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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "In The Air Tonight"

So, Phil Collins is coming out of retirement. Does that scare you, this Halloween night? It shouldn't. No, Collins isn't a profound musical genius. But he's a capable, hard-working, and sometimes almost freakishly talented pop musician. So let's get in the mood to be spooked again, shall we?

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "Rocky Mountain High"

How much of a defender am I of what many write off as cheesy, lazy (but in truth, often quite wonderful) 70s hippie-pop? Enough of a defender that this weekend, which I'm spending on the campus of the University of Colorado, nestled up right against the Flatiron mountains, I knew that there was only one possible choice for tonight.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Thoughts on Wolin

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

Yesterday evening, at the reception to mark the opening of this year's Association for Political Theory conference, a moment of silence was asked for to honor the legacy and the passing of Sheldon S. Wolin, a tremendously incisive and important political theorist and historian of political philosophy who passed away just a couple of days ago. Wolin has been mostly--though far from entirely!--silent over the past few decades, but no doubt many tributes will nonetheless pore in as the days go by. As is my want when someone whom I've intellectually wrestled with passes away, here is mine.

As an undergraduate developing an interest in political theory and the history of ideas in the early 1990s, I was aware of Wolin's name before I had any sense of his significance. This was thanks to Bill Moyers's wonderful series of interviews, A World of Ideas, broadcasts that I missed on television but later read in book form, books which I've praised before. I can't say that Moyers's interview with Wolin captured by attention, but it made me think--particularly passages like this:

BILL MOYERS: You seem to be calling for a much more inclusive participation at the local level by citizens in all forms of political decision making at the very time--to take your own diagnosis--that the impetus of society is toward larger, more hierarchical, more distant, more remote, more powerful organizations. Aren’t those two fundamentally at odds with each other?

SHELDON WOLIN: Absolutely. Absolutely. The movement has been away from a federal decentralized system to an increasingly, almost hopelessly overcentralized system, so that the whole emphasis has fallen in the one direction.

BILL MOYERS: You sound like Ronald Reagan.

SHELDON WOLIN: I know. I’ve been accused of that several times. but I think that--I think, again, that the difference is that I don’t think Reaganism stands for the real revitalization of power at any other level. I think. Reaganism is a combination of a very strong push towards high technology, and it’s been very powerful in that direction. And it’s been a very strong push towards a strong state, as I’ve mentioned; aggressive foreign policy, strong defense, strong national--strong defense budget, and the rest of it. But it’s also been nostalgia. It’s been nostalgia in terms of 19th-century or even 18th-century values about home, church, family and that son of thing. [It is] that peculiar combination of sort of progressivism, technologically and in terms of the political state, and a regressive view towards ethics, morality, piety, family and the rest of it. And I think it’s that American proclivity towards wanting to really find yourself sanctified by some set of values that you know very well cannot come from what you’re actually into. In other words, defense, high tech, strong corporate system can’t generate the kind of values that really make us comfortable, that really suggests the power that we have is good, and we deserve it.

(Moyers's original broadcast interview with Moyers is online here and here; definitely give it a watch.)

Long before I was studying communitarianism, localism, or any other way of living and thinking which challenged America's liberal capitalist addiction to corporate forms and technological fixes, Wolin's analysis of the political space and democracy was, I later realized, setting me up to recognize as political, and not only philosophical, issues that writings of Hannah Arendt, Christopher Lasch, and Charles Taylor which I encountered in graduate would make clear to me: that late capitalism--and really, the whole sweep of modernism--has created conditions wherein technical knowledge and individual mastery are mostly accepted as the essential fundamentals of social life, to the detriment of democracy, community, and the common good. To properly contest over the direction of our polities, then, requires us to understand the deep historical roots and sometimes opaque ideological backgrounds which have situated it. Rethinking what was exactly happening when modern states were founded becomes, therefore, essential.

This is why my favorite work of Wolin's, which I discovered during my first year in graduate school, wasn't his long, canonical study of the history of the modern contestation over the political realm--Politics and Vision--but a small collection of essays of his, mostly written about American history, mostly written in the 1980s, titled The Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution. One of the essays included in that volume, "'Tending' and 'Intending' the Constitution," gave me a persuasive language for understanding the argument between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, an argument which, I realized, put front and center the broad politically framing issues of science, economy, and locality. I, at least, see Wolin's distinctions--between the desire to see politics as progressive, enabling, demanding project, and the desire to see it as something conservative, protective, and fundamentally respectful of the ordinary--as haunting discussions about sovereignty and anarchy. To this day. His language gave structure to what became my very first published article, and more importantly contributed to turning me not into a cynic about politics, but someone very interested in enabling people (and myself) to see, in ourselves and others, the respectful and often insightful political contestation which is inherent to the most everyday and local sort of interactions and exchanges. And, of course, to the degree that meritocratic patterns move our attention away from the everyday and the local, then the deep populist point of democratic self-government gets lost.

The first graduate conference I ever attended was organized by a couple of young scholars at Johns Hopkins University, and it was designed to be an tribute to and an exploration of Sheldon Wolin's ideas. That was my one chance to meet Wolin, but unfortunately at the last minute he had to cancel; even close to 20 years ago, his health was delicate enough that he couldn't manage the long flight from California. It would have loved to have met him, because I wanted to ask him about a fascinating essay of his which he wrote for the very first issue of the cutting-edge journal, Theory & Event, titled "What Time is It?" That essay, along with another one which emerged from the conference (I had a paper which came out of that conference as well), brought up what I consider to be some of the most radical, while at the same time most grounded and intimate, criticism of upper-class and upper-middle-class educated life in contemporary liberalism. Wolin wanted us to see how “the temporalities of economy and popular culture,” as outgrowths of late capitalist development, leads the great majority of us to automatically prize innovations. The hurried quest to discover (or, often, profitably manufacture) new problems to solve result in an “instability of political time” wherein the sort of temporality necessary to finding “a common narrative, [which was] formerly a stable element in conceptions of the political,” is replaced by the process of fashion: invention, enlargement--and thus, of course, rapid obsolescence and replacement. All of which distracts us from investing in everyday localities and processes which had traditionally grounded the practice of actual democracy, and instead makes us every more aligned (even as we insist that we are actually free-thinking individuals) with those paradigms that promise us--for now, until next week or next month or next year, when new ones will arrive like clockwork--the tools and toys of late capitalist enjoyment.

The fact that those paradigms ultimately serve oligarchic powers is something which some of us notice, but who is willing to fight against it? Well, Wolin himself never advocated overthrowing liberal principles--but he did point out that the often illiberal worldview of “democratic localists, socialists, radical feminists, Christian fundamentalists, Black Muslims, or Jewish Hasidim,” and how their beliefs and practices, their communities and rituals, challenged the way modern liberalism “creates cultural pressures to restrain the individualism that forms so fundamental a part” of liberal accounts in the first place. In other words, the Wolin that I read decades ago seemed to be suggesting that we are in the midst of what is fundamentally a temporal dilemma. To respond to it, we do not need yet another new thing, but something old: not a new emphasis on liberal freedom, for such freedoms have already been appropriated into a commercial myth (a point which Wolin made at length in his last published book) but rather something collective and ritualistic and unexpected: something, perhaps, like religious or similarly illiberal ideological beliefs. For someone who was on his way to becoming a Christian democrat/local populist/anarcho-socialist, those ideas burrowed deep in my head, and over the past decades have provided fertilizer for many, many ideas that have since come to fruition.

If you found anything at all interesting in the previous three paragraphs--whether you understood it or agree with it or not--then you at least have a taste of what the erudition, close reading, serious argument, and open-mindedness of Wolin's political writings brought to me, and hundreds of thousands of other political theorists who read him, or were taught by scholars whom he'd trained, or who actually interacted with the man himself. He was, very simply, one of the greatest and least categorizable political thinkers of the 20th century. He was, like many of the best and most serious advocates of democracy, far too respectful of community and tradition to stand with a money-and-guns addled Republican party, and far too committed to real, collective freedom and self-government to align himself too closely with a Democratic party whose answer to the corporate take-over of liberal promises is, "well, let's just have more of it." Wolin helped us see that politics wasn't just who gets what and how and when, but how we define those whos, whats, hows, and whens in the first place. His fears and concerns for the future of political life remain--but thankfully, his work diagnosing and responding to it remains as well. RIP.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "Sinners and Their Repentances"

Not the greatest audio or visuals, I know--but when it comes to Bob Mould, the artist you gave us pretty much everything that was good about both Hüsker Dü and Sugar, beggars shouldn't be choosers.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Future of (Education at Places Like) Friends

It's simply a glorious October day here at Friends University--blue sky, light wind, temps in the 60s, the leaves of the trees (as I take in their colors through the windows of my third story office) are a mix of green, yellow, orange, and brown. This morning I raced a train on my bike to the crossing on Meridian on the west side of the Friends campus--trains are notoriously slow moving through Wichita, and I didn't want to be stuck there waiting for 10 minutes--and beat it by less than 40 yards. A good omen for the day, I hope.

We're officially inaugurating a new president here at Friends University today (though President Carey has been on the job since last July), and there are faculty showcases and tent displays and much pomp all around our small but (I think) beautiful campus here on the west side of Wichita, KS. I have a hopeful feeling today--though I'm sure the weather and my small bicycling triumph this morning, not to mention the fact that I've worked like crazy to get ahead on all the stuff piling up on my desk, have a lot to do with that. I think, though, that our new president, and a sensibility that feels rather new to be me as well--a sensibility that seems more realistic, more aware and accepting and determined in regards to the difficulties ahead--have something to do with that sense of hope as well.

It's been a rough few years here at Friends, and the rough years are going to continue for at least a few more years, that's certain. President Carey will be my third university president in the 9 1/2 years I've been here; like so many small liberal arts colleges (though Friends, with its small number of graduate and professional programs, prefers to style itself a "university," it's really a SLAC, and those who insist otherwise are just fooling themselves, I think), we're struggling to figure out how to survive as the traditional pool of students interested in small, mostly locally oriented, mostly religiously and/or academically homogeneous and focused, and generally rather expensive private institutions like ourselves disappears. Community colleges are less expansive, large state institutions (which are scrambling for students themselves, in the face of state and federal cut-backs) have more scholarship money to offer, and online programs claim (not always honestly, but nonetheless often persuasively) to have job placement rates that exceed anything we can promise. Particularly in this part of the country, where ethnic groups and religious bodies in distant farming towns all across the state historically pulled together to build colleges throughout the 19th and early 20th century (Kansas has nearly 20 schools that fit that description), there's a lot of scrambling and hard thinking--and painful changes--taking place. Here's hoping that, one way or another, the good work that I think we do here at Friends will be able to survive.

In the Democratic presidential debate this past Tuesday, Bernie Sanders--whom I've made clear I like a lot--said that going to college in America ought to be like going to high school: that is, free and universally available. (Specifically, he said: "This is the year 2015. A college degree today is the equivalent of what a high school degree was 50 years ago. And what we said 50 years ago and a hundred years ago is that every kid in this country should be able to get a high school education regardless of the income of their family. I think we have to say that is true for everybody going to college.") This led to a fair amount of discussion among various friends of mine--some of whom, obviously, criticized it as a massively expensive change to an already massively complicated higher education system, but others who, I think rightly, wondered about the deeper point: shouldn't we actually be encouraging people to find alternatives to college, rather than making it more and more possible to every single American to get onto the same meritocratic track?

This is something I've wondered on and off about for close to a quarter-century. On the one hand, it's undeniably true that "the academy"--the place where specialized education in the arts and sciences take place--can't help but be a somewhat elite enterprise. As I put it long ago, to pretend there aren't, or there shouldn't be, boundaries regarding who participates in and who is best suited for a university education is simply in denial about the whole justificatory structure of the enterprise, which (as I wrote over 10 years ago), depends upon people like myself who have been "highly educated, socialized to frame problems and discuss ideas in rarefied ways, and schooled to form expectations and think in terms of certain relationships and opportunities that are, frankly, the province of a leisurely, guild-protected elite." But at the same time, I resist strongly the idea that this structure requires a whole-hearted embrace of the aristocratic mindset which for centuries was its natural concomitant; global capitalism and the democratization of society have both so leveled our conceptions of the worlds we move through that standing firm on the idea that some particular sort of learning requires taking exclusivity as its premise strikes me a both ridiculous and unsustainable. Too much good has come from the spreading of knowledge and expertise and specialized, non-technical learning, I think, to want to embrace the complete re-aristocratization of post-secondary education, even if only indirectly (by kicking away all government subsidized loans, for example, despite the moral hazard they obviously present).

As a consequence, I listen to Senator Sanders, and I'm intrigued. Might it not be the case that the only way we can get back to apprenticeships and innovative local work and other routes to productive lives beyond professionalized, meritocratic races up capitalist staircases, is literally by taking money out of the equation (at least insofar of our own direct contributions as "buyers" of education, anyway)? Making higher education a free good might loosen up the demand for college by making people more willing to experiment with their time, in other words.

Does this have it backwards--is it, instead, the lure of college loans and other financial incentives which is discouraging such experimentation? Maybe. But it seems to me that the supposed "easy money" out there isn't there solely because of FAFSA; banks are delighted to get in on the game of financing (at long-term rates of interest) other people's dreams. One could respond by saying that such a prospect only became appealing to banks because government provides subsidies for them to do so--but that, I think, isn't so much an argument against Sanders's suggestion of tuition-free college as it is an argument against using redistributive means to accomplish the aims of affordable higher education for all when institutions of higher education are expected to turn a profit. It's basically the single-payer argument for health care reform, once again: are you going to use a kludgy collections of questionably constitutional laws and sweetheart deals with big insurance companies to essentially fake your way towards university health care, or do you just want to up and pay for it? As I tend to to believe that the socio-economic fears driving everyone to get their kids to college are probably permanent features of late capitalism, I think, rather than jury-rigging increasingly expensive ways to respond to those fears, maybe we should just take one of the contributing pressures off entirely.

Of course, if we take Senator Sanders's words literally, and the goal ought to be to turn higher education entirely into high school--that is, make not only free and universally available but also more or less compulsory--then we'd be missing out entirely on the opportunities for alternative flourishing that allowing for an ease of experimenting with different forms or approaches to higher education might provide, to both students and us faculty alike. (Experiments that have long been in evidence in many Western European countries, where free or nearly-so higher education is combined with an extensive system of testing which has encouraged, over the decades, the development of a multiplicity of vocational, technical, as well as professional routes to productive living.) So no: I don't want college to be like high school--I have too many students who act like it is already. But maybe, just maybe, knowing that college was a non- (or at least far less) burdensome option would help many of these students see that perhaps a middle-class or better life needn't be a college-diploma-or-nothing game. And, in seeing that, that in term might enable employers and government agencies adjust their social expectations accordingly. I suppose it's possible that allowing the whole system to collapse, and trust that home schooling will take its place, might achieve the same ends. But that would mean, among other things, that there wouldn't be very many liberal arts colleges like Friends left anymore, and the teaching we're able to do here would disappear. Selfishly speaking, I think that would be a loss. And, as I look around at the good work that is done by so many here, and the good ideas and high hopes which I feel around me on this day, I think: and maybe not so selfishly speaking, too.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "Tall Trees in Georgia"

Like almost everyone (unlike Mick Fleetwood!), I discovered the folk singer and jazz interpreter Eva Cassidy too late, long after she had died of melanoma in 1996, despite my having lived in the Washington D.C. area when she was making her music and achieving her small degree of (richly deserved) fame, despite my having frequented the same Georgetown nightclub where her most famous recording was made. I had no idea that any video recordings of her performance at Blues Alley existed...and now that I've discovered them, I can't watch and listen to them enough--especially this cut, the most vulnerable on a heartfelt and passionate album of great and often haunting music. From twenty years too late, Eva, RIP.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Christopher Lasch and the Lasting Delimma of Localism

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

This past weekend, at the annual Front Porch Republic gathering (this year held at SUNY-Geneseo), three scholars reflected upon the writings of the historian and provocateur Christopher Lasch (most of whose career was spent in Rochester, just a short drive from Geneseo), an oft discontented prophet of a more local, more equal, and more humble America whom FPR bloggers like myself have invoked regularly all throughout its history. As I listened to these folks lay out their thoughts, and particularly when it came to the Q&A at the end of the panel, it occurred to me: Lasch's fondness of binaries was at work in all of their presentations and answers, and appropriately so, because such dividedness is perhaps the unavoidable lot of every possible form of modern localism.

That's might seem to be a tragedy, since the retreat from liberal anomie and alienation is conceived by many as a path towards a kind of political wholeness and social integrity, not a stressful balancing act. And perhaps it is. But perhaps it's a blessing as well, a reminder that, in our divided feelings and perceptions, we're rubbing up against limits in both the human self and the communities we create which are meaningful and real.

In the presentation given by Eric Miller--whose recent biography and exploration of the writings of Lasch is must-reading--the unstated binary in question, it seemed to me, was Lasch's revolt against the overly confident, secular and liberal progressivism of the mid-20th-century America's "new class" of professionals, writers, and intellectuals...alongside the fact that, well, that was the class which Lasch was a part of, the class which enabled him (a kid from Omaha) to have access to the cosmopolitan "republic of letters" and the life of the mind. In other words, Lasch's criticism of the flattening corporate, governmental, and therapeutic gigantism America's postwar liberal institutions--their lack of democracy, their condescending compassion, their absence of respect for working class and religious ways of life--constituted a populist defense of the local, and yet that very revolt was, for Lasch, justified in light of a more transcendent tribunal: the judgment of civilization, the good life, and (though Lasch himself fought against admitting this) a kind of Christian decency. Lasch knew that the best case for higher things had to made through an embrace of the particular--though the particular, in itself, could only provide the tiniest evidence of the larger and better sensibilities which give it credence. This is the intellectual localist dilemma in a nutshell: the best understanding of why one's own place and practices ought to be loved and defended involves arguments which partake of something which transcends the local entirely.

Robert Westbrook, a colleague of Lasch's, reflected on a much more stark binary: how the localist, in bringing into her affections for a place and its practices a sense of ends, makes the quotidian everyday-ness of our lives that much more valuable...and yet there could be no greater expression of narcissism than to fail to accept that our own daily-ness will be superseded by that of others, soon enough. The occasion for this was Lasch's own early death from cancer, and how he furiously railed (though he later apologized) against those doctors that attempted to turn him, in his words, into a "professional patient." Westbrook made reference to Martin Heidegger, a philosopher whom Lasch very likely never read, and his understanding that it is the ultimate limit upon our sense of being--that is, our deaths--which makes possible an authentic sense of care. Lasch's writings and example point localists towards that which has inspired so many poets: the brute fact that our ability to most fully be rooted in and contribute to a community is inextricably tied up with the fact that, it too, is a passing thing.

Finally Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, Lasch's daughter and one of his most skilled literary executors, brought the matter of binaries forward explicitly, choosing to focus on her father's distinction between "nostalgia" and "memory," and making a moderate defense of the former, which Lasch had criticized. Her argument that the former can trigger and contribute to the latter found a real-world example in the discussion period afterward, when one student shared the story of a tragic death in his hometown, a death which had led to acts of memorialization which, as time went by, had come to be experienced by the deceased's family members as a painful act of "mere" nostalgia. The discussion, then, turned to matters of risk. Since nostalgia is a feeling we have for something we've loved and lost, any recovery of such things is bound to involve regret and pain, something that will be, inevitably, unevenly experienced across a community. Yet is the alternative to privatize pain entirely? That robs us of one of the primary reasons why localism presents itself as an answer to individualism in the first place. Localism, by making possible the sort of practices which enable real and meaningful connections to emerge between people, also makes possible a critical engagement with memory, thus hopefully preventing it from either turning into a mostly meaningless mass and routine genuflection, or being forgotten entirely.

The common thread through all of these presentations, I think? The fact that pursuing the option of sustaining local places and traditions, instead of embracing the easy institutions and ideologies of individual growth and change, means constant negotiation. What will have to be negotiated? The balance between particular instances of plebeian defensiveness and transcendent republican principles, between tightly grasping one's circumstances and letting them go, between moments of memorialization and moments of individual resistance. A lack of resistance against the community and its norms and its ineluctable workings-out would mean we'd become inhuman. But too much resistance robs us of the larger point of what, to quote Michael Sandel, "we can know together."

Lasch whole life was, perhaps, an example of someone who saw the particular and the general equally well, and threw himself into a struggle with them both. May his ideas aid us in our own struggles as well.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "Feel So Good"

I'm posting this from Geneseo, New York--which is pretty close to Rochester, which is where Chuck Mangione was born. So really, why not?