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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Moyer's Worlds

Via Lawyers, Guns & Money, I see that Bill Moyers, one of the absolute icons of progressive liberal journalism in America, is at long last retiring. I'd have to sit down and really think for moment to come up with just how many dozens of his news stories, television specials, and educational videos I've watched and learned from over the years (though his tremendous work on the corporate corruption of the electoral process stands out). But I don't have to think to remember his first and most lasting impression upon me, as that I can't forget. It came through two books: the two volumes of A World of Ideas, edited transcripts of interviews which Moyers conducted numerous scholars, writers, artists, scientists, and public intellectuals in a couple of series of broadcasts, in 1988 and 1990. Those were the two years that I was serving a church mission in South Korea; fortunately, though, these books made available to me later everything I missed, when I discovered them in a used bookstore sometime in 1991 or so. What brilliant and wide-ranging interviews they were! As a recently-returned Mormon missionary, a confused and intellectually ambitious and at-loose-ends young adult, pouring through these pages, reading a conversation with accomplished men and women who'd spent decades building scholarly edifices for their ideas...it was an absolute revelation. Politics, history, philosophy, ethics, art, religion, literature, engineering, science-fiction: it was all there. Sheldon Wolin, Elaine Pagels, Barbara Tuchmann, William Julius Wilson, Forrest McDonald, Tom Wolfe, Noam Chomsky, Tu Wei-Ming, Jonas Salk, Cornel West, Michael Sandel, Martha Nussbaum, Isaac Asimov, E.L. Doctorow, and more, all deep into their research and writing, all displaying for an unformed young person exactly what Moyers truly, deeply believed in: namely, the democratic and liberating power of talking freely and sustainably about ideas. That, more than anything else, is what Moyers, for close to fifty years, has enabled the mass media to do. My hat is off to you, sir. Thank you.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Rise"

Herb Alpert, without the Tijuana Brass, delivering one of his West Coast smooth-jazz masterpieces. Not as loud or as sharp as it was when originally recorded, but with every bit of the groove.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Coming Around Again"

Because I'm a sap for the sort of heartfelt, Me-Decade, bourgeois wisdom which someone like Carly Simon always delivered, year after year after year.

Friday, September 19, 2014

No. #Seven is My Favorite

(Hat tip: Nick Zukin)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Happy Constitution Day! Now Go and Read This

When I was an undergraduate studying international relations and political philosophy back in the early, circa 1990-1993, Francis Fukuyama was huge. His 1989 essay "The End of History" (later expanded into a book) was essential reading. I'm pretty certain I never bought into his Hegelian interpretation of the history of liberal democracy, and in later years I found his apologetic balancing act regarding the Iraq War discomforting familiar to my own unfortunate trajectory. Still, I've always found him worth reading, particularly his reflections on Confucianism, social development, and civic trust. And thus it was with great interest when Damon Linker pointed his readers to this morning to this rather despairing essay by Fukuyama. Drawing on his latest work on the decay of political institutions, he apparently has just one basic thing to say to his fellow American citizens: might as give up.

Okay, maybe his doesn't quite go that far. But when you end a lengthy and detailed article, summarizing much political science research with numerous well chosen examples (though my friend David Salmanson is perhaps rightly complaining to me via e-mail about Fukuyama's treatment of the U.S. Forest Service), with "The depressing bottom line is that given how self-reinforcing the country’s political malaise is, and how unlikely the prospects for constructive incremental reform are, the decay of American politics will probably continue until some external shock comes along to catalyze a true reform coalition and galvanize it into action," the headline of Damon's column--"America is Doomed!"--seems justified. Given my rather odd and radical mix of political preferences--Christian socialism, local community, populist economics, a decentralized and quasi-anarchic egalitarianism, etc.--it's not surprising that I'm quite open to root-and-branch condemnations of the liberal constitutionalism which defines our political order (though it was really only within that past few years that my despair with our particular approach to democratic government really began to flourish), and I recognize that general narratives of decline are a dime-a-dozen and deserve to be treated skeptically. Still, I think overall Fukuyama has thoughtfully and measuredly nailed our institutionally decay. Perhaps there is much more that could be said about the civic, moral, and structural roots of that decay, but in terms of proximate causes, it really is, as Damon commented to me, a tour-de-force.

So, in other words, you all should read it, and think about it. To whet your appetites (or perhaps to serve the needs of those who are curious but don't have a spare half-hour or so), let me summarize some of his main points by reconstructing them in a step-by-step, historical fashion:

1) The constitutional arrangement of the United States ended up--in part by building guarantees of individual rights, guarantees which came to be the interpretive prerogative of the judicial branch, into our fundamental law right from the beginning--enabling (or, at least, given the ideological backwash of the Revolution, legitimizing) a rise in a demand for political and economic democracy long before an administrative state capable of delivering of the democratic wishes of the people was established.

2) Consequently, through the 19th century political parties became the primarily deliverer of democratically demanded prizes--and as the country grew in size and complexity, this political and economic patronage became increasing corrupt, with locally elected representatives and locally elected or appointed judges enjoying enormous patronage resources.

3) The Progressive era was thus much more than simply cleaning up and regulating political parties and elections; it was also creating a set of expectations for administrative agencies--ones that reflected a late 19th-century/early 20th-century devotion to science and organization--that presented them as capable bearers of the public trust distinct from the buying and patronizing of political influence. Ideally, while these agencies would be subject to ultimate legislative (and thus democratic) oversight, they would be kept free from invasive and debilitating interest group interference.

4) Unfortunately, over the long haul, both our particular (separation of powers) constitutional arrangement and our particular (first-past-the-post) electoral system made it in the interest of elected representatives to seek the support of specific interest groups beyond the official agenda of their parties, and our individualism pushed against the regulations that had prevented the development of a hugely expensive campaign finance system which made such support necessary for the success of any individual politician. The combination of these made the ability of administrative agencies to remain free from the legislative veto-points that proliferated in our federal government--or even the desire of those working in said agencies to stay above them--rather negligible.

5) As a result, the judiciary became increasingly responsible for, and then eventually invested in, resolving disputes and issuing rules to patch over both the inability or unwillingness of our legislative bodies to effectively act on political consensus, and the incoherence of the dictates handed out to administrative agencies by a divided and interfering legislature. An executive which regularly took up authority that the legislative branch couldn't or wouldn't make use of, and issued executive orders which often tested the boundaries of its enumerated powers, giving the legislature and interest groups additional things to fight about, didn't help.

6) All this, of course, decreased the trust in and prestige of government, meaning that increasingly the purported meritocracy of the civil service didn't work, as the best and the brightest went elsewhere.

7) Lather, rinse, repeat. Or, as Fukuyama writes near his conclusion:

[T]he United States is trapped by its political institutions. Because Americans distrust government, they are generally unwilling to delegate to it the authority to make decisions, as happens in other democracies. Instead, Congress mandates complex rules that reduce the government’s autonomy and cause decision-making to be slow and expensive. The government then doesn’t perform well, which confirms people’s lack of trust in it. Under these circumstances, they are reluctant to pay higher taxes, which they feel the government will simply waste. But without appropriate  resources, the government can’t function properly, again creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How to get out of this? I don't know. Some aim to overturn Citizens United and re-install some strong limits on the ability of powerful individuals and corporations to dictate where the incentives governing the decisions of our elected representatives lie. But frankly, I have little hope for that. But assuming that or some other such reform does work, what would keep the whole process from simply starting up again? Probably, I think, it would have to involve creating a more parliamentary set of institutions, meaning a wholesale change in our Constitution. Again, not something I'm holding our much hope for. See what I mean about despair?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What Would the Father of Nationalism Say About Scottish Independence?

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

On Thursday, voters in Scotland will go to the polls and either choose "Yes," meaning that they want Scotland to become an independent state, or "No," meaning that they want Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom. There's a huge amount which could be said--and, for those who live in the UK or who are more closely tied to it than I, has been said over the past months--about this referendum. But being as I am a non-British resident of Kansas who has never gotten closer to Scotland than watching Rob Roy, there really isn't much which I could add to any of those arguments.

Except, perhaps, one thing. The role of Scottish nationalism in this referendum is in some ways unclear: those on the "No" side condemn it as a backward, petty, borderline-racist bit of irrational chest-thumping, while those on the "Yes" either claim that Scottish national pride and desire for independence is a positive and inclusive thing, or deny that national feeling really has much to do with it at all. That last claim is a little hard to swallow, given that Scottish nationalism has been the primary animating ideology of the Scottish National Party, the engine behind the referendum vote, for 80 years. But just admitting that many Scots have great affection for their nation doesn't, in itself, explain why or whether they should desire national self-determination, especially given the options presently available to them (which, if Labor leader Ed Miliband is to be believed, may even include transforming the UK into a genuine federal state). So what does Scottish national feeling constitute or point towards, politically speaking? Johann Gottfried Herder, the late 18th-century German pastor, educator, and literary critic whom many consider to be the father of modern nationalism (and about whom I have written a fair amount) may have a few things to say about that.

There is, admittedly, great disagreement amongst both Herder scholars and historians of nationalist thought as to whether Herder's generally very literary and vaguely religious discussions of the moral worth of cultural and linguistic communities actually constitutes a defense of "nationalism" as it came to be understood, defended, and employed throughout the 19th century. This debate is further complicated by the taxonomy of nationalism(s): is it cultural or political, ethnic or civic, all of the above? Still, what cannot be contested is that Herder strongly defended the idea that ideally any historical human community can and generally ought to be understood as a "volk," an anthropologically distinct and morally significant entity whose expressions and practices the broader sweep of humanity ought to recognize, respect, and learn from, which is clearly one of the primary roots of any nationalist self-conception. To the extent that the Scots themselves (as well as nearly everyone else who has commented on the debate on the referendum) acknowledge being "Scottish" as both an identity and way of life, it would seem that Herder's reflections on nationality ought to apply.

Except that it's not clear that Herder himself would agree. This isn't to say that he would deny the historical value of the Scottish volk (like many early Romantics, he was captivated by the supposedly-historical-but-actually-only-marginally-authentic "Ossian" poems of James Macpherson), but rather that, on the basis of Herder's own analysis, he might not give much credence to an insistence upon Scottish national particularity today. The primary problem is linguistic: the Scots overwhelmingly speak English, just like the English do. (Well, okay, obviously not just like, but given that even a majority of Scots themselves don't consider Scottish a distinct language, the point stands.) And for Herder, this was extremely important; in his philosophical anthropology, it is the language spoken (and written, but generally he held orality, the publikum of preaching and discourse and story-telling, to be paramount) which primarily shapes how a people see the world around them, and what kind of moral and aesthetic insights--which could take the form of traditions or even "prejudices," which Herder defended as well--they may be able to expressively contribute to human history and development. Consequently, it was the language spoken by a community which most needed recognition, respect, and cultural protection, perhaps of the sort that only political independence could provide.

But Herder was also sensitive enough of a translator and historian to acknowledge that the linguistic character of a volk could change over time, thus suggesting a change in how that human community ought to be regarded by others. For example, at a time when Germany was a collection of separate states which Herder, like many German romantics, wanted to see shake off the influence of the French Enlightenment and embrace their own distinct culture and language, he nonetheless strongly disputed the claims of some German nationalists that Holland ought to be absorbed into a greater Germany; in his view, Dutch was a linguistic take on and way of interacting with the world distinct enough from German that it would be ridiculous to conceive it as part of the German volk. Given that, and given the probably irrevocable decline of any truly distinct Scottish language, I think it is entirely possible that Herder might look at the United Kingdom today and suggest that, for better or worse, the empirical fact is that Welsh national claims perhaps have far greater moral legitimacy than Scotland's (though the role of the Welsh language in Wales today, while clearly in better shape than Scots Gaelic, can be disputed).

If, however, we can set aside that one (for Herder, pretty huge) qualification, and simply credit the public perception throughout the United Kingdom that, even as English-speakers, the Scots constitute a nation, what should that mean? Again, for Herder, for all his fervent defense the legitimacy of nationalism, the answer is mixed.

For one thing, while it isn't easy to translate Herder's late 18th-century European arguments into a 21st-century globalized and multicultural context, there's good reason to believe that, while Herder maintained that each volk ought to be able to protect, develop, and express their own distinct cultural perspective, his ideas do not therefore assume that all the members of any given national grouping can only belong to that one volk. Christianity provides a possibly important parallel here. Herder firmly insisted that the teachings of Jesus can only be made fully livable as each human community fully "translates" them into a "national religion" particular to the language and culture which the people in question are rooted in. (Thus did he see Martin Luther, with his German translation of the Bible, as about as much the founder of the German people as any other historical figure.) And as a corollary to that, he was not an advocate of evangelism, particularly of the colonial sort: Herder saw no religious imperative for one form of Christianity to spread around the globe. So one could, and one should, be a Christian of the German sort, or a Christian of the English sort, etc.

It might be stretching things to propose an equivalence between Christianity as an ethos and the United Kingdom as a constitutional arrangement, but it should be remembered that while Herder did felt that the "nation-state"--meaning a political body identical with a particular volk--was the only fully "natural" state arrangement, in fact the whole matter of states and constitutions was for Herder tied up with moral and cultural education and education. For him, as someone whose primary reference was the post-Westphalian world of western European states where established religions were the norm, the point of politics was good government, and good government is mostly a matter of whether a respectful, civilizing, usually-but-not-necessarily religious, "patriotic" education is made available to all. (Making Herder's sympathy to republicanism even more clear, he makes the argument that such civic education is almost certain incompatible with imperialism, slavery, and hereditary authority, and probably incompatible with autocratic leaders of any sort as well.) The practical upshot of all this is that the national question for Scotland, for Herder, would very likely have to be simply: does the government of the United Kingdom, as--in theory, anyway, if not necessarily in practice--a source and a means of its own British patriotic linguistic, cultural, and moral development, accommodate the contributions of Scotland, or not? Because if it does, then that would be a case of British and Scottish nationalism in fact complementing each other. But if it doesn't, then obviously it wouldn't be.

So surprisingly, in the midst of all this talk of nationalism, which is supposedly an entirely romantic sentiment, it seems to me that Herder's own assessment of this complicated issue would come down to at least partly where the "No" camp has always kind of wanted it to be: on the specific policies, benefits, and pitfalls--specifically in terms of opportunities for cultural expression and the availability of education--which Scottish national independence might involve. That doesn't mean, I think, that Herder would vote to maintain Scotland's place in the United Kingdom; he was a pretty mercurial individual, and given the clumsiness and arrogance of much of the campaign against the referendum, I could easily see him, were he a Scot, voting to break from (and, by so doing, presumably at least in part break up) the UK. And of course, there remains the fact that the United Kingdom continues to grant de jure (though not actual) sovereignty to a monarch, which Herder would very likely detest. But solely on the basis of his own framing of and defense of nationalist feeling, it would seem to me that, given that Scotland lacks the sort of linguistic volkish imperative which perhaps arguably exists in Wales (and which obviously existed in most of Ireland for centuries leading up to its final separation from the United Kingdom in 1937), I'm not sure he wouldn't look at the 300+ years of existence of the united kingdoms of England and Scotland and say: well, but that is, by this point, a volk characterized by its own shared language and traditions and prejudices and possibilities worthy of national defense too. The promise of even further devolution of powers to the Scottish nation, perhaps something even approaching actual federalism, might tip his vote as well.

There's no one voice in this whole argument, at least none that I've been able to find, that strikes me as fully Herderian....but I wonder if the words of Lord John Reid, a Labor politician and a Scot, who approaches this vote by focusing on the welfare of his volk and their ability to contribute to the larger whole, doesn't come close:

We Scots have played a leading part in the intellectual, social, political, literary, sporting and economic life of the UK. But we have gained as well as given. Not just as part of an economy that remains one of the strongest in the world, but also in making our country a better place to live. The NHS, a Welfare State, pensions, national insurance, minimum wage, excellence in education, civil equality and a host of other measures of social justice and opportunity in which we led the world. The idea that we Scots have been held back because we are part of the UK is risible.

Just as I have a pride in our past--Scottish and British--so I have a faith in, and a positive vision for, our future. I reject the innuendo that those of us who believe that the brightest future for Scotland is as part of the UK are somehow less “Scottish”, or less caring about our country.

This is nothing less than an insult to the majority of Scots who say they will vote No in September. Of course, some people have the right to argue for separatism. But we also have every right to decide that, as a nation, the welfare of the people of Scotland will be best promoted and protected in partnership within the UK. That is the crucial question--what best promotes and protects the welfare of the people of Scotland. That is what defines true patriotism. And by that criteria, a No vote is the patriotic choice in the referendum.

Well, in a little more than 48 hours, we'll know.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Big Country"

Bela Flek, one of the very best musicians in the whole business, playing one of his compositions with a bunch of equally skilled stylists, particularly Victor Wooten on bass and Jeff Coffin on the soprano saxophone.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Bloody Mary Morning"

Via Erik Loomis of Lawyers, Guns & Money comes a link to not only this fine, long profile of Willie Nelson, but also this little-seen gem: Willie from almost exactly 40 years ago, on the premier episode of Austin City Limits, all short of hair (relatively speaking) and long on energy, burning through a neglected classic of his with his super-tight band. Awesome stuff.