, and which I think, unlike the straightforward religious claim, has an important principle behind it. Patrick Deneen elaborates on this point (while expanding it to include education as well as health care) here, and he's only one voice among many. I still find the argument unpersuasive though, and only in partly for the obvious reason that, by many (though perhaps not all) measurements, the "outsourcing" of charity to the state has enabled the concentration and develop of great medical resources to the blessing of many: "one result of the increasing separation of the Church from these practices has been a bounty of benefits deriving from an increasingly scientistic and utilitarian pursuit of each." But even more important than that qualification is the fact (long forgotten by many, but thoroughly explored by scholars like Lew Daly, whose wonderful book God's Economy I reviewed here) that throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Christian churches and other charities were themselves among the primary agents for organizing the democratic demand for government to formalize these responsibilities through the establishment of welfare policies. Why did they do this? Primarily because, as societies across Europe and North America urbanized and secularized and became more mobile and individualized, local and rural churches and charities found themselves simply overwhelmed by the problems of alcoholism, child abandonment, unemployment, inadequate nutrition, physical and mental handicaps, old-age poverty, and more. Obviously, what I'm talking about here is the progressive movement and the Social Gospel: whatever other intellectual developments inspired it, the breakdown of the agrarian order of local charitable provision and the Christian demand that large-scale coordinated efforts be created to assist with such was a major part of that transformation as well. And as I've long said, progressivism is a deeply problematic ideology...and yet, if such state-based, redistributive solutions are the only viable ones available, they shouldn't be dismissed simply because they don't conform to some localist/socialist/populist/Christian ideal. (After making this point about how churches themselves pushed for greater state involvement, one fellow--who is actually a very open-minded local pastor--asked me, with a knowing gleam in his eye, "And how is that working out for everyone?" I should have promptly responded, "Well, it's not without a large number of its own problems and perverse incentives...but then again, if you're a Social Security or Medicare recipient, or have spent any amount of time in VA hospitals, the evidence seems to be: relative to how old people and veterans were doing in the 1920s and 30s, it's working quite well!")

3) Finally, there were some at the symposium who eschewed deeper talk about the proper role of government or the meaning of mercy or the eclipse of localism, and instead focused on some comparative nuts and bolts regarding the system of distributing health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The symposium took place in the midst of the disastrous roll-out of the state insurance exchanges and HealthCare.gov, and so predictably there was a great deal of conversation--and mockery, and "told-you-so"s--regarding the impossibility of constructing a website that could handle all these customers, require from them all this information, and then present them with all the various options for satisfying the laws requirement to have insurance. As my family and I have coverage through Friends University, and as there's no indication that the ACA will require any changes in the policies which my employer provides, I'm not one of the 10 million or so people who aren't on Medicare or Medicaid, who purchase their insurance plans individually, and thus are now obliged--because of the cancellation numerous previously rock-bottom cheap plans, now forbidden under the ACA--to buy a plan through HealthCare.gov. But, just for the sake of the experience, I went to the website, and went through the application process. It took me 40 minutes before I could start to look at plans, and even then the process wasn't complete, as the website told me it couldn't verify my income, and thus determine what sort of subsidies we'd be available for when it came to choosing plans. So, a headache, to be sure.

But do such headaches themselves constitute an argument against something? They may or may not, I suppose, depending on what you arguably get out of those headaches. (Everyone agrees that the Department of Motor Vehicles is a headache, and yet I don't see that translating into a widespread resistance to the idea that drivers ought to be required to register their vehicle and pass a driver's test.) There were individuals at this symposium who presented the changes which are going to be forced upon individuals, businesses, and organizations because of this law, and--comparing us negatively to the United Kingdom or other countries with much more fully socialized health care systems--argued that these were changes which Americans ought not have to put up with. My response to that was simple: the Affordable Care Act was a political redirection of the health care market, and as in any marketplace, there will be those who are advantaged and those who aren't. The political campaign at the heart of the passage of health care reform was the insistence upon coming up with a way to provide affordable health coverage to those who previously could not get it (which is happening)--and if, as a result, the costs and availability of such for those who previously were able to get it comparatively cheaply changes, well, that was a political trade-off. You can oppose that trade-off, and obviously millions do--but such trade-offs are not some kind of illegitimate crime against the "natural laws" of the marketplace, or some un-American scandal. They are the consequences of democratic choice.

Does that mean that people like me who accept that sometimes progressive solutions are the most egalitarian we can get simply have to defend Obamacare, lock stock and barrel? Not in the least. If anything, the complicated mess which the difficult road that the ACA has traveled--and has yet to travel--needs to be taken to heart by all of those of us who view health care as a good which demands more equal distribution. We have to continually point out that the particular trade-offs which we have today are the result of America's "kludgeocracy," of our willingness to generate ever more neoliberal and technocratic bureaucracies so as to administer, as Ross Douthat put it, "notionally decentralized means [of achieving]...essentially centralized ends." The failure here was a political one, one that was unable to make a more straightforward case for either leaving something entirely local, or to recognize the statist costs of progressive solutions and being honest about them. At least then we could legislate less disingenuously! Mike Konczal makes this argument, and Timothy Burke does too; as the latter put it: "Why struggle so hard to craft the ACA and protect it from political backlash, why make legislation which could so easily be painted as a labyrinthine mess of contradictions and confusion because it is a labyrinthine mess of contradictions and confusion, when there was ample evidence that a solid majority of American voters would support a simple strong regime of mandatory cost controls and something rather like a single-payer system?"

There's a thousand good reasons why such determined expression still won't make any political difference. Yet, we have to keep trying--and you never know: sometimes, they may work. After the symposium had ended, and we'd made our final comments, I was talking with the same pastor I mentioned in #2 above, and he confessed to me that the most merciful, most Christian health care regime he'd ever experienced was when he and his family lived for a time in Australia...which has a single-payer system. Private insurance was available, but they never needed it, as their version of Medicare was more than adequate to their needs. Some conservatives will have their various religious or Constitutional arguments against such schemes--and other, smarter--but still, I think, incorrect--ones, will claim that the downside in striving for both affordability and equal availability of health care is the loss of capitalist innovation in matters of health. That, however, is--again--a political decision about distinct policy aims. And sometimes, when you get together a patiently talk and listen to what others are saying, democratic discussions can actually move our understanding of one another forward. It happened that night at Northfield, for me at least; hopefully, it happened for others as well.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Why Do I Keep Creating Libertarians?

Just to be clear: I know my title is an exaggeration. I don't "create" libertarians, or anything really, as a university teacher (not even always, as much as I wish otherwise, adequately educated American citizens). When it comes to matters of political opinion and ideology, I am, at most, just another component in my students' ongoing socialization and self-creation. Still, it remains a source of puzzlement to me. While I've become friendlier to certain sorts of left-libertarianism over the years, I've never pretended--to my students, here on my blog, or anywhere--that my own preferred political position was anything but a communitarian, populist, Laschian, localist, Toryish Left. But if that's so (just to play along with the--probably hopeless naive--belief that I as a college professor actually substantively contribute to the choices my students make), how is it that some--not all, to be sure, but over the years, much more than a few--of the best and brightest and hardest working students that I have taught here at Friends have been inspired to form Young Americans for Liberty chapters, or traveled to conferences to receive activist training in support of libertarian causes, or gotten involved in presenting the message of free markets throughout our community, or are currently looking forward to careers in academia or business with the concern for individual liberty at the forefront?

I can think of a few possible explanations:

1) I am actually a superbly effective and open-minded professor, who does nothing but expose my students to the world of ideas and encourage them to critically pursue what they think to be best--and a bunch of them have just happened to decide that libertarianism is what's best.

I'd actually love to believe this is true, but it's kind of conceited, and not particularly entertaining to contemplate. (Not the least reason being that I can't convince myself that the final clause there is at all accurate.)

2) I actually do attempt to indoctrinate my students, and really do put my opinions forward as the obvious truth, but I'm such a lousy teacher and clumsy indoctrinator that most of my attempts at brainwashing have completely backfired.

Related to this would be:

3) I actually do attempt to indoctrinate my students, and I'm relatively good at it, yet what I'm trying to instill in their brains is so obviously convoluted, wishy-washy, and ultimately incoherent that they wish, in response, to embrace the most streamlined and direct ideology around.

This explanation has the advantage of being compatible with a large percentage of all the commentary I've ever received from friends and online interlocutors about my politics, as pretty much every one of the 27 or so people who have ever unfortunately exposed themselves to my rants over the years can confirm.

4) What am I surprised about anyway? Opposition to government programs in America today has never been higher; nearly a quarter of the American people consider themselves libertarian in one sense or another; it's practically a "libertarian moment" out there right now. So what's the big deal?

I don't know if I find this explanation comforting or not, but I do find it the most intriguing. I'm teaching students about politics and government and law at a moment when the basic legitimacy of each and every one of them is being challenged (often lazily and ignorantly, it is true, but still, sincerely) as broadly as ever before in my lifetime. So perhaps I should see it as something of a triumph that a fair number of genuinely smart and committed students that I've been able to teach have taken some of what I've opened up to them and found within it a cause to engage matters of public life, rather than simply disengage in boredom and disgust. (Though there are many who do that too.) I suppose it's that sort of reasoning which lead me--when my students had done the work and came to me with their proposal--to agree to serve as the faculty sponsor (meaning: I'm the one who signs the bureaucratic forms) for their local YAL chapter. Sure, I'd kind of rather it be it be a chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists or the Greens, but at least they're not withdrawing: rather, they're making arguments, and that's something I can respect, and want to encourage.

Besides, I've discovered in talking often with my libertarian students--as they good-naturedly push back against my asking them to read John Maynard Keynes or Bill McKibben in the classroom--that the libertarianism and constitutionalism which animates many of them isn't just a chip off the Koch Brothers' block. Their deep suspicion of government systems extends to corporate and religious systems as well; many of them reject a bottom-line individualism with its obsession with rights, and instead identify with what might be called a kind of Tocquevillian localist promise: that as communities and families, as well as individuals, they'll someday be free to govern themselves, and build something themselves, and judge the morality of something for themselves, without getting dragged into (in their view) endless and corrupting fights over whether to allow this tax break or violate that social taboo. If you dig into the data behind the aforementioned studies, that ambivalence is evident. And even more appealing to me, given my own political preferences, is that these evolving libertarian ideas, by developing at least partly outside the paradigm of inviolable property rights and such, may ultimately produce the kind of thinking which can contribute to what I see as truly positive egalitarian or anarchic developments, whether they be some kind of "bleeding heart libertarianism" or good old-fashioned economic mutualism. That may be too much to hope for--but then again, the notion that the present generation is going to give rise to a more affirmative, aggressive, but also decentralized left has at least a little grounding in recent political developments:

[A] mountain of survey data--including the heavily Democratic tilt of Millennials in every national election in which they have voted--suggests that they are not especially susceptible to the right-wing populist appeals....[T]oday, a Republican seeking to divert Millennial frustrations in a conservative cultural direction must reckon with the fact that Millennials are dramatically more liberal than the elderly and substantially more liberal than the Reagan-Clinton generation on every major culture war issue except abortion....They are also more dovish on foreign policy. According to the Pew Research Center, Millennials are close to half as likely as the Reagan-Clinton generation to accept sacrificing civil liberties in the fight against terrorism  and much less likely to say the best way to fight terrorism is through military force....Millennials show a libertarian instinct in the privatization of Social Security, which they disproportionately favor....But Millennials are also more willing than their elders to challenge cherished American myths about capitalism and class. According to a 2011 Pew study, Americans under 30 are the only segment of the population to describe themselves as “have nots” rather than “haves.” They are far more likely than older Americans to say that business enjoys more control over their lives than government.  And unlike older Americans, who favor capitalism over socialism by roughly 25 points, Millennials, narrowly, favor socialism.

So, maybe what I'm managing to help create--whatever my role in that creation may actually be--is a bunch of libertarian-inclined potential anarcho-socialists, people who want to build a fairer, less violent, more equal, and more sustainable society, and want to see it done through local action, not the government dole. There are ways to argue with that position, and it may not fit my idiosyncratic Christian democratic dreams--but its worth taking seriously and even praising all the same, I think. And so, as my students go about building their free speech walls and mourning the death of the 10th amendment around campus, I'm kind of delighted. No, it's not the revolution I want, but it is, however minimally, a revolution which takes ideas serious--and seeing as how I think at least some of those ideas are absolutely correct, how could I not be happy to see it up and running?

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Saturday Night Live Music: "Carnival"

Natalie Merchant's upbeat modern folk-rock number gets a crunching, hard blues treatment. I love it.

Friday, November 01, 2013

"Please Tell Me This is Some Kind of Sick and Tasteless Joke!"

Yesterday, the spirit of Halloween was strong in the KIVI Channel 6 Boise newsroom yesterday, as their sports director went all-out as Ron Burgundy. I hope he gets some serious kudos for this prank; not only does he pull off his broadcast, but let's be frank--the results are probably better than the upcoming sequel will be

Stay classy, Boise.

Does America Need a Civil Religion?

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

The website Patheos asked me to answer the above question, in no more than 800 words. Here's what I came up with (a slightly edited version is here, as part of a re-launch of their "Public Square" feature):

Robert Bellah's classic notion of America's civil religion involved, as he put it, "the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it." To elaborate on that idea somewhat, Bellah held that the United States of America--like, he believed, every sovereign national body--both carried within and articulated through its own history a "religious self-understanding": in our case, a Judeo-Christian one, in which the ethical principles of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount formed a commonly accepted baseline upon which American citizens assessed their own polity (and, in particular, its political leaders and government policies). Bellah himself later backed away from a strong reliance upon civil religion as a way of explaining American society or diagnosing its behavior, emphasizing that the American religious ideal is best conceived as an wholly internalized, non-institutionalized one, but his original formulation still haunts many American political debates. In a country with a strong Protestant Christian history, comparatively robust levels of religious affiliation, ever-increasing religious pluralism, and numerous politically active religious-oriented groups and a party factions, what role should, or can, civil religion play?

My attitude towards these questions is fairly straightforward: I think that asking whether civil religion is possible or needful ignores the reality that it is, in fact, inevitable in a free and democratic society. Developing in the elaboration of some kind of civil religious consensus is a by product of thinking and believing people freely interacting with each other. In fact, I do not think that the "religious self-understanding" which Bellah observed about American life is necessarily all that substantively different from one of the great bogeymen of American constitutional history: "religious establishment." Bellah's later effort to insist that a civil religion loses its coherence when conceived outside of the individual dimension is, I think, a retreat from what is an otherwise inescapable complication.

In my view, it is an unavoidable facet of human nature to want to understand the actions of individuals (including oneself) as embedded in some sort of collective, morally (and often religiously) substantive--that is, “truthful”--cultural order. This is the fundamentally communitarian and dialogic character as human beings coming out: our ability to speak, think, associate, and judge impels us to retrieve from or construct through our social lives an arrangement of meaning. The result of this will be, in all but the most demographically unsettled and historically conflicted polities, a broadly affirmed civil religion which will invariably push towards elaboration and codification, even if at the same time one might be reluctant to grant the legal extremities of such, and even if the venues for expressing that codification (government offices, public schools, sporting events, marriage rules, family policies, etc.) vary and grow more diverse over time. America is not an exception to this; religious historians and political theorists (Jan Shipps and Eldon Eisenach, to just name two) have long argued that America's civic identity has been shaped by a series of what might be called "voluntary national religious establishments"--and there is no reason, I think, to believe that process has ended. Indeed, if that process came to an end, it would imply rather threatening conclusions about the reality of our own freedom as thinking, believing, associating beings and citizens.

America's civil religion today has a very minimal establishment, which mostly finds its expression in genially liberal ways. But that does not mean it is absent. The depth of the animosity which long characterized the debate over same-sex marriage--and the near-panic over protecting "religious liberty" which now characterizes the way some culturally conservative Christian churches and organizations are viewing same-sex marriage's recent successes--should make that clear. All the participants in this debate would do better, I think, if they could appreciate the substance of the ground upon which they are arguing. On the secular side of this divide, there is the insistence that they merely seek government neutrality, and have no theological agenda. This, I think, is clearly false; a society which carries into wedding halls, however implicitly, civil religious assumptions which can accommodate the idea of same-sex unions is going to be a very different society from one which rejected that idea as perverse. On the other, conservative side, there is the insistence that defensive actions against proposed rules about marriage or contraception which they make on behalf of religious traditionalism is a matter of preventing the public square from being stripped naked of all religiosity. But of course, it isn't that at all: rather, it is clearly a matter of particular Christian communities--ones which have long enjoyed implicit advantages under our reigning civil religion--losing their default position.

The partisans of those communities--those particular religious believers, in other words--obviously use whatever democratic or constitutional tools are available to them to protect their established presumptions. And sometimes, particularly in certain parts of the country, such legal and majoritarian strategies will work, and the resulting establishment will be a hybrid, contentious one. Wishing to avoid such contention entirely is, I think, a false and misguided hope. Democratic societies will have common religious understandings of one sort or another. The fact that America's is currently turning from a liberal-but-nominally-orthodox Christian one into something else is a legitimate concern for conservative believers--but it does not mean that civil religion will disappear, or that anyone should want it to.