Featured Post


If you're a student looking for syllabi, click the "Academic Home Page" link on your right, and start there.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Send Me On My Way"

Tomorrow we begin a family trip across the United States, going from Kansas to Colorado to Wyoming to Montana to Idaho to Washington state, then on to Oregon, and then all the way back again. Stops along the way include Yellowstone National Park and the Pacific Ocean. Wish us a luck everyone! Maybe I'll check in along the way, but in the meantime, enjoy this, in the spirit of hitting the road and putting another 3800 miles on the car.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Get It Right Next Time"

Gerry Rafferty, for whatever sort of personal quirk of memory, means summer to me. "Baker Street," of course, but also "Right Down the Line," and so much more. Hot lazy summer nights are made for this kind of groove.

Monday, June 16, 2014

"It’s Very Cold Out And Love Does Not Exist Also"

Why haven't I read any of the classic Russian novels? Even though I should? Perhaps because as "Every Russian Novel Ever" demonstrates, they're all so predictable.

Chapter 1. A Philosophical Murder
Chapter 2. A Washerwoman Is Insulted
Chapter 3. The Student’s Emotional Isolation Is Complete
Chapter 4. The Estate Is Sold Off
Chapter 5. Uuuuuughhhh
Chapter 6. An Argument That Is Mostly In French
Chapter 7. It’s Very Cold Out And Love Does Not Exist Also
Chapter 8. The Nihilist Buffs His Fingernails While Society Crumbles
Chapter 9. There Is No God
Chapter 10. 400 Pages Of A Single Aristocratic Family’s Slow, Alcoholic Decline
Chapter 11. Is This A Dinner Party Or Is This Hell?
Chapter 12. The Wedding Is Interrupted
Chapter 13. Friendship Among The Political Prisoners
Chapter 14. A Lackluster Duel
Chapter 15. The Countess Attempts Suicide
Chapter 16. Back From Siberia, Unexpectedly
Chapter 17. A Fit of Impetuousness
Chapter 18. Someone Middle-Class Does Something Awful
Chapter 19. A Prostitute Listens To A Ninety-Page Philosophical Manifesto
Chapter 20. I Advise You To Display More Emotional Control In The Future
Chapter 21. The Manservant Dies Alone
Chapter 22. Is This A Murder Mystery Or An Exploration Of The Nature Of Religious Faith? Turns Out, A Little Bit Of Both
Chapter 23. The Mayor Tells A Self-Serving Lie
Chapter 24. The Countess Finds Religion
Chapter 25. New Political Waves of Liberalism, Radicalism, and Nihilism Wash Over Russia
Chapter 26. The Time When We Might Have Found Happiness Together Has Passed

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Midnight Apparitions"

This week I pulled from my shelf of old cassette tapes which I have at the office something that I haven't listened to in quite some time: Kim Simpson's debut album, Destination. Simpson is a guitarist, folk singer, and general scholar of fine music who got his start in the early 90s in Utah; Melissa and I heard him multiple times from 1992 to 1995, once when he opened for a local Michael Hedges appearance (here he is performing at Mama's Cafe, a regular hang-out of ours way back then; it's entirely possible that I was in the audience during this performance, though I don't see myself in the crowd), and we never went on a road trip without that album being played in its entirety. It was that tape which introduced me to Nick Drake through Simpson's wonderful cover of "Place to Be" (Melissa's favorite song off it was "When Her Morning Sun"). Unfortunately, besides the above (not too wonderful) clip, I can't find any other live recordings of him from that era. But here's the next best thing: a very nice video of Simpson--who has since relocated to Austin, TX, and honestly we really need to make a trip down there with the intention of catching a show of his one of these days--indulging in a little nostalgia by playing my favorite song, and the title cut, from his second album (which, yes, I have on CD), Midnight Apparitions. Enjoy.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How the Fall of Eric Cantor Continues to Prove James Madison Wrong, or Something Like That

My friend Michael Austin has become a skilled pundit, and his observations on American politics are usually smart, historically informed, and wise. But his latest column, in which he claims somehow that the historically unprecedented defeat of a sitting House Majority Leader in a primary contest--which is what happened to Eric Cantor yesterday, when the Tea Party-influenced (though interestingly, not actually Tea Party-backed) quasi-libertarian David Brat defeated him soundly--is a demonstration of James Madison's logical argument for large republics in Federalist #10, is just strange.

Michael gets the basics of the tenth and, arguably, most famous of all the Federalist Papers correct:

Federalist #10 is Madison’s argument for a strong central government. The greatest danger to a republic, he argues, is a faction (a party or interest group) that becomes too powerful and begins using the power of the majority to oppress the minority. The only way to keep this from happening, Madison believed, was to place so many factions in competition with each other than none of them ever held power long enough to become oppressive. And the only way to do this is to create a large enough political entity to make sure that factions are always unstable.

I think Michael is leaning too much here on the idea of "unstable"; Madison (like Alexander Hamilton, his political-enemy-but-for-once-ally in the fight to get the proposed Constitution ratified) hated instability, comparing it with "injustice and confusion" in government, and blamed the existence of all such things on the partial interests of popular factions in the first place. Of course, Madison then goes on to show that, since we can't get rid of factions, free governments need to focus on "controlling its effects." This leads many readers--especially those partial to a kind of pragmatic pluralism, as Michael generally is--to see factions as one of the frustrating-but-managable realities of liberal government, and leave it at that. But that's not where Madison himself left it, I think; rather, he engages in a halfway-republican move (perhaps necessarily, given the political realities of the ratifying convention in New York State that the Federalist Papers were being written to influence), and argues that by obliging the representatives of factions (which, as he and every other person involved in the writing of the Constitution assumed, would be highly educated members of their respective communities, or as he put it, "men who possess the most attractive merit, and the most diffusive and established characters") to interact with one another in a legislative setting, you increase the likelihood that the government will act in accordance with the common good.

How was that supposed to work? First, Madison talked about how representative democracies "refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations." So, representative government improves the chances of a free people being able to discern the true public interest. Second, Madison urged that the republican system be extended: by "tak[ing] in a greater variety of parties and interests...you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other." In other words, in being forced to deal legislatively with one another, the ability of any one faction to subvert the common good in the name of private interest is interrupted by the necessity of respecting differences--as Madison concluded, "communication [referring here, I think it is fairly obvious, to lining up other legislators to vote along with you] is always checked by distrust, in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary."

The ultimate point of all this mostly well understood by scholars of the Federalist Papers: Madison made the claim (whether he actually believed it or not is a somewhat different question) that homogeneity and community are not the best way to balance human freedom with civic virtue; rather, the best thing to do is throw the door open to lots of factions, which, through their necessary intercourse with one another, will both allow representative action to articulate a common good, and will prevent partial interests from being able to infringe upon on the common good by obtaining majoritarian power.

What does any of this have to do with Cantor? That's exactly my complaint; I really don't think it explains anything about Cantor--in fact, if anything, the fact that a small faction (Tea Party-influenced libertarian-constitutionalists) within another faction (the Republican Party) can, through winning a low turn-out primary election, probably put effective political end to a much needed bit of legislative action, mainly just proves how much our systems doesn't actually adhere to Madison's understanding of representative government at all.

This is the way Michael summed it up:

Like most pragmatic Republicans, Eric Cantor understood that his party could not remain nationally competitive unless it could find some way to capture some non-trivial portion of the Hispanic vote...But he also knew that Republicans had damaged themselves badly with Hispanic voters by their persistent anti-immigration stance. He embraced immigration reform carefully and pragmatically because he understood that, without it, the Republican Party could be virtually shut out of national elections for the next two generations. It was a politically astute decision, and it cost him his political career....

The tea party appears to have more power within the Republican Party than it ever has, and establishment Republicans will increasingly have to choose between their long-term political fortunes and their short-term survival. The more success the conservative movement has, the more ideological purity its true believers will demand, and the less successful the conservative movement will be. Everything, in other words, is going according to Madison’s original plan.

I really don't follow this argument at all. Michael's assertion seems to rest on the idea of that a "successful" party is one that will be "nationally competitive." The Tea Party may have great influence, but as a faction it cannot succeed if it maintains its ideological purity, because that will mean....I guess that we won't ever have a immigration-reform-opposing, Hispanic-unfriendly, Tea Party-candidate win the presidency, or otherwise be able to do (in regards to "long-term political fortunes," anyway) what representatives are sent to the legislature to do. It will fall apart, as Madison predicted.

First, I don't see any indication in Federalist #10 that Madison held any kind of comprehensive view on the life-cycle of factions. (If he did have such a view, one might argue that his trenchant comments about how we can see throughout history factions destroying democracies that he seems them as rather durable, to the point of overwhelming and destroying, parasite-like, their own political hosts.) Second and more importantly, Michael seems, in this column, to be choosing not to think much about the institutional realities of American electoral politics. We operate with an electoral system that privileges two-party dominance. The sort of regional, cultural, religious, and economic variations throughout our country which once complicated the positioning of factions within those two parties have become ideologically streamlined--particularly in the case of the Republican party. And, of course, we have a separation-of-powers system and a legislative body with a large number of veto points, controlling the possibility of genuine legislative action. And, of course, you have all the flaws of our campaign finance system. The result of all this, as everyone knows, is democratic gridlock. In the case of immigration reform, you have significant majorities of Americans who recognize that something needs to be done--and you have a small faction, a faction within a faction really, who has probably been able to effectively paralyze the U.S. Congress on this issue for the rest of Obama's term in office. Since stopping the kind of immigration reforms which were actually on the table in Congress was one of candidate Brat's oft-stated goals, that sounds to me like a faction that is "successful," don't you think? Brat doesn't have to run for president, and Boehner doesn't have to continue on as Speaker of the House, for a faction to succeed in gumming up the "communication" that Madison thought ought to happen in the legislature.

I suppose Michael is ultimately wagering on what he assumes the long-view to be: Madison said there will be factions and we have to manage them, or they will manage us, and that is what's happening, so Madison, in general, was right. Since I don't know what Madison's long-view was, I can't really say. But to the extent that Madison, as I read him, claimed that an extended republic would allow for more and better representatives to more faithfully and responsibly eliminate threats to and work towards the common good, I think he was mostly wrong about how representative democracies have come to work. Cantor's loss, if it suggests anything, I think proves more on the anti-Madison side than otherwise.

Monday, June 09, 2014

What Works and What Doesn't After 75 Years

1939 has been called Hollywood's greatest year often enough that, a short while ago, I decided to revisit (or, in a couple of cases, visit for the first time) some of the biggest and most historically significant films from that year, to see how well I felt they stood up to watching exactly three-quarters of a century later. The results, in my opinion, were decidedly mixed. Let me go from worst to best--while noting 1) that not even the worst of these films are really "bad" in any kind of objective sense; I just find them (and suspect I am not alone these days) more or less unwatchable for various reasons, and 2) I'm looking only at American films, meaning that I didn't revisit one of the most demanding and important movies of that, Renoir's Rules of the Game.

I suppose there are any number of people out there who still swoon over Gone With the Wind, indisputably the biggest of all the great productions of 1939, but I'm not one of them. I grant the epic scale and the gorgeous sets and costumes, but the relationship between Vivian Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara and Clark Gable's Rhett Butler is belabored, artificial, and unconvincing--and given that after Atlanta gets burned to the ground there's really no action left to the movie except watching the post-Civil War machinations of these two unappealing people, it just descends into a long, boring slog. And let's not even get into the film's poisonous cultural contribution to the Lost Cause myth. Skip this one.

Slightly less malicious in its effects than GWTW, but twice as melodramatic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is kind of a fascinating dry-run for the much, much superior It's a Wonderful Life. Besides having many of the same performers, the way it cinematically sets up its basic thematic assumptions--contrasting the nobility and innocence of families, little children, small towns, and the rural countryside to the corruptions of big city, big government, and big money life, most particularly--was often exactly echoed by the later movie (using the exactly same recording of "Auld Lang Syne" as a key emotional cue, for example). But anyway, let's face it: this film utterly defines the pejorative label "Capra-corn." Stewart's Jefferson Smith is just ridiculously, appallingly earnest, and when he's framed as a corrupt pol--because his dream of building a boy's camp gets in the way of a scam to benefit from the government's construction of a dam--he can't come up with any arguments in his defense. Instead, he just filibusters on the floor of the U.S. Senate, quoting scripture and oozing patriotism, until he nearly dies of exhaustion and through pure moral example leads to real bad guys to confess. You could argue it's an early example of the Green Lantern Theory of Politics. Not terrible, but really only worth it if you're an absolute Jimmy Stewart or "films about politics" completest.

The Women is more a stunt than a movie--a two-hour film, all about women complaining about their husbands and boyfriends, and then fighting with each other like mad to get those husbands and boyfriends back once any other woman manages to snag them, all without a single male being seen--but while the overall plot is both demeaning and atrociously sexist, there's enough good material to keep a viewer mostly interested, or at least so I thought. If you're willing to accept upfront such stereotypes as the bitchy gold-digger and the worldy-wise ranch manager, then I can't deny that a fair number of the zingers can still make you smile.

I don't know if Stagecoach was the first example a movie about "diverse strangers in a confined space trying to survive," but within that very limited and predictable genre, I think it may be one of the best. John Wayne's Ringo Kid shows glimmers of the sort of iconic hero that he would come to play in almost every movie he subsequently made, but in this 75-year-old movie some of his line readings and moves seem almost fresh. And for a movie made five years after the Hays Code went into affect, it was surprisingly frank about the folks on board the titular stagecoach: a prostitute, an embezzler, a drunk doctor (the ever-reliable Thomas Mitchell),a  professional gambler (very intriguingly played by John Carradine, bringing an interesting touch to the stereotypical Southern man of honor), and more. Very worth watching if you're never seen Wayne's breakout role before.

I didn't know what to expect when watching Ninotchka, but it surprised and impressed me on almost every level. Yes, it is--like every other movie on this list--assembled in a manner which can't help but strike modern audiences as broad, obvious, and unsubtle, and you'd think that would be death to the only comedy I watched from that era (Mr. Smith and The Women both have a good number of comic moments, but either were romantic comedies as Ninotchka was). But that stagey quality didn't stop me from being greatly entertained. Part of it was simply historical: how fun to discover evidence of the way people made jokes about Hitler's Germany (a couple of folks on a train in Paris who say "Heil Hitler" to each other are presented as weirdos, not wicked) or Stalin's Soviet Union (my favorite snark by Melvyn Douglas's Count to Greta Garbo's Ninotchka: "I've been fascinated by your Five-Year Plan for the last 15 years!") before World War II? Or the fun was ideological: I can only think of a half-dozen or so comedies up to this present-day that are as frank, smart, and genuinely funny when it comes to setting up conflicts between the classes. Anyway, Ninotchka, 75 years on, is a charmer.

Do I even need to say anything about The Wizard of Oz? It is a genuine masterpiece, and that's not just the fondness of 45-year-old Mormon who remembers as a kid in the early 70s being allowed to watch TV on Sundays when this movie was played (as it was, pretty much once a year, for decades). I've read The Wizard of Oz and subsequent Oz books to my kids over the years, and some of them really loved them--but this musical is a work of art which transcends its source material entirely. L. Frank Baum was trying to develop a genuinely American, post-Industrial Revolution fantasy sensibility, and I give him an A for effort, but Victor Fleming and the rest of the entertainment geniuses at MGM had a stronger sense of what the real  American fantasy was: a movie musical, using song to bring the fantastic into our daily lives and our hearts. I don't know how many times I've seen this film over the years, but it stands, I think, with Singin' in the Rain and a couple of others at most as one of the greatest, most joyous music productions of all time. 75 years isn't nearly enough time to even begin to dim this rainbow.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "June"

A criminally underappreciated singer-songwriter, singing a great, little-known song, which is--obviously--just perfect for this month.

"I Could Do Better if I Had More Space."

The fantastic tale of how Stephan Pastis, author and artist of the very fine (though not, in my humble opinion, truly great) comic strip Pearls Before Swine, ended up drawing the reclusive genius of Calvin and Hobbes (very simply, one of the four or five utterly essential comic strips in the entire history of the medium), Bill Watterson, back to America's newspapers under the greatest secrecy has been bouncing around social media today, and probably everyone who is the sort of person who would geek out with delight at such news has already heard it. Well, so what? If for whatever reason you're reading this blog post, and you--like all right-thinking people--dearly miss Calvin and Hobbes, but somehow haven't heard the amazing story of how Watterson actually emerged from his world of privacy and secretly shared his wit and skill with the reading public, well, read this, and then enjoy the resulting strips. And see if you can spot Watterson's work (hint: it's not hard).

As they say, some guys have all the luck. But fortunately, sometimes they share it.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

How Marx Explains the Pomo-Con/Front-Porch Divide, In Four Easy Steps

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Via Rod Dreher, I see that the occasionally interesting blog Postmodern Conservative has departed its longtime home at the (often, if not always) theoconservative journal First Things and has relocated to the National Review, the flagship journal of mainstream, thoughtful-though-also-invariably-Republican-party-supporting conservatism in the United States. Rod speculates that this move will sharpen a long-dormant but still very real argument on the margins of American conservatism: the philosophical and strategic disagreements between those conservatives who consider themselves contrary but still constructive partners in conserving what is best in the modern liberal state--the Postmodern Conservatives--and those conservatives who this that the best "conservative" response to the modern liberal state is to firmly push back against it, or simply retreat from it, in the name of local community, civic health, and family traditions--that is, of course, the Front Porch Republic.

Caleb Stegall reminded Rod of a post from 2009 which pretty thoroughly summarized and provided extensive links to the arguments between the two camps...and I noticed an old contribution of mine in the mix. Re-reading it, I was pleased to see some of the positive responses it received, but mostly embarrassed by my typically contorted, overlong prose. So, especially as I saw the argument starting anew in Rod's comment section, I thought I'd run through that nearly-exactly five-year-old blog post of mine, and, in the spirit of my (probably hopeless) defense of the "left conservative" label yesterday, breakdown what I was trying to say, updating my thoughts along the way.

1) It's very easy to get caught up in the history of political philosophy, and assume that the real argument between these two non-mainstream camps of conservative thinkers is how they frame the progressive presumptions of modernity. Pomo-Cons supposedly see it, within certain limits, as basically positive, because the possibility of conserving and living in accordance with virtue is still possible as technology and society have advanced and developed, while Porchers supposedly see it, generally speaking, negatively, because the ideological structural within those assumptions are fundamentally individualizing and thus antithetical to the kind of communities upon which the conservation of virtue depends. There's much truth to that, to be sure--but much which, I think, it hides as well. The primary thing it hides, from my (self-interested!) point of view, is that it fails to account for why on earth Porcherism is amenable to folks on the left, even sometimes the "progressive" left--this goes all the way back to Dreher's original "crunchy con" argument--while I can't imagine the Pomo-Con approach ever doing so.

2) I think the better framing of the argument, then, is to be found by focusing on the first world in FPR's masthead: "place." Above all, Porchers believe that it is places that must be conserved, because we are communitarian enough to feel that the virtues associated with a healthy civil society are only ever realized through the discourse and history and trust which well-established neighborhoods and localities and communities make possible. And what is it, upon looking around, that we see which acts most particularly against the conservation of such places? The answer, for Porchers, is social and economic practices and structures which atomize and disperse connections. The secular, centralizing state is an agent of such atomization, to be sure, but so is the profit-hungry capitalist economy. And for all his limits as a prophet of the needed direction of the modern world, as a diagnostician no one stands taller, in my view and the view of many others over the past century and a half, than Karl Marx.

3) Smart Pomo-Cons obviously recognize that we all--all members of Western civilization anyway, and thanks to globalization that includes most of the planet by now--live and move through a modernity shaped by the impact of Marx's ideas, in the same way that the ideas of Aristotle, Augustine, Locke, Jefferson, Keynes, and many others shape us. They're smart enough to know that the reflexive paranoia which labels President Obama a Marxist is silly. But I think Porchers, whether they care to admit to it or not, take Marx more seriously--whether directly or through thinkers whose populism or distributism or socialism or agrarianism or localism or other criticisms of the modern liberal state borrow from, or at least implicitly echo, Marx's relentless focus on the dislocating, exploitative social power which the unregulated (and thus invariably concentrating and centralizing) flow of capital gives to those who master it. The common point of all such radical criticisms, at least insofar as this intellectual debate is concerned, is that they challenge the contented faith that, for all its numerous problems, the modern liberal order is not an enemy of community, tradition, and family. Marx saw that it was. He also--thanks to his profoundly, violently incorrect philosophy of historical determinism--felt that the social and economic destruction of community could be, and would be, harnessed to an ultimate revolution against capital. That didn't happen, and it shouldn't. But his crystal-clear identification of the culture-depleting alienation of human beings from their places when the logic of industrial capitalism reigns without limits has shaped Porcher conservatism, making it amenable to those leftists and progressives (with their CSAs, their community organizations, their public schools, their unions, and more) who recognize that the real key to democracy and equality is not a doubling-down on individual natural rights, but rather the strengthening of the overlapping communities we are all part of.

4) So I come back, once again, to Norman Mailer's "left conservative" formulation: to "think in the style of Karl Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke." Porcherism can't be friendly to the present global liberal regime, as much as we may pragmatically work with it, because we see it premised upon the valuation of states and corporations and individuals who build their webs of connection in anything but Burkean, organic ways. The state, the corporation, even the sovereign individual all have their intellectual place in our accounting of the present world, and may be defended in better or worse ways. But absent a real communitarian context--a liveable, sustainable, historical one--they will follow paths that can never truly privilege place, and all too often will instead undermine it. That's a fairly grand conclusion to come to about an online, ideological debate, I know. But for those few of us who have found an intellectual home in the combination of traditionalism with radicalism, it's an important one to never forget either.

The Dink Redeems the 1980s

Peter Dinklage can make anything look good. Word.

What Tiananmen Meant to Me, Twenty-Five Years Ago

In the summer of 1989, I was living in Seoul, South Korea--on Yeouido (여의도) island, in fact, just a few miles from the 63 Building. (I strongly doubt any foreign missionaries could afford apartments there today.) The heavy rains of the summer had come early that year, or at least that was my memory. I was just about halfway through the 22 months I was spending in the country as a church missionary, and by that time I probably had learned about as much Korean as I ever did master, unfortunately. It was enough to be able to follow in a very general way the information I caught on the occasional television news program which I'd watch while eating at a restaurant or visiting a friend's apartment, but I still kept an eye out for English-language newspapers and magazines, and would grab a copy whenever I could. And then came a day in June, perhaps a week or so after the event in question, when I managed to find this copy of Time.

The June 4th Tiananmen Square Massacre--the violent crushing, via the armed force of the People's Liberation Army, of the massive, disorganized, dizzying popular demonstrations which had been taking place in Beijing's central Tiananmen Square since April--had managed to pass me by entirely. I later learned that just about everyone in Seoul had been talking about the tragedy, and I saw more than enough news coverage of it through various Western sources. But on the South Korean news programs, there was nothing--the order had come down from the government not to discuss the massacre, as it was feared that it would remind people too much of the Gwangju Uprising, when hundreds of Koreans were slaughtered by the South Korean army when they took control of the city of Gwangju during a period of martial law. (South Korea in 1989 was technically on its way to becoming a genuinely free, mostly liberal, multi-party democracy, but its president at the time, Roh Tae-woo (노태우) had still been hand-picked by a former military dictator, Chun Doo-hwan (전두환), who himself had ordered the Gwangju slaughter in 1980, and many political and social restrictions were still in place--all of which were unmentioned in the media and constantly protested in the streets, leading one local American I knew to refer to South Korea, riffing on one of the nation's traditional names, as "the land of morning calm and evening riot.") So an unknown number of violent deaths--probably numbering in the thousands, though no official numbers have ever been released--out of the more than a million Chinese students, Beijing locals, and others who participated in those demonstrations went essentially, officially, undocumented in the country right next door.

When I returned to America and went back to BYU in 1990, I wanted to understand the culture and people that I'd been sent to preach to, and I began to study Asian politics and philosophy. While I never became anything like an authority on Chinese politics, in those years while I was completing my undergraduate degree and then getting my MA, it was impossible to go to a conference, to gather together with other students, or to meet with faculty in my area, and not have the events of the year before, or of two or three or four years before, come up at some point or another. We were all former East Asian church missionaries, or people who'd spent time doing business or teaching English in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei, and elsewhere, or both--and all of us had, at the time, desperately scavenged for news coming out of the PRC. (This was pre-internet, folks.) As students in the years to come, we went to hear from dissidents and troublemakers that our professors knew and managed to bring to campus, as well as apologists for the regime (I can remember one time when, in a gathering at a small campus theater, some representative of PRC government, perhaps someone from the consulate nearest to Utah, answered questions about the causes behind the demonstrations, leading one Chinese student at BYU to bravely shout out "You are a liar!"--after which all his friends quickly hustled him out of the theater, before he could be identified, have his student visa stripped from him, and suffer the consequences). Nothing seemed more important to me, back then, then contributing to the debate about how to help bring democracy to China, and punishing those in power. The mostly forgotten argument over giving China special trading privileges with the U.S. seemed massively important to me then. When it looked like China was going to be successful in landing its bid for the 2000 Summer Olympics, it seemed like a terrible scandal. And so forth, and so on.

Well, they eventually did get their Olympics in 2008--and 25 years on, the word from China is that most young people are pretty unfamiliar with the protests and the enormous bravery shown by thousands of people who engaged in hunger strikes, marches, and life-threatening civil disobedience, so as to be heard by their government. And I'm still no expert about China--indeed, given the huge changes globalization has wrought over the past quarter-century, I'd have to say I know less about China's people, culture, language, aspirations, and politics today than I did back then. (The fact that I ended up doing almost nothing with East Asia during my graduate school years--this article is about the only evidence of the passions that I carried with me from my BYU years--may have contributed to that as well, of course.) I may have a chance to visit China this coming year, speaking at a conference in Nanjing; it'd be my first visit back to East Asia since my Hong Kong trip four years ago, and dearly hope it works out. No fears about visiting China? None at all. Whatever the many good and important things that we hoped for and wrote about back then which haven't worked out, so many other unexpected good things, good things that many students and friends of mine who have visited and lived in China over the past 25 years have testified of, actually have worked out. China is, in so many ways, clearly a better place to live today than it was a generation ago. This hasn't made China into a democracy, by any means--the tyrannical practices of the controlling party, their human rights abuses, their suppression of dissent, their control of the media, their corrupt and exploitive dealings with corporate powers, is all still there. But this nation of billions of people has changed and continues to change in ways that no one could ever predict--so much so that the sort of tightly employed state violence which it wielded in downtown Beijing back in 1989 is probably pretty much inconceivable today, by the Chinese themselves and the millions who do business with them. And that is, most certainly, the best good thing of all.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Burkean? Maybe, In a Sense. But Left Conservative? Not at All

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

Ryan Lizza posted a short note today, about the new limitations on the industrial production of carbon emissions which the Environmental Protection Agency, under the direction of President Obama, has just proposed. It's a good piece, explaining how these new guidelines had their start in a 2006 court case, Massachusetts v.  Environmental Protection Agency, which--by a 5-4 decision--agreed that the EPA had an obligation to consider the production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants which need to be restricted. And while I think Lizza is being ridiculously optimistic when he writes that "a statement...from the President might just make it more likely that the public...will begin to think of carbon pollution in the same way that it thinks of other kinds of toxic substances spewed into the air," I can't really disagree with anything he says; while he manages to avoid ever mentioning the Keystone pipeline, which probably is the largest environmental albatross around the president's neck, he's certain correct that Obama has moved very cautiously and deliberately in building up his environmental agenda, and it's not wrong to see that as reflecting his approach to government in general. But then comes his concluding paragraph:

It’s hardly unheard of for a President to be cautious about pushing social change, and it would be more surprising if a President didn’t move in the direction of shifting public opinion. Obama and his aides like to see him as someone who plays a long game. They sometimes suggest that his movement on these issues is all part of a grand plan. More likely, Obama is what might be called a “left conservative,” a phrase that Norman Mailer briefly popularized when he ran for mayor of New York, in 1969. Obama obviously shares the outlook of the left on these cultural issues, but he’s temperamentally cautious and rarely believes that it’s worth his effort to act until his own liberal base has moved the country along with it. And, even then, he sees his job as moderating the passions of the activists.

I have to register a strong dissent to this, however pedantic my protest may be. Mailer's actual line, as he put it in his book The Armies of the Night, was that he called himself a "left conservative" because he wanted to "think in the style of Karl Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke." Or, in other words, to make sense of this claim in the context of the 1967 March on Washington (the anti-Vietnam War protest which Mailer both participated in and made the centerpiece of his novel), he talking about how he thinking and acting radically against the abuses of the American state, its Manichean self-image, and its global economy, in the name of being able to enjoy the sort of life and priorities associated with Edmund Burke's defense of home, neighborhood, and tradition. Lizza, by contrast, is using the term to communicate almost the exact reverse of this: that Obama is on the progressive left when it comes to issues of environmental protection or same-sex marriage or any number of other cultural, social, and economic issues (policy positions that may have any number of ramifications, but would also never be described primarily in terms of defending "tradition), but nonetheless is procedurally "conservative" about how he supports those issues. He thinks like Burke supposedly would have--and the notion that President Obama is a careful thinker who moves slowly and respects the historical and organic dimensions of the obstacles which face him is an old, much-disputed claim--and thus doesn't try to act like a radical, instead waiting for others to come around, before he weighs in with his presidential authority.

Not many people are going to care one way or another about Lizza's appropriation of this terminology, but I confess I'm one of them, because the "left conservative" framing of how one thinks about capitalism, equality, social change, and much more has been very helpful and clarifying for me over the years. Particularly when it comes to the way he has handled environmental issues, President Obama has been an almost perfect example of progressive neoliberal mangerialism, seeing catastrophes like the BP oil spill and festering disputes like the aforementioned Keystone pipeline not in terms of radically rethinking those critical structures in play in how we produce energy or engage in trade or grow our food or live our lives, but rather in simply identifying the financial and bureaucratic fractures in those structures, and patching them as best as federal money and state incentives can. The radical rethinking of the sort Mailer gestured toward may, in this case, be socialist (for example, moving away from leaving energy production in hands of private corporations, and instead subjecting it to diverse and democratic controls), or it may be conservative (for example, rejecting the excess and waste of the automobile-based economy, and re-engaging in systems of local production and trade), or maybe it's actually both. Hence, "left conservative."

Obviously, at each and every point along either such hypothetical path there would need to be constant policy reforms and tweaks, and that means there will be a need for good, cautious management; no one disputes that. And while the usual coal-gas-and-oil-apologists are, of course, screaming bloody murder over these new carbon emission regulations, anyone who isn't a climate-change denier very likely sees them for limited positive steps which they are. For all his (many) faults, Obama is actually a fairly decent administrator of our oversized and unwieldly liberal state. But label that what it is: neoliberal (maybe even sometimes outright liberal!) pragmatism, or managerialism, or something. Don't poach from a label few know, fewer respect, but which, I think at least, is desperately needed.