I just returned from the 2014 APSA, that is, the convention of the American Political Science Association, held this year in Washington, D.C. It was good times and top-secret plotting with my fellow bloggers Peter Lawler, Flagg Taylor, and Ralph Hancock, but here are some conference tidbits that I can share:
1) Overheard a delightful anecdote from an old war horse of the profession, political-parties and elections expert Gerald Pomper. Pomper, attending an APSA in the late ’60s, was asked by a hippieish-looking young fellow in the hotel’s elevator who all these people with name tags were. Pomper explained that this was a convention of political scientists and that 6,000 were in attendance. Apparently the hippie had never looked over a college catalogue, for he asked with wonder, “There are political scientists?!? Why haven’t all of them discovered a way to end war yet?”
2) You hear lots of witty stuff over the course of an APSA, but the funniest joke I heard was told by my wife, and at my expense. No, I’m not going to tell y’all what it was!
3) Had a chance conversation with Leon Craig, emeritus professor of the University of Alberta, and author of books on Thomas Hobbes, Shakespeare, and one of the better books on Plato’s Republic. He’s sort of a Straussian advocate of manliness, of Spartan virtue philosophically refined — I might advise those interested in such to go to his books before the better-known one by Harvey Mansfield, but only if they’re prepared to march side by side with Craig in his meticulously close readings of the relevant texts.
Anyhow, he had just had a roundtable on his book about Hobbes, so I asked him to explain its main arguments. Part of them involves an ingenious interpretation of Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. Craig holds that Hobbes actually presents two versions of the state of nature, one that exists among primitive tribal man, and the one that exists when order breaks down among Western man. The really ugly state of nature that Hobbes is most famous for portraying, the one where life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” is the second of these, and what The Heart of Darkness does is show you what happens when the two meet.
4) Now as we were staying elsewhere, we missed the big APSA excitement, which was a series of nuisance fires being set by someone at 1:00 a.m. in the main hotel for the convention, the Marriot Wardman. The fire alarm called everyone out of the hotel, clad in whatever they had the possession of mind to grab as they hurriedly left their rooms, and for three or so hours, there they remained. It was remarkably pleasant weather, but you gotta feel sorry for folks who had a panel the next day, particularly if they had imbibed more than a couple.
Still, I found something rather humorous about it, because for most of us the APSA is all about impressing others — everyone without tenure or without far-left pretensions is dressed in his or her professional best, everyone has rêsumês or two-minute book plugs at the ready, the latest field-relevant buzz words and references are at the tip of the tongue, and eyes dart over the moving crowds looking for old friends but also scanning the name tags to size up whether someone you haven’t met yet might be professionally useful to you. So imagine all these thousands of political scientists, all of whom had appeared so impressive only a few hours earlier, stumbling out groggy and name-tag-less onto the hotel lawn in their bathrobes and bed heads! If you can’t laugh at that, you just don’t know what comedy is for.
But it couldn’t be funny for all — the night-shift Marriot workers had a nightmare on their hands. They inevitably gave conflicting announcements amid confusion about the situation, and did their best to mollify their guests by distributing blankets and pastries, as the firemen and police did their job. (The latest rumor/info I heard was that an arsonist set chairs on fire in several different concrete stairwells, and seems to have set another fire later on, aggravatingly just after the first all-clear announcement had sent a number of exhausted folks tramping back up to their rooms.) Similar problems faced the APSA organizers — should the whole conference be canceled? Which morning meetings and sessions should be canceled? Etc.
So what happened with this crowd of political scientists suddenly thrown together on terms of raw equality? Did seminars on the meaning of justice or at least brainstorming sessions about how to best advise Congress spontaneously develop given this unexpected nocturnal conclave of the most erudite political minds in the nation?
Well, nothing so high-minded happened, but according to my source, while there was at least one brutish instance (urinating on a wall), no state of nature broke out either. Still, what did happen nonetheless lends credence to Hobbes’s and Craig’s theory. For apparently, as the tiresome night wore on, quite a few of the political scientists let their inner Larry David off the leash and began voicing bitchy complaint after complaint, continually second-guessing the decisions made by the hotel staff and the APSA organizers, or even floating unflattering theories for why those decisions were being made. My source says the regular hotel guests in the crowd, folks presumably paying full price for their rooms, were by contrast models of patience.
5) Kevin Morby is a new rock-music favorite — we caught him in Richmond on the way back from APSA. Mellow/depressive ’60s-ish stuff that some political scientists could apparently use a little more of in their musical diet.
6) Pieter de Hooch is a new Dutch-masters favorite — we saw his paintings at the National Gallery, which no trip to D.C. is complete without a few hours spent in.
Do lists annoy you, now? Well, look, I’m just following the advice of my betters. I didn’t have much time to talk with my fellow blogger (and former teacher) James Ceaser, given the packed house at a roundtable celebrating his life’s work (see Peter’s post, and my point 11, below. for the best stuff from that), but he was able to quickly quip to me that while he liked my recently published “The Five Conceptions of American Liberty,” that really I should do better, and find more than just five.
7) You can sure feel the money, and the power, in D.C. Off the Mall, I was happy to see so many women and men dressed so fashionably, even if in casual mode, strolling in the near-perfect weather. I miss that sometimes with the people in my current hometown, Newport News, who don’t have the money or the sophistication for such. A very un–Labor Day comment, I admit.
8) Another side of the D.C.-area economic boom: We stayed with an older couple in Fairfax, Va., and they told me that when you look at the home-sales notices, again and again you notice a white-sounding name for the seller, and an East Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, or Ethiopian name for the buyer. We went to one of the area Ikea stores, and it was packed with customers, with around 40 percent of them being non-white/non-black.
9) New books that caught my eye: David Alvis, Flagg Taylor, and Jeremy Bailey, The Contested Removal Power, 1789–2010; Sotirios Barber, Constitutional Failure; Pierre Manent, Seeing Things Politically; Daniel Mahoney, The Other Solzhenitsyn; Joseph Chan, Confucian Perfectionism; Andrew Nathan, Larry Diamond, and Marc Plattner, Will China Democratize?; Richard Epstein, The Classical Liberal Constitution, and, of course, Totalitarianism on Screen, edited by yours truly and Flagg Taylor.
10) Had an interesting conversation with my old friend Jeremy Mhire, Straussian Aristophanes and Plato scholar with a great-looking new book out on the former. It was about the ways liberal-arts educators might use STEM-student interest in what might be called “cyber-space studies” to lure them into an appreciation for American civic education (rightly understood) and Great Books liberal education, grounded in an effort to realize good “cyber-citizenship.” Jeremy is thinking about this given his involvement with Cyber Discovery.
11) Jim Ceaser confirmed that his car’s license plate is FED 49, in reference to his favorite Federalist Paper, at the roundtable I mentioned earlier. He didn’t really answer Peter Lawler’s query about whether he wished that more of the Papers, and of Founding-era thought in general, had emphasized the topic of veneration. He did provide a good defense of the rational motive for venerating our Constitution, which makes it less than blind veneration, after all.
12) No more time to really fill you in on an excellent roundtable on the future of the Republican party, with Bill Kristol and Yuval Levin among others, but I’ll just mention here, mainly for our Pete’s sake, that Kristol sketched a likely scenario for Republicans not taking the Senate this November, without claiming to know what would occur one way or the other. Kristol was very impressive in general, and he graciously complimented my essay when we briefly met (see, Jim, five was just right!); but even more impressive was Yuval. I can’t summarize why — to do so would require me to reproduce the same needed wisdom of the hour presented in such a succinct, winning, and spontaneous way.