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Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

Space Between the Lines and in the Sky



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So I’ve written some reflections on Arthur Melzer’s stunningly invigorating Philosophy Between the Lines. I confess I slighted Arthur’s message a bit to give my own very exoteric opinion.

The most invigorating movie I’ve seen in a while is Interstellar. It makes a magnificent contribution to Matthew McConaughey’s development of his persona as the very model of today’s American Southern Stoic. You might, if you want, compare his role of captain here with the captain — Marcus Aurelius Schuyler — presented by Walker Percy in the second space odyssey in Lost in the Cosmos.

The film is a lot more impressive as a visual display of theoretical physics than as showing, through coherent character development, deep truths about human nature. The dialogue is often too “philosophical” to be credible (Percy sometimes makes that artistic error, too). But it does cause us to reflect some about what we know about the limits of evolutionary theory. More soon.

For now, I will say the film is excellent propaganda for the reinvigoration of NASA. We really were (especially some of us) born for adventure. It’s natural for us wondering and wandering beings to turn our eyes to the skies. Not only that, it might be quasi-inevitable that we end up trashing this planet, and so we better have a backup plan.

I also appreciate the film’s insight that if it turns out that there really are aliens out there, they will be really advanced members of our species.

UPDATE from the genius threader Christopher Wolfe:

The first thing I thought of when I watched “Interstellar” was “Lost in the Cosmos.” It seems to me that this movie pits a variety of different “scientists” against each other. The Matt Damon character is a sort of Darwinian reductivist, and is shown to be an incredibly cold, lonely loser by the end. Anne Hathaway at first acts like she’s all about science, but it turns out that she’s all about “love” transcending the universe and is even willing to jeopardize the mission to reconnect with an old flame. Those two characters remind me of the pair of scientists from Los Alamos in “Lost in the Cosmos” who witness the Indian ritual.

Then there’s then there’s the McConaughey character, who comes to realize even more and more as the film goes on that the his love for his daughter is more important than getting help from aliens who could save earth
 
 

The 2014 Midterms and the Next Phase of Mr. Magoo’s Wild Ride



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Here is a list of political riddles for us as we contemplate the meaning of the 2014 Midterms:

How do you create the business friendly conditions that promote economic prosperity without compromising the economic security of low-skilled and entry level workers?

How do you ensure health insurance as an entitlement without profound degradation to the quality of services that comes with bureaucratization? 

How do you ensure a strong national security policy without the risk of over-involvement overseas and/or heavy reliance on the surveillance state at home?

How, in a phrase, can we have our cake and eat it too?

Some years ago fans of the Steven Spielberg film Minority Report noticed something strange when the film went to DVD. The last scene was cut out. The film was an adaptation of a Philip K Dick story about a government program, called Precrime, that succeeded in eliminating crime by the use of psychic beings whose visions helped predict and pre-empt crimes before they would happen. In typical Philip K Dick style, the program proved to be imperfect and a villain from inside the program used his insider’s knowledge to conceal a murder he committed. The program was disbanded and the three psychic beings were sent to a place of idyllic isolation.

In the last scene the audience sees a text that announced that the year after the program was disbanded crime and murder returned. This was the scene that was cut out of the DVD version of Minority Report.  What was cut out of the film, in other words, was the acknowledged downside of the policy decision to eliminate Precrime.

There’s something of a debate as to why Mr. Spielberg made this editorial decision, but I think it was an obvious political decision to not complicate the political narrative of a movie intended to reveal the dark side of the surveillance state by acknowledging that there is a cost to be born by such decisions however justified they may be. Spielberg, like our political class, didn’t want to dilute the message with complicated realities.

This is the obvious analogy to our present political environment. While our world may be Philip K Dickian, our politics are Spielbergian. Inconvenient facts are obscured or completely edited out of our public political discourse to avoid an honest discussion of the political downsides of competing policies. And when those facts make themselves felt in the form of real consequence of poorly considered policy, the accumulative effect looks a lot like the 2014 Midterms.

As if to help me illustrate this point, a recent clip of one of the architects of Obamacare has just surfaced acknowledging the important role lack of transparency had in passing the Affordable Care Act. This combined with what we now know was a deliberate decision the President made to not alter his claim that American’s won’t lose their insurance under Obamacare reveals different instances of the reigning political mindset in Washington D.C., a mindset which is perfectly comfortable leaving inconvenient facts on the Spielbergian editing floor to ensure the purity of their preferred political narrative. While it is true that 2014 could be interpreted as a refutation of this kind of politics, Republicans should be very careful to not over-interpret the 2014 Midterm elections as an endorsement of Republican policy. A more complicated picture may be that it is a rejection by a voting public that has been systematically insulated from the fact that all policy options have downsides, even, it bears emphasizing, the conservative alternatives to the liberal policies rejected in this most recent midterm.

The more problematic fact is Democratic policy has a certain competitive advantage in this environment. While it’s true that the party has taken significant hits across the board and all the way down the political food chain, it bears noting that president Obama achieved his goal of transformation and can look forward to a post presidential career of reaping the rewards from his particular constituencies who are not among the roughly 55-60% of Americans who view the president unfavorably. In a manner of speaking, President Obama is a brand that is successfully completing its product lifecycle and will be phased out in 2016. Meanwhile, his potential democratic successor using the same brain trust that Obama used in 2012 will attempt to formulate a brand identity that integrates America’s perception of Obama’s failures by offering a contrast to his administration, even while in matters of substance Hillary will be using the same political class that gave us Obama’s policies. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

I’ve already written on the practical consequences of this sort of politics, why our political culture reeks of this epistemic detachment and why our society appears to be insensitive to its effects. The sum result is our policy making institutions bear an unfortunate resemblance to a well meaning, oblivious and nearsighted old man, bumbling through a dangerous world and narrowly escaping highly consequential effects of bad policy. 2014 was the result of voters taking note and voting (or in case of democratic voters not voting) accordingly. But there is a difference between voters responding to the vivid consequences of bad policy, and endorsing an alternative set of policies that, if they are presented responsibly, will be honest about their own downsides.

The good news is there is some talent among Republicans that appear to be willing to give the public the benefit of the doubt, Scott Walker and Tom Cotton being two. The bad news is there is so much work to do.    

Tags: 2014 Midterms

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Critical-Thinking Skills



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Briefly on the election: The size and scope of  the thumpin’ the president got is really a source of wonder, especially because the Republicans lacked an “alternative agenda.” And he’s being a major-league jerk about it. A minimal sign of basic humanity is some self-deprecating humor when you’ve been rather unexpectedly mega-shellacked by people you don’t even respect.

On education: I wrote another rant for liberal education and against technology, inspired in some way by Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy between the Lines. Melzer proves the case that philosophers — and others — routinely used to write esoterically and even brag about it. But his is also the book that rather definitively gives the distinctively Straussian line on pretty much everything I can claim only to have begun to appreciate it. Our Jim Ceaser had an able and witty intro to this book in the WSJ a couple of weeks ago.

On education, part 2: My friend David Corey of Baylor University posted on Facebook that the surest sign that an academic administrator doesn’t know much is his or her repeated used of the phrase “critical thinking.” Someone added in the thread: Even more clueless is the repeated use of the phrase “critical-thinking skills.”

On education, part 3: Ramesh and Yuval have a very interesting an article on the main page (from the WP) on how policies based on reform conservatism can make higher education better. That’s the one area of conservative reformism to which I dissent, at least some. Will explain later.

For now: I do agree that our colleges have been given, largely by default,  a more complicated role in preparing people for the increasingly demanding rigors of the 21st-century global competitive marketplace. I don’t mean our “cognitively elite” schools here. Kids who show up at Harvard or Swarthmore with killer SAT scores and fantastically impressive teenage résumés of accomplishment are already, in most cases, more than competent enough. At Berry College (which has the ranking of 196 on the list of brainiest colleges), some students show up with such good habits, so verbally and numerically literate, and so skillful at self-presentation that all we have to do is not screw them up. But lots, too, don’t show up that way.

America, for the most part, is getting less competent, mainly because of increasingly pathological families and the declining quality of most of our high schools (some, meanwhile, are getting better and better). And many experts are saying with a straight face that the key to maximizing social mobility in our country is to get as many people as possible to go to college. It is a quite reasonable question whether our less-selective residential colleges are or could be set up to do the job now expected of them all that well.

Meanwhile, academic freedom is on the decline our country. You can and should point to the increasingly intrusive and completely unironic political correctness. But you should also highlight the ironic (if not esoteric) writing deployed by our professors who explain on their syllabi why their students achieve the outcome of “critical-thinking skills” in such a way as to carve out a safe space for teaching them what they, in many cases, really need.

For Simplicity’s Sake, Pledge Tit-for-Tat GOP Executive Order



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The essence of my proposal here is that the GOP would hold a caucus in which its members pledge not take any action against one future Republican president elected in 2016, 2020, or 2024, if he or she were to issue one executive order of equivalent impact with Obama’s threatened Big Amnesty order, if Obama goes through with it.  

You Dems dare to get Big Amnesty by unconstitutional executive-branch de facto legislating? Know this, then: The next time we elect a president, we get Big Fence, or Big Obamacare Repeal, or some other Big conservative wish-list law, by a similar executive order.

The GOP could do this if a) they were too chicken to pledge impeachment in retaliation for Big Amnesty, b) they pursued such, but found the public to be too much against it, or c) if the House went ahead and impeached Obama in retaliation, but with no effect on his behavior. Again, Senate conviction is impossible. Of course, I’m for the GOP pledging both impeachment and retaliation by executive order. ASAP. Give Obama and his party several reasons to want to back-down .    

The principle is simple:  this is grossly unconstitutional, and to deter Democrats from ever tolerating such again from one of their presidents, we will make them pay an equivalent price policy-wise. 

It is only in the language, and in agreeing upon the proposed menu of proportionately retaliatory executive actions, where things get tricky. 

As to the language, Republicans would have to say, “We are pledging ourselves to do nothing against one executive order by a GOP president we think is unconstitutional, for the sake of keeping any more of such orders being done. We will thus allow one instance of egregious Constitution violation for the sake of protecting it against many more.” The language must not say that any president has a right to such an action.  

As to the menu of acceptable retaliatory actions, this would be difficult to gain agreement upon, but such agreement would be absolutely necessary. Otherwise, we would face the prospect of some rogue Republican presidential candidate promising to do a too expansive retaliatory executive order, and he or she winning the election. Or, we would face the prospect of a Republican president, once in office, springing some quite new proposal upon us and saying we had agreed to it in principle. So each item — I would recommend three to five options — on the menu of acceptable retaliatory options would have to have some flexibility, such that a Republican president as late as 2024 would still find them relevant, but not so much as to amount to a blank check. 

I would leave the debate about such proposals to the Republican meeting, which should include all Republicans sitting in or elected to Congress, all Republican governors, and perhaps the chairman and other high officers of the party also. My suggestion would be to make the options as similar in broad nature to the promised Obama executive order as possible — i.e., they would be orders that mainly work via purported prosecutorial discretion, and that similarly effect so many millions of persons or have an equivalent fiscal effect. If a couple of these options could be drafted with respect to immigration policy, and if in a “restrictionist” spirit, all the better. I would, however, strongly advise against promises to punish those who have benefited from Obama’s order — we shouldn’t make the legal status of millions a back-and-forth political football.  

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Simplicity, ladies and gentlemen. You allow your president to blatantly violate the Constitution for X amount of policy/political gain, we will allow one of ours to do the same in the future.  We will do so regardless of what might happen in the courts, or with any shut-down or impeachment threat.

It’s the people’s Constitution. Republican representatives, show the people with actions they don’t need legal or budget-rules expertise to understand, that you stand up for it.

Tags: amnesty , Impeachment , retaliation , Constitution , spine

For Simplicity’s Sake, Pledge to Impeach



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In my most recent post (scroll below) I indicated why the using the power of the purse to respond to Obama doing the Big Amnesty executive order would likely be inadequate and confusing.

Back on August first, when Obama began floating his patently unconstitutional, utterly anti-democratic, and deeply polarizing plan, I wrote a piece here called “The Case for Formally Threatening Obama with Impeachment Right Now.”  If you’re going to object to this post in the comments, you may want to read that first, as it provides the full, objection-anticipating, case.  There I laid out the language a formal pledge would employ, in promising to impeach Obama if he does the Big Amnesty order.  There I also provided links to previous impeachment-blogging I had done (on the First Things channel) last December, one of which showed that there is no textual barrier, either in the Constitution or in The Federalist Papers, to impeaching Obama. 

What I envision now would be the Republicans calling for a party meeting and caucus of all Republican House members and all such Representatives-elect, for a one-day debate about, and public vote concerning, such a pledge.  ASAP.

The rationale would be this:  a) if Obama thought he would go down as only one of three presidents to be impeached (we’ll never have the votes in the Senate to convict) that might deter him from doing it, and b) if he goes ahead and does it, it will go down in the record books that the House, and perhaps 55% of the Senate, officially judged it unconstitutional. 

I am not saying this would be the only tool to employ.  The GOP could pursue legal angles, could make Big Amnesty part of a bundle of issues that provokes a money cut-off, and could organize mass protests.  We must want our “Sheriff” to show up to this constitutional crisis not just fingering a single billy-club, but also have a couple guns and plenty of ammo visible on his person.

Nor am I saying that the threatened Big Amnesty is the only aspect of presidential behavior unacceptable, illegal, debatably unconstitutional, and patently unconstitutional that Congress will need to act against.  Several scandals remain to be investigated, for one.  What a pledge would do is to highlight for the public how particularly heinous, constitution-wise, the Big Amnesty plan is.  It would single it out from other violations and disputes, and push the public to consider its opinion on the matter. 

Were a caucus-meeting gathered, obviously we would get polls about how the public feels.  If the immediate opposition to the idea in those polls was overwhelming, the delegates to the meeting could vote the pledge down.  Similarly, if over the period of time between the pledge and the initiation—assuming Obama goes ahead—of actual impeachment proceedings, the public voiced overwhelming opposition, that could be grounds for any representative voting against impeachment.  The pledge would only be to initiate the official process, not to vote one way or the other. 

To keep saying that the public isn’t ready, so don’t propose impeachment, is to never try to ready them.  I said as loudly as I could that it would be wrong for the GOP to pretend to disavow all recourse to it prior to the elections.  I was roundly ignored.  Charles Krauthammer and others announced that any talk of impeachment was insane.  Well, now the elections are won.  So it’s time for Republican representatives to talk honestly about the fact that probably majorities of those who voted for them want impeachment talk, although sure, doing so now is a bit more awkward than it needed to be.

But it is going to keep getting more awkward the longer it is put off.  If Obama gets away with Big Amnesty, with only drawn-out and confusing responses via budget process and legal challenges as the price, he will surely keep issuing unconstitutional orders.  When, oh sage Republican strategists, will it finally become acceptable to threaten impeachment?  If we stomach the four or so obvious violations he has committed so far, mostly to tinker with Obamacare rules, and then Big Amnesty on top of that, will it be at three more?  Ten?  Twenty?  In the summer of 2015?  The winter?  During the heart of the 2016 campaign? 

Simplicity, ladies and gentlemen.  It is what is the most democratic, the most Constitution-following, and compared to all the complex talk of budget-process and close-door bargains, it is indeed a joy.  “This would be a vile sin against the Constitution, and here is the remedy the Constitution itself provides against such.  We pledge, if the president does Big Amnesty, to use that remedy.  If he does it, there will be impeachment proceedings.  Period.”

Say it, and let the people judge.

Tags: Big Amnesty , Constitution , Barack Obama , Impeachment

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Obama vs. Udall



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So the war one women is over right? Well, the branding might be over, but the failure of the Udall candidacy doesn’t mean that the Democrats can’t successfully run an aggressive social liberalism campaign. Udall’s war on women campaign differed from the one Obama ran in 2012.

That doesn’t mean that conservatives can’t crack the 2012 Obama strategy. It would just be more difficult and possibly require a counterattack on social policy (preferably by outside groups rather than candidates). It is also worth remembering that the 2012 war on women stuff was way overrated as a matter of Obama campaign strategy. Obama’s focus on the economy and the Republicans as the party of the rich were more important for the Obama campaign. The war on women stuff was important primarily because of Republican senatorial campaign meltdowns and media feeding frenzies.

Constitutional Crisis and Complex Strategy



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I hope you didn’t have the misfortune of actually hearing our President today demand that the current Congress send him a “compromise” illegal immigration amnesty bill of some kind to his desk, lest he go through with his promised executive order to provide an amnesty to millions of illegals on his own.  Were he to make such an order, it would be the most dramatic violation of the U.S. Constitution by any president in our history.  In my judgment, it has been obscene to have heard him, as we have since July, even raise the possibility of it, and all the more so to witness the legacy media and Democratic Party leadership raise barely a whisper against it.  But he did reaffirm his promise to make such an order today, and in what NRO’s Rich Lowry correctly labels as “blackmail,” suggested it would be Congress’s fault if he did so. 

So what should the GOP representatives do in response to this threat?  Two guys expert in the ways of Washington, Yuval Levin and Andrew McCarthy, today put their two cents in today on NRO.  Now Levin only really mentioned this issue in passing, as part of his sage general review of how the GOP Congress should now proceed after the election victories:

If he goes ahead with an executive amnesty, for instance, Republicans should use the CR [continuing resolution] and budget process to stop him, forcing Democrats to decide whether they will publicly endorse his actions and forcing him to decide if he will risk a shutdown on behalf of such a brazen overreach after the shellacking his party has just taken from the public.

Okay, that sounds good, and way better than pretending a court case will do anything, or resorting to impeachment, which of course unless the threat of such caused Obama to back down, would 1) only amount to a black mark on his record as there is no possibility of his conviction by the requisite two-thirds vote in the Senate, 2) could result in a serious public opinion backlash, and would 3) not stop the amnesty itself.   

But would the budget/CR strategy itself stop or seriously impair the amnesty?  The order for the new cards is already in the works, and the essence of the “temporary” status simply involves federal agents not enforcing laws, and Obama has existing funds of money at his command, so it seems to me he doesn’t need more money from Congress to do it.  With all the humility of ready-to-be-schooled ignorance, I ask Yuval, or anyone who knows: “Am I missing something here?” 

Perhaps even if there is no way the power of the purse can touch implementation of the Big Amnesty order, the idea Yuval’s really referring to is that the GOP could hold the operation of nearly the entire government hostage to Obama rescinding, or promising not to issue, the order.  I.e., it would be the usual shut-down politics but for higher and clearer stakes.  Hmm…  I’m not sure that such a scenario would involve that much less risk of a public opinion backlash than the impeachment one would.  

How does such a CR/budget strategy sound as described by Andrew McCarthy, then?  Well, it involves a lot of moving parts.  Wild-card #1 is whether those Republican reps who really would like to arrive at a compromise amnesty law with Obama have the chutzpah and the numbers to try such during the lame-duck session.  If they do, all bets are off.  Wild-card #2 is whether the current Republican reps might try to forge a budget compromise with Obama that goes well beyond January.  And there’s much more in play than just these, as McCarthy rightly says the new Congress will have to consider more than simply the Big Amnesty threat:

The incoming Republican majority will have only one way to stop the president: Use the power of the purse to cut off the money Obama needs to do the lawless things the voters are up in arms about.  Republicans will be toast with the people who have empowered them if they now turn around and agree to fund Obamacare, the Homeland Security’s immigration agencies and the Justice Department that refuse to enforce the laws, the IRS that colludes with Democrats to intimidate the Left’s ideological opponents, and all the rest of it. The prattle from GOP leaders that they must show the country they can “govern” is ridiculous. It is not possible for them to “govern” when the chief executive does not faithfully execute the laws they enact. Besides, voters did not elect them to govern – they elected them to stop Obama.

Amen, and note that by “stop Obama,” McCarthy mainly means, contain his activities to legal ones. He continues by describing the present choice about the CR:

If Republicans join the Democrats who have just been swept out of office to fund the government for the next year, they will be forfeiting the power of the purse. Before it even gets started, the incoming Republican-controlled Congress would be stripped of its last tool to stop executive maladministration.

The lame-duck session is a terrible idea. …At this point, it probably cannot be called off — the government…runs out of money on December 11.  But Republicans should resist anything other than a short continuing resolution that funds the government until the next Congress takes over in January.…[this] would keep the Republicans’ options open to strip spending authority from the executive branch and pressure Obama to act lawfully. It is the only way they can turn back Obama’s immigration amnesty…

So:  any shut-down showdown that happens will do so due to multiple issues.  The Big Amnesty order will be one issue among others.  Its very clear and big sins against constitutionality, democracy, and peacemaking, are not going to be subject to any up-or-down vote of approval or disapproval, but will get lumped in with a very complex and uncertain case about IRS abuses, and much else; and then it will be balanced in the public mind against the pain the shut-down will cause, and whatever bargaining occurs to end it.   

Complexity always diminishes democratic accountability.  The particular complexity I’m sketching here could become very harmful in the situation we may be entering.  Are we truly Constitutional Conservatives?  Does the GOP, or National Review, for that matter, call upon the public to be so?  But the public cannot stand up for the Constitution when their elected defenders of it give them no role, nor any clear vote to judge their representatives by, and say in effect, “Trust us to do the Byzantine bundled bargaining on this.” That’s not going to cut it here.  Either the Republican Party is saying “no way” to Obama’s proposed abomination or it is not.

I invite those who think the strategy that Levin and McCarthy point towards will work to explain to us why it will, and why we shouldn’t begin demanding that our present (and soon-to-be-seated) representatives schedule caucus votes on whether to threaten Obama with stronger remedies.  

Tags: Big Amnesty , Obama , Yuval Levin , Andrew McCarthy

Random Thoughts On The Midterms



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Sorry I’m late, but here we go,

1. All of this big picture talk about demography and turnout is correct, but we should also focus on the brute fact of Obama’s unpopularity. After Bill Clinton’s brilliant speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Obama’s Real Clear Politics average job approval rating bounced around from 47% to 50%. His disapproval rating never quite hit 50%, and was usually a point or two lower that his approval rating. In the last few months, Obama’s Real Clear Politics average job approval rating bounced around between 41% and 43%, while his disapproval rating bounced around between 52% and 54%.

With all the great demographics, the great GOTV, and the great enthusiasm of the 2012 Barack Obama campaign, they were able to produce an electorate that had a 54% Obama job approval rating. That was 4% higher than Obama’s highest RCP rating in the Fall 2012 RCP averages. If Obama had gone into the 2012 election with his 2014 job approval rating (and more importantly his disapproval rating), all that demography, etc. would likely have produced a cliffhanger of an election.

On the other hand, what does it say that the Republicans would likely have struggled to beat even a clearly unpopular president?

2. There might be something to the idea that the Democratic “coalition of the ascendant” was partly the Obama coalition of the ascendant. In 2012, Obama improved his margins among Latinos and Asian Americans over his 2008 numbers despite facing less favorable circumstances in his reelection campaign. Asian Americans swung sharply to the Republicans in 2014. My sense is that, for some Latinos and Asian Americans, reelecting Obama in 2012 was an assertion of civic equality, and that some of these voters are up for grabs in a post-Obama environment.

3. The Democrats could still consolidate support from Latino and Asian American voters aren’t careful.

4. Republicans still have not managed to win over that 15%-20% of African American voters who have moderately conservative policy preferences on economic and social policy, but who end up voting Democratic. Elbert Guillory talking about food stamps and Kool-Aid isn’t going to get it done.

5. Republicans would do well to adopt an agenda that is pro-first and second generation Americans, but that seeks to restrict future low-skill immigration. Both sides of this equation are equally important. Not being overtly hostile to current immigrants (including unauthorized immigrants) is not good enough. Restricting future low-skill immigration has to be integrated into a positive agenda for improving the work prospects of lower-skill Americans (whether native or foreign-born).  Senators Mike Lee, Jeff Sessions and Tom Cotton have a chance to work together to create a constructive and populist approach to immigration policy.

6.  That post-election presidential press conference was painful to the ear. It was like President Obama decided to give all (and I do mean all) of the stump speeches he didn’t get to deliver during the campaign because the vulnerable Senate Democrats did not want to be seen with him in public.

7. One of the themes of the press conference was that Obama was the president of real America and he was faced with the somewhat illegitimate Congress of midterm America. He got this across through his passive-aggressive references to the nonvoters in yesterday’s election. This kind of we’re-the-real-America stuff is politically self-destructive in the end.

Ralph Ellison and the Melting Pot



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There was a late 19th-century Mexican intellectual who made a case for the superiority of the mixed-raced mestizaje make-up of the Latin American nations—according to him, their new race, La Raza Cosmica, took in the best characteristics of the world’s races.  His theory was surely a specimen of the dismal racialism than ran rampant in those days, but the term he coined had a certain zing to it.

If any people truly deserves or would even want the term, it is we Americans white, black, red, yellow, brown, and mixed.  We Americans–as per Barcelona, “North Americans” is no good as a label, since among other shortcomings it denies the Canadians their Canadian-ness–have particular reason to think of ourselves as a “nation of nations” and as “the creators and creations of a culture of cultures.”

Those are quotes from Ralph Ellison, in his essay ”The Little Man at Chehaw Station.”  Alongside its meditations about the character of art in democracy, discussed in a previous post, it contained an extended defense of the idea of the melting pot.  Ellison welcomed America’s continuing miscegenation, but, unlike the Mexican theorist, the mixing he celebrated was primarily cultural:

…it is on the level of culture, that the diverse elements of our various backgrounds, our heterogeneous pasts, have indeed come together, “melted,” and undergone metamorphosis.  It is here, if we would but recognize it, that elements of the many available tastes, traditions, was of life, and values that make up the total culture have been ceaselessly appropriated and made their own—consciously, unselfconsciously, or imperialistically—by groups and individuals to whose own backgrounds and traditions they are historically alien.  Indeed, it was through this process of cultural appropriation (and misappropriation) that Englishmen, Europeans, Africans, and Asians became Americans.

Granting the simplification in the final clause, the passage is correct.  It describes an undeniable fact about our culture, and one we should be grateful for and patriotic about.  Now as I have previously suggested, our understanding of this can take a wrong turn.   To the extent we understand our culture as “La Cultura Cosmica,” i.e., as the world-representing-and-blending one, the less we will be able to 1) limit ourselves in foreign policy issues, and 2) keep our officially non-national institutions, such as our corporations and universities, from encouraging “globalism.”  That is, the less we will be able to cultivate the needed sensibility I called “Globally-Conscious Americanism that Ain’t Globalist” in the extended essay of that name.  At its conclusion I said we Americans must deny that we are, or will become, the world, however much we celebrate our culture’s composite and immigrant-welcoming character.  A certain American provincialism, which includes a non-racist desire to maintain the broad outlines of our peculiar ethnic mix, is needed to keep the balance right. 

Now if I hold that, why am I offering up Ellison, given what I have quoted above, as a key exemplar of this sensibility?  It is because his life-long effort to convey the distinctive qualities of both Afro-American culture, as it was originated among persons of Negro racial descent and yet partly spread to others, and American culture taken as whole, gave him two perspectives from which to reject a “cosmic-democratic” understanding of America’s cultural blending, the sort of understanding we rightly associate with a thinker like Walt Whitman.  Ellison, in a sense, gets as close to such an understanding and derives as many true insights from it as one can without surrendering to its core idea, its conviction that America’s destiny is to breed the universal culture which will become the world’s; moreover, he gets close to it not from a grandiose motivation to understand America, the world, and their inextricable future relation, but from a homely motivation to understand the Negro(his preferred term), America, and their inextricable existing relation

So while Ellison even says that we are a “collage of a nation,” and one with an “irrepressible movement…toward the integration of its diverse elements,” he rejects the conceit that all the world’s cultures are represented in these elements, and any assumption that the blending of these into one another will be complete.  America’s cultural collage/melding, although it resists all but the most complexity-conveying efforts to define it and never ceases changing, is nonetheless a particular cultural collage/melding.  

As Lucas Morel and I said about the “Little Man” essay for the APSA conference this year, Ellison did not believe American acculturation was simply assimilation on the part of new immigrant groups.  Even less could he believe this was what had happened with Afro-Americans.  Instead, as he argued in “What America Would Be Like without Blacks” (included alongside the “Little Man” essay in Going to the Territory), the key test of American democracy was the extent to which it fostered “inclusion, not assimilation, of the black man.” To speak of “assimilation” suggests acculturation as a one-way street, with the majority-white society bestowing all that is good and righteous to recipient minority racial groups.  Such an understanding would ignore how blacks had been bestowing cultural goods to all Americans.

Begin with the musical case, made by Ellison and his friend Albert Murray, and further developed by Martha Bayles, that nearly all American Music, including country, can be spoken of as Afro-American Music.  Its distinctiveness always has to do with a Negro-originated ingredient, even if it might seem a small one.  As I put it in a couple of posts, understood in this way, Afro-American Music should not be regarded as essentially “slave music,” but rather as the result of various cultural mixtures, the most important of which is the African/American “world the slaves made” mixing with the blessed-and-burdened-with-freedom world of the larger American “main street.” 

In any case, our music is inconceivable without the cultural input of blacks.  As is our very language, which Ellison characteristically extends into our literature, saying that it is impossible to imagine the work of Twain and Faulkner, but also of many others, without the Afro-American influence.  It even gets down to how we joke and walk.  As he once told a mixed college audience(at 2:40 of this intro to Invisible Man.), “All of you white kids are part colored, and all of you black kids are part white.”

As for what is culturally “black,” it is itself inconceivable apart from America.  Perhaps the most moving thing about the mytho-poetic sermon at the heart of Ellison’s Juneteenth novel is the way it portrays the creation of distinctive Afro-American musical genres, and jazz most of all, as partly being a reconstitution of African cultural elements, out of the various once-distinct African cultures decimated by slavery, but also being a new mix, involving both those elements, and new world ones.  It is like a resurrection, and also, a birth.  It’s the reconstitution of African elements and the appropriation of non-African practices in an American context, and for a variety of purposes communal, commercial, and individual, that matter to Ellison, and not simply with respect to music.  While he cannot but attend to the various Ashanti, Igbo, etc. roots that we lump together as “African,” what he really focuses our attention to are the Afro-American beginnings or points of departure, especially ones found in the 1865-1920 window. 


(That’s Danny Glover in the John Sayles film The Honeydripper.   A film not to be missed, and if you’ve seen it, you know why this particular scene goes with Juneteenth.)

All in all, what or who is culturally Afro-American cannot be separately considered from what or who is culturally American.  And in most cases, vice-versa.  So as repulsive to Ellison as the racist imagination of an “America without blacks,” would be the globalist imagination of a “world without Americans,” that is, of a world so Americanized and an America so globalized that the two terms blend together.  For one thing, a world in which no practices nor persons remained distinctively American would necessarily be one in which none remained distinctively Afro-American.

So by Ellison’s understanding, segregationist racism and oppositional blackness-cultivation are both delusions.  As I’ve said before, had leaders stepped forward, the South could have known better than to have tried the segregationist system.  But the point to concentrate upon here is that real black pride will not succumb to the temptation to “damn America,” because it knows it cannot do so without implicitly wishing away the very existence of oneself, and of the unique people, call them Negro, black, or Afro-American, that is meant to be affirmed and loved by such pride.  However we understand America’s sins of slavery and segregation, and the twisted psychic burdens imparted by them, these did not so outweigh the real and potential blessings of America freedom, and of its democratic/Christian love, that they put the Negro that emerged from slavery in a situation so filled with degradation that it was one having to prefer death to life, or damning to striving.  Among many other pieces of evidence for this, we sure cannot say that the blues, despite how wide-open it was to exploring any side of life, was a music of suicides, revolution, and curses.  Alas, we sure have to say that about punk and rap.   

The “melting pot” was the title of a 1908 Broadway play; the phrase quickly became part of our vocabulary, because its basic idea was so readily understood.  Ellison is careful to say that the phrase is a “metaphor” that expresses an aspirational “conceit” or “ideal,” and we have seen that he rejects the idea of total cultural melting.  He is also careful to say, however, that the “Little Man” of his essay, whom we are often invited to think of as an obscure black person, would not regard the melting pot idea as a “con.”  It is true-enough.

Moreover, outright rejection of the melting pot ideal means a turning away from other core American ideals, and a turning into ethnic and/or cultural insularity that is untrue to our real backgrounds and present conditions.  True, certain studies of ethnic minorities, such as the landmark Beyond the Melting Pot by Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan in 1963, called the metaphor into question.  Various ethnic minority sub-cultures seemed to maintain more of their distinctiveness than many had thought.  There remains sociological dispute about whether Glazer and Moynihan framed things correctly, but partly due to the influence of such greater awareness of ethnic distinctiveness, by the 1980s many were recommending a new metaphor, that of the “salad bowl” wherein each ethnic culture remains itself but imparts some of its flavor to the others.  


But the decisive factor causing Americans to reject the melting pot metaphor was the impact of the black-pride movement beginning in the mid-60s.  By the time of the “Little Man” essay, 1978, its overt influence upon black art, fashion, and politics was fading a bit, but its core ideas had developed in ways that were making them quite entrenched and of broader impact.  Black-pride had inspired other ethnic-pride movements, and this, combined with a certain liberal approach to the new situation, began to cause some whites in the colleges, even ones who had no strong connection to anything like Irish-American or Italian-American culture, to toy with talking of themselves as “European-Americans.”  The entire theory and institutional apparatus of multiculturalism was rearing its head.  In the colleges, filtering soon enough down to the schools, all Americans would be pressured, by way of being suspected of racism or some brand of “Oreo-ism” if they refused, to identify with one of the ethnic elements constituting the salad. 

Now I don’t deny that all of this came with a necessary greater awareness and appreciation of the insights to be found in minority ethnic cultures.  Much of this followed paths Ellison had blazed; and, granting his artistic strictures and suspicions regarding sociological accounts, he was  for such greater awareness.  It also came with a necessary ramping-down of demands for one-way assimilative acculturation by minorities.  (To be clear, some such assimilation by immigrants remains necessary, and must go beyond speaking passable English in public–one might turn to Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns to see how such an expectation was also applied to rural Negro migrants to Northern cities by the Negroes already there.)  But insofar as the emergent multiculturalism amounted to an insistence upon distinct ethnicity-rooted cultures, Ellison opposed it. 

What else could he have done if he were to remain true to what he had labored to show about America’s complexity?  Now in “The Little Man” essay, Ellison’s most explicit opposition to the emerging multicultural theory actually jumps off of his brief presentation of the “Tall Man” character.  If you recall from my previous post, he was a cat who Ellison witnessed, sometime in the late 60s or early 70s, adorned in a collection of contradictory styles—dashiki, riding boots, big afro, homburg hat, and driving a VW bug outfitted with a Rolls-Royce grill—as a way of humorously representing his own cultural identity of various elements, which apparently included black pride, radical sympathies, English heritage, classy aspirations, and common-man realities.  Ellison also noted his mixed biological ethnicity—he had blue eyes and light-brown skin. 

So here was the undeniable reality of what the metaphor of the melting-pot was attempting to convey.  The Tall Man could never think of his culture as clearly claim-able, or as being a simple ingredient tossed into some salad!  Rather, the salad, collage, and collision of multiple cultural inputs was inside of him.  While the Tall Man was himself aware that it was in some ways an absurd mix, Ellison suggests that such mixtures can sometimes result in genuinely new, we might say “melted,” cultural patterns or arts.  He also suggests that what the Tall Man displayed in an exaggerated way, is in fact the cultural reality for nearly all Americans of whatever ethnicity.  

Ellison sketches a theory of identity-anxiety to explain both the classic white racism, and the black-led turn to ethnic pride and the theory of multiculturalism.  Segregationism, black nationalism, overdone Irish pride, etc., all reject the idea of the melting pot, and are efforts to avoid the difficult task of comprehending the complexity of the national culture, and especially one’s own inheritance from it, by tightly holding onto the part of the culture most familiar to oneself.  The proponents of “ethnicity” avoid having to define American culture as a whole, and instead stake their claim to a specific part to set their minds at ease—what Ellison calls “psychic security.”  They would have the American individual cover-over, with strained affirmations of Africa or what-have-you, the restiveness and homelessness he is subject to when confronted by the actual multiplicity of his heritage. 

In Invisible Man, the narrator’s novel-long difficulty in “finding himself” is partly due to this—it is not simply a function of racism blinding others to his individuality.  Various secure identities are offered to him, such as the Tuskegee model of the upstanding race-man, or the communist model of the community activist—even the attraction of an America-cursing Afrocentric identity is displayed.  But all such identities that the narrator tries fail him.  One thing this suggests is that the urban Afro-American uprooted from the South might be the person best placed, at least in that era, to fully see the unsettled reality underlying all modern American life.  It is the “invisible man’s” curse, i.e., the truly self-aware Negro individual’s curse, to feel modern American homelessness more than most of us, and yet it is Invisible Man’s purported blessing to make all of us aware, on our “lower frequencies,” that this homelessness is also ours.

We might judge Ellison’s emphasis upon the modern democratic man’s identity search and self-discovery as overdone or otherwise flawed.  Although less would be at stake, we might say something similar about his valorization of blues-jazz or the faith he put in American literature.  But I hope no-one fails to see how practical and honest Ellison’s life-long effort to comprehend and express America’s “unity within diversity” truly was. 

And yes, precisely to the extent Ellison’s understanding were to become widespread, to that extent black politics would become subject to radical shifts.  For one, the lies and social pressure enforcing the limited menu of correct black identities, a limitation so necessary to the electoral chances of the Democratic Party as presently constituted, would collapse.  In my judgment, the resultant shifts would be in large part be those that Shelby Steele, himself a careful reader of Ellison, recommends

Ellison’s importance goes far beyond the coming of that day, however.  He models a way to attend to all the peculiar facts and developments that our “multiculturalists” and “globalists” do when at their best,  without succumbing to their hard categorizations and simplistic reductions, and without endorsing their larger agendas.  And he models so much more.  I don’t for a second hesitate to put his writings on any short list of what all Americans, and all persons anywhere who seek to learn from America, ought to read.  

Here’s a photo of a most telling scrap found in his papers—his notes there speak of his grand unfinished novel Three Days before the Shooting:


To conclude, let us admit that “melting pot” is but one image and phrase.  If even now you bristle at it, fine, but do remember that Ellison gave us dozens of his own fascinating images and hundreds of his own involved sentences to help us better grasp the reality that the simple metaphor can only points towards.  They are scattered throughout his writings, but some of the most potent ones are to be found in “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” an essay I again recommend to one and all. 

Tags: Ralph Ellison , Shelby Steele , multiculturalism , globalism , Afro-Americans , melting pot

A Competent Thumpin’



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So the headline at CNN this morning is a “thumping win.” And so it was.  I was genuinely surprise by the ease of many Republican victories, as well as by those new Republican governors, members of Congress, and state legislators. Although my prediction of the Senate result wasn’t that off, my overall perception of the likely outcome wasn’t even close.

In Georgia, I was exactly right in my interpretation of the trajectory of the polls over the last couple of weeks. No matter what they do, the Democrats can’t break that 46 percent barrier.

Nationally, I also went with the polls, and I was wrong. The polls didn’t pick up on the magnitude of the Republican surge in many places, beginning with Virginia and Kansas. Once again, the Republicans can be blamed for giving up on a scrappy Virginia candidate too early.

The pollsters weren’t wrong on who would vote. The turnout was about what they expected – a little more male and white and somewhat older.

The dominant explanation this morning is that the Republicans ran an (unexpectedly?) competent campaign. Their big data, turnout mechanisms, and all that weren’t inferior to the Democrats this time. I, among others, thought, given 2012, that the Democrats must know what they’re doing.  But it turns out that they didn’t have more of a clue than the Republicans.

The Republican candidates were a lot more competent (beginning with less strange) this time and stayed focused on the anti-Obama message. It turns out that critics who said the Republicans should have more of an agenda were probably wrong.

So the election was not a repudiation of incumbents in general but only of  Democratic incumbents, beginning with the president. It was a “negative landslide.” Well, it wasn’t only that. Voters returned Republicans to office they feel negative about, beginning with Mitch McConnell and Governor Scott of Florida.

It’s easy to blame Obama for the Democrats’ woes. Still, it’s the case that they have done a lot better lately when that excellent campaigner (for himself) is on the ballot. Democrats can say this morning that they can’t win with this president, but the studies actually show they can’t win without him. That is the main reason for Republican hope in 2016.

Meanwhile, we have to hope that the president is competent where it counts when it comes to running the country and being commander-in-chief for the next two years. Republicans shouldn’t shy away from helping out, when possible.

Anyone in the Mood . . .



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…for some SURF MUSIC?  I sure wouldn’t know why!  Well, The Challengers were pretty boss, and seem to have the apropos name.


 

 

And for the Demmies, “Point Panic” will do nicely

Is the Economic Trend Really the Democrats’ Friend?



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Over at the New York Times, John Harwood listed the economy as an asset for the Democrats in the midterm elections. I’m not so sure about that.

The unemployment rate has fallen below 6 percent and we have had six months of decent GDP growth, but we should also think about the “trend.” Post–World War II GDP looked like it had been steadily growing about 3 percent a year. In reality, it didn’t grow at a perfectly steady 3 percent. Sometimes the economy grew faster than 3 percent but fell into recession. Sometimes the economy fell into recession and the number slipped below the “trend” growth rate but, in the recovery, the economy would grow faster than 3 percent for a while and the economy would get back to trend. We made up the lost ground until it was like the recession never happened.

This time it is different. While the economy is larger than it was before the great recession, we are still way behind the “trend.” We never had the catch up growth (or at least we haven’t had it yet).

Most Americans have no idea of the trend, but they probably have a set of expectations of what the economy should be like after five years of economic growth. If we had stayed at “trend,” if we had experienced catch-up growth, the economy would be larger today. It is not at all contradictory to think that the economy is better than it was at the bottom of the recession and well short of what they expected it to be at this stage of the recovery.

This gets to the Obama problem with the economy. The best campaign speech of 2012 was Bill Clinton’s explanation of the Obama economic record. Clinton’s argument was that the Republicans had created a hole so deep that it took Obama’s masterful economic management years to dig out. It was plausible, but that argument also has a half-life. The farther we get from Bush, the less this becomes Bush’s economy. The disappointments of the populace are directed against the current president.

At this point, telling the populace that these are the good times isn’t going to help the Democrats. That will continue to be the case until we make up the lost ground, or the American people lower their expectations.

Concluding Un-Huxleyan Postscript and the Difference between This Town and Other Town



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The voice of my friend on the other side of the phone was clearly exasperated. In a very apologetic tone he tells me that if we were doing this three years ago it would have been completed with no trouble, but events have made something as simple as signing up for health care a ridiculously heroic endeavor.

My friend was a health insurance agent, and we were at the tail end of an eighteen-month journey trying to get me and my family of four a sane health-care insurance policy. When we started, both my friend and I were of the same skeptical mind regarding the prospects of the soon to unfold first phase of the Affordable Care Act. He, because as an insurance agent, he was already seeing the confusion that it was unleashing from within the health-insurance industry; me, because I am a manufacturing and process engineer and my experience has been that actual cost–benefit efficiencies in any process are never improved by micro-managing from the top, but more often are seriously degraded. As it happened, events proved our skepticism right.

So I had opted instead to take a serious hair cut with COBRA and wait it out until things settled down in the industry. Eighteen months later, with COBRA ending, I was forced to enter the post apocalyptic world of our national health insurance industry, an adventure that would have me and my friend spending days on California’s insurance exchange website, days more on private insurance providers websites, and an especially enjoyable two hours I spent on the phone in a death spiral of customer service handoffs. By accident one of those handoffs put me in contact with a department deeper inside the health insurance beast and which sounded like I was calling the IT equivalent of a battleship that was taking in water,

I’m sorry. All of IT is working on the website trying to fix the problem. There’s no one left to support customer service.

What I didn’t realize so many months ago when my friend and I began this process was that as a result of the Twittersphere, I was going to have words with a former member of the regime that ushered in this new healthcare revolution. And by words I mean a three tweet exchange.

In the same week that my friend and I were attempting to conclude our epic endeavor, I had just posted a blog article titled “Politics in the Age of Soma: How We Became the United States of Aldous Huxley.” In what would prove later to be an ironic twist, it was a follow-up to my critical assessment of the Obama administration, “Barack Obama and the Difference Between Attaining Office and Attaining Power.” In that article I discussed how the political environment that allowed Obama to win re-election has become dangerously selective for personalities least disposed to acknowledge and deal with the world as it is. Politics in the Age of Soma was intended to explain why that political environment exists, because our culture has ceased to be influenced by typographic literacy but rather by an appetite for amusement, and our politics has naturally come to reflect that disposition.

When I got off the phone with my insurance agent friend I had a few moments to see how Politics in the Age of Soma was doing on Twitter. To my pleasant surprise Mark Leibovich, the author of the book This Town, which I rely on extensively in the article, re-tweeted the link. This seemed to have sent the article into the D.C. political culture because it was then re-re-tweeted by one Jon Lovett, whose resume includes standup comedian, speech writer for three years for the Obama administration followed by a stint as creator of the TV show 1600 Penn, a sit com about a dysfunctional family in the White House.

No. The irony was not lost on me.

“He did read the article, didn’t he?” I thought to myself.  An article, the subject of which is quite literally about the deleterious effects of TV and amusement on the quality of our public discourse and ends quoting Neil Postman from his book Amusing Ourselves to Death:

Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us. . . . But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?

What is one to make of a former denizen of Mark Leibovich’s This Town recommending an article that seems to call special jaundiced attention to his own craft? Partly out of curiosity, and partly out of aggravation toward Mr. Lovett’s former boss for making my last few weeks miserable, I tweeted Mr. Lovett directly.

Um, thanks for the retweet, but a Comic/Speech Writer for the Obama admin is sort of exhibit A of the problem.

Mr. Lovett was kind enough to favorite the tweet and respond about ten minutes later.

I assure you that the vast majority of speeches I wrote were not entertaining in the slightest.

If Twitter has become our generation’s salon of the networked world, Mr. Lovett’s tweet had whatever the Twitter equivalent is of a powdered wig and a snuff box: charming, self-deprecating, and artful in its ironic evasion.

It brought to mind a quote cited by Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll of Salon writing on the culturally corrosive effects of irony. The passage is from  the late author David Foster Wallace.

Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It [uses] the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.

The quote didn’t just come to mind because of Mr. Lovett’s Tweet. But because of the, I think not coincidental, quality it bears to the habits of the town he worked in, including that of his former boss.

Whenever he [Obama] lapsed into shtick, a behavioral category that incorporated much of what politicians do in public, it was with an implicit nod to the game transpiring. He was playacting, in other words, and he wanted you to know that he knew it. [Mark Leibovich, This Town]

This kind of irony, the knowing winking and nodding while engaging in political kitsch, appears to be the coin of the realm in This Town the purpose of which seems to be not just to obscure but also to psychically absolve a culture whose high self opinion must needs take refuge from the taint of the sausage coming out of D.C. Irony, it seems, is the lipstick to the Beltway pig.

In Ashyby and Carroll’s worthwhile article, they explore the unfortunate descent of irony in cultural usage, from a potent tool of sixties dissent, it gradually became co-opted by pop culture and has now become a kind of default of hipster wannabe’s, late night TV kitsch, and a tribal tic intended to communicate sophistication without the sophistication.

Irony was becomin a protective carapace . . . a defense mechanism against the possibility of seeming naïve.

I would add it is also one more endowment given to our culture compliments of the medium which was the subject of my previous post, and has particularly flourished in our political class. But unfortunately, as the last couple weeks of my healthcare adventure has demonstrated, irony doesn’t make for good policy.

My response to Mr. Lovett’s tweet lacked his art. It is bad Twitter etiquette, it seems, to respond to charming self deprecation with full throated sarcasm, at least not without first engaging in some form of mutually diverting foreplay. I made the classic blunder of those who live outside This Town of attempting to cut to the chase.

But in my defense, we in Other Town are in a difficult position. We are the recipients, for better or worse, of the product of This Town. Our lives are directly affected by the horse trading, sausage making, sell-your-mother-to-move-up-the-political-food-chain, culture that has given us the Frankenstein’s Monster of public policies. Whereas whatever means remains that keeps This Town accountable to Other Town has deteriorated before the reality distortion field of media and the culture it has cultivated which has served to protect its own. This is why Mr. Leibovich’s book has provided such a service to those of us in Other Town who have read it and thought about its implications.

I assume Mr. Lovett recommended my article because he recognized something true in it, and this is good. But I also interpret his artful evasion as the sort of self-insulating tic of a culture that resists, and will continue to resist, its logical implication.

This does not mean, however, that the rest of us need to be so constrained.  For those readers who have somehow wandered innocently onto this blog post and yet remain unmoved, please, buy and read Mark Leibovich’s book This Town and then return to this post. If you are still unmoved, reread Mark Leibovich’s book, but this time take very careful notes, because you may have a fabulous future awaiting you as a wannabe denizen of our glittering Versailles on the Potomac.

For the remaining readers, I’ll just leave you with the following words from someone who, it will become clear, was neither a stand-up comedian, speech writer, nor political consultant:

It’s time to put away childish things.

Update: Mr. Lovett kindly responded to me directly regarding my post stating that the tweet I refer to above was posted strictly to avoid an argument on Twitter, and that he will attempt to respond to my comments when he is able. Feel free to keep this in mind as you consider the above. I thanked Mr. Lovett and told him that I look forward to his response.

 

Tags: Politics

Competence and Ideology



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Charles Krauthammer says that the election this week is about competence. The issue is the president’s incompetence, demonstrated time and again, as well as a sinking feeling that the world is descending into chaos in the absence of respect for our country and its power.

“Competence theory” seems to be the attempt to separate off-year elections into those based on competence and those based on ideology. The elections in 1994 and 2010 were ideological — both centered on popular opposition to progressive moves to extend the welfare state through health-care “reform.” There was also an ideological assertion by the Republicans through Gingrich’s Contract with America in the first case and by the Tea Party in the other. 

In 2006 and, allegedly, 2014, the election was mostly a reaction against the cluelessness and tyrannical misdeeds of the incumbent president and his party. 

Like all theories that categorize, this one exaggerates. In my Georgia, for example, the Republicans are emphasizing issues such as Obamacare and amnesty, and the campaign is less about the president’s incompetence than his ideological aggressiveness. The problem is, from this view, that he proves to be altogether too competent in advancing his agenda.

Still, the categories make some sense in describing the general style of the opposition party’s campaigning. The Republicans, for the most part, are staying away from contentious issues, as the Democrats did in 2006. This time especially, the Republicans think that ideology alone would not lead them to victory, and “the tea-party moment” in the history of the party is largely over. 

The Democrats’ campaign this time in the close races seem to have three pillars: (1) Distancing the candidate from the president, but generally not in a very specific way. (2) Mobilizing the base, beginning with black voters, in a way uncharacteristic of off-year elections. (3) Adding unmarried women with children to that base by calling attention to the ways in which Republicans in power would allegedly threaten their health and personal freedom. The Democratic goal is to keep the “libertarian securitarians” on their side. One sign they might be failing is that young libertarian securitarians seem considerably more likely to vote Republican this time than last, thinking of the Democrats as a greater threat to their economic security. And the turnout among the still largely Democratic young will probably be way off, because the innovating charm of Obama has worn off.

For Krauthammer, the reason we can’t be sure that the Republicans will take the Senate is that the polls might be a bit off in most of those close races. The reason: Democrats might be doing a better job in getting their base out to vote, and the polls wouldn’t pick that up. His thought here is that the Republicans might end up victimized (as in 2012) by their own comparative incompetence. Stuff the polls don’t pick up is typically the illusory hope of the party about to lose (think 2012 and most conservative pundits), but in this case, given the deficit of issues and the enthusiasm among lots of voters, the turnout does seem more uncertain than usual.

We have to add, of course, that the Republicans are, in fact, incompetent if they become complacent in a victory that came from an electorate something like the one that showed up in 2010. That doesn’t mean that they have clue about how to win with the larger and less white and male turnout of 2016. A big reason that the Democrats won’t be chastised all that much by a defeat this time is that they assume they get the Senate and the presidency back next time. Unless the Republicans pick up 54 or so seats this this time, it is hard to see how they hold on to the Senate next time. And the Democrats will have a fresh presidential candidate unsaddled with Obama’s baggage.

It would be great if an election really did focus on competence. For example, in our country 70 percent of our young people are now unfit for military service  If it weren’t for the comparatively honorable and violent South, we wouldn’t have nearly the number of recruits need for our downsized armed forces.

Our middle class really is failing, and one result is a crisis of competence among most of our young. A small percentage of our secondary schools continue to get better, while most of them continue to get worse. The proposed remedy: Try to get everyone to graduate from college! That means we have to focus our energy on transforming college into a vehicle for ensuring workplace competence. And the focus on demonstrable competencies at the expense of anything higher is actually making our colleges more incompetent in achieving their historic missions. Okay, I will add that self-indulgent political correctness is one reason why our colleges have been falling short of competence, why there are studies that show that a college education gives too many students no “value added” in terms of marketable skills over four years. But it’s not only political correctness! The main reason for value not being added is the proliferation of techno-lite majors that don’t even pretend to aid students in developing flexible cognitive skills. But I digress.

Don’t forget, though: Elections used to turn on not only competence and ideology. It was once thought that the greatest of these standards is character.

Last Midterm Thoughts



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1. This time in 2012, Republicans were hoping that the pollsters had their models of the electorate wrong. It turned out that the models were wrong, but not in the way that Republicans hoped. The voters turned out to contain an even larger proportion of Democrats than the pollsters had expected.

This time it is the Democrats who are hoping that the polling models are wrong. There are still a lot of close races, but the undecided electorate is made up largely of voters who think Obama is doing a bad job. The Republican Senate candidates, whatever their individual flaws, are about as unobjectionable as one can reasonably hope. That leaves the Democrats hoping for a hidden vote of strong Democratic identifiers that is not being caught by either the state Senate polls or the national polls of Obama’s job approval.

2. My gut feeling is that there is zero enthusiasm among Democratic identifiers who are marginally attached to the voting process. They are no longer enthusiastic about Obama. They won’t vote Republican, but they also aren’t worried that the Republican Senate candidates are going to turn the poor into green crackers or steal everyone’s condoms.

I remember Henry Olsen saying something to the effect that giving people a reason to vote is the best GOTV operation. Whatever the effective uses of technology by the Democrats, I saw people bringing their kids into vote in 2008 and 2012 because those voters saw those elections as something meaningful. That was the most important Democratic turnout advantage. By the same token, whatever the glitches with the Republican GOTV mobile apps, the real problem in 2012 was that millions of voters who didn’t like Obama anymore, just couldn’t stomach voting for Romney — so they stayed home. It is just one guy’s view of the world, but I see no reason to think that the Democrats have the enthusiasm advantage that they had in the last two presidential elections.

3. In terms of presidential job approval, Republicans have the most favorable midterm environment of the post-Reagan era. Obama has a lower job approval number and a higher disapproval number than either Clinton in 1994 or Obama in 2010 at the same stage of the campaign. The geography of the Senate contests favors the GOP. Republicans did a pretty good job of candidate recruitment. If Republicans can’t catch a wave under these circumstances, it means that demographic (marital, ethnic, age cohort) changes have tilted the electoral playing field in ways that should send the Republicans past panic and straight into some cool, relaxing despair.

Enduring Problems: Predicting Elections, and Leo Strauss



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There’s a lot around the web the last couple of days about the Democrats’ Romneyfication of Republican candidates for the Senate. They are being branded successfully as outsourcing oligarchs. That’s because, as in the case of Mitt and Georgia’s David Perdue, they have been. (In Georgia, it appears that, despite her excellent campaign, Michelle Nunn might have reached her personal glass ceiling at about 46 percent of the vote. As undecideds decide and libertarians decide not to cast futile votes for their candidate, Perdue, meanwhile, is creeping toward 50 percent.) So let me agree with Pete that it’s a real issue that the development of the division of labor and high technology does really take out middle-class jobs and make the economic condition of ordinary Americans with their struggling and often broken families more insecure. The solution is not “welfare” programs that are literally counterproductive, but, as Pete, Paul Ryan, Yuval, and the others have shown, there are possibilities that are more market-friendly and market-sensitive. It’s just not true that the growth caused by liberating “job creators” from taxes and regulations will be enough. I gave a talk along these lines at Middle Tennessee State yesterday (sponsored by my old friend the honors dean John Vile), and some in the diverse and attentive audience thought I might not even be a conservative! Well, a few even thought that, because I see a lot of a lot of predictive power in libertarian futurology, I was actually a libertarian. What I really said is that libertarians say such and such, and something like that might well happen, but the consequences of this or that new birth of freedom might not be change that ordinary Americans — or any free and relational being — can believe in all that much.

Peter, of course,  is right that the strong argument for voting for highly successful businessmen is that you know they’re smart and can get stuff done. And it almost always speaks well of the person to want to cap his or her career off with public service.  The danger is that he or she might continue to spend too much of the day in the exclusively oligarchic mode. 

The elections of 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 were easy to predict, and if you googled enough you could see where I got the outcome almost exactly right in each case. So I was sure that Republican cluelessness and corruption would transform Congress in 2006, that Obama would win easily in 2008 but come up short of a landslide, that Republicans would sweep in 2010, but the most extravagant hopes of tea-partiers were wrong, and even that 2012 would not be all that close. My “predictive method” is just to go with what the polls actually say. That’s the problem this time. The polls look good for Republicans, and I think they will pick up seats in the House (quite an accomplishment, given how many the gained in 2010). But the Senate races remain a bit fuzzy and the data somewhat contradictory. I’m going with experts in saying the Republicans will end up with 52 seats, and that would be a kind of wave minus (given that 2008 bloated Democrats’ numbers). 

Rational prediction and control leads me, of course, to the writing of Leo Strauss. Our friend Peter Minowitz has written a fabulous review essay comparing writers on both extremes of the Strauss-o-meter. There’s the wild man Laurence Lampert, who thinks that Strauss was a Nietzschean and that Nietzsche was a Platonist, that philosophers both ancient and modern were about world-transformative projects, that Strauss lacked both guts and prudence when he faked being a political conservative (and the Straussians who followed that lead are just rather contemptible fools). Strauss should have been loud and proud about his atheism, about what turns out to be the life-affirming wisdom of “the sovereignty of becoming,” and all for a kind of cosmopolitan, post-religious world that’s openly for philosophy, universal enlightenment, modern science, and chastened only by the tragic awareness that nature eventually extinguishes every human accomplishment. If that’s not cool, what is? To which you might add, if that’s not crazy, what is? Lampert is a ferociously talented, and endlessly joyous interpreter of great texts. If that’s not fun, what is?

Catherine and Michael Zuckert, by contrast, think that Strauss was deeply critical of Nietzsche’s imprudence, really didn’t think reason could take out the possibility of revelation, really was a conservative and responsible defender of American liberal democracy (despite its flaws), and didn’t have any shocking secret teachings. Sure, he thought that the medieval synthesis of Christianity and Aristotle called “natural law” didn’t really work to make it possible to be both an Aristotelian and a believer. But, hey, most American Protestants think that true too. Strauss certainly didn’t think that an openly atheistic society would be good for either sustainable liberty or philosophy, and so he didn’t think America could dispense with religious support.

Peter judiciously appreciates how brilliantly and meticulously both Lampert and the Zuckerts use the writings of Strauss to support their case. And, where they differ, he typically sees truth on both sides, and well as some stuff (say, about Machiavelli) they both miss. Peter even suggests at one point that the two Straussian poles aren’t as different as it first seems. The “Straussian” idea of philosophy as most deeply the contemplation of an intelligible eternal natural order depends, the Zuckerts suggest, on Aristotle’s somewhat anthropocentric natural science, a science that’s perhaps somewhat “exoteric” and certainly made questionable or simply refuted by modern science. So Strauss is not a relativist or a historicist, but his seemingly unreserved dedication to eternity might have been part of a polemic against “reason in History” or identifying Being with time. It’s unlikely, nonetheless, that Strauss really was with Lampert in affirming “the sovereignty of becoming.” But it’s harder than it first seems to figure out where he’s coming from.

Tags: Enduring Problems: Barack Obama , Predicting Elections , Leo Strauss , Esotericism

Businessmen Aren’t Bad, They Just Let Themselves Get Drawn That Way



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My First Things column this week is about how right-leaning businessmen like Mitt Romney and David Perdue need a middle-class agenda even more than other kinds of candidates.

One thing I don’t think I got across is that businessman candidates aren’t, in and of themselves, worse or better than other kinds of candidates. Professional politicians have one set of distinctive weaknesses, as do legacy pols. Right-leaning businessmen like Romney and Perdue face the suspicion that they neither understand nor are interested in the priorities of voters further down the earnings scale.

The difference is that the better professional and legacy pols are aware of, and try to address their weaknesses. Professional politicians deploy a lot of energy trying to explain about how they are for the public interest rather than their own personal ambition. Legacy politicians try to build up something of a personal resume (by managing baseball teams or points of light foundations or whatever) so as to blunt the charge that they are just living of a famous name.

Right-leaning Republican business executives face a weird dichotomy. Their history of business success (which might includes layoffs, failed business ventures, and outsourcing) isn’t much of a drag among the Republican primary electorate. Non-rent seeking businessman are what makes America great. But the general election electorate is skeptical that this background in making money is necessarily good preparation for representing the public interest. The candidate’s experience with the nominating electorate does not help them connect with persudables who don’t necessarily trust a business executive any more than someone who has been in elective office since their mid-twenties (though the public might will have different concerns about each candidate).

One temptation (which the Romney campaign gave into) is to answer questions the public isn’t asking. In his 2012 convention speech, Romney tried to “humanize” himself by talking about the relationship between his mother and father. It made for some affecting moments (at least I think so), but it didn’t do him any good because nobody was skeptical of Romney on the grounds that Mitt didn’t appreciate his parents.

The concerns about right-leaning business executives are about whether the business executive will represent the interests of the voters rather than the interests of the right-leaning rich. The voters already know that the business executive candidate is smart and organized. So they need to put those smarts and that organization in the service of the middle-class. If you are so much smarter and more efficient than your professional politician opponent, then you should be able to come up with and explain your more free market program that expands coverage while costing the government less money.

Politics in the Age of Soma: How We Became the United States of Aldous Huxley



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The decline of a print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of a television-based epistemology has had grave consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute.

— Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Three fourths into Mark Leibovich’s unflattering expose of beltway Washington culture, This Town, the reader is treated to a scene that distills to an essence our absurd political situation. The event was the spectacular opening of a new movie, not in Los Angeles or New York but in the Newseum in Washington, D.C., which was attended by a mélange of politico-entertainment celebrity from Tom Hanks to Mika Brzezinski. The film was a political dramedy about an underdog presidential candidate who in his desperation chose a colorful and folksy politician from a far away state as his choice for vice president, only to realize that said politician was far more than anyone had bargained for. Partisan hilarity ensues. The candidate, of course was John McCain, and the movie was HBO’s adaptation of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s account of the 2008 presidential election, Game Change.  

The primary source for most of the inside dirt on the McCain campaign was the campaign manager, Steve Schmidt. By serving as a primary source of the book and the movie, and delivering some of the juicier incriminating facts about the comic inadequacies of VP candidate Sarah Palin, for whom he was the foremost advocate before dishing the dirt on her, Schmidt managed to parlay what objectively should have been a career-ending political catastrophe into a lucrative career as a member of the pundit class serving his product on MSNBC, Meet the Press, and on the speakers circuit, and ultimately landing a job as vice chairman of public affairs at one of the world’s biggest public-relations outfits.

Mark Leibovich ends his account of the event with this comment concerning the benighted demonstrators who met the film’s opening.

Outside the Newseum, a small group of protesters – Palin loyalists – were handing out white and yellow fliers … They reiterated the former Alaska governor’s oft-quoted charge that Game Change was based on a “false narrative”. Whether it was or not, much of Washington ceased being about true narratives long ago, anyway. It is about virtual reality: the video game in which we are all characters and try to be a player.

A unifying theme in Leibovich’s account of today’s Washington is the ubiquity of status anxiety as defined, not by merit or quality of service, but celebrity, or more specifically entertainment. Washington, D.C., is inhabited by a peculiar species of social climber that is haunted by the aspiration to be significant enough to be portrayed on the screen, and having achieved that status, by the other burning question, “who will play me?” In the case of Mr. Schmidt it was Woody Harrelson.

I’ve written elsewhere how Leibovich identifies Bill Clinton’s 1990s as the pivotal moment of convergence between the culture of politics, entertainment, and money marking the genesis of our present-day governing culture wherein the main pre-occupation is not governing, but alternate reality. But to be fair to the 42nd president, the Washington, D.C., of today was at least a half-century in the making.

It is difficult to say exactly when politicians began to put themselves forward, intentionally, as sources of amusement. In the 1950’s, Senator Everett Dirksen appeared as a guest on “What’s My Line?” When he was running for office, John F. Kennedy allowed the television cameras of Ed Murrow’s “Person to Person” invade his home. When he was not running for office, Richard Nixon appeared a few seconds on “Laugh-In” … By the 1970’s, the public had started to become accustomed to the notion that political figures were to be taken as part of the world of show business. In the 1980’s came the deluge. Vice-presidential candidate William Miller did a commercial for American Express. So did the star of the Watergate Hearings, Senator Sam Ervin. Former President Gerald Ford joined the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for brief roles on “Dynasty”…. Although it may go too far to say that the politician-as-celebrity has, by itself, made political parties irrelevant, there is certainly a conspicuous correlation between the rise of the former and the decline of the later.

This passage was taken from a book originally published in 1985 by Neil Postman titled “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” In it Postman offers us a cultural analysis of how we, in effect, got to Leibovich’s This Town by going all the way back to the middle 19th century and the beginning of what he describes as a turn from an America informed by a culture of the written word to one whose collective psyche would be altered from hours spent gazing passively into the dull blue glow of the stupid box. A particular virtue of Postman’s account is that it offers a criticism from a point of view just before things crystallized in the 90s and well before historic memory was sanitized by the cultural victors who reside in Hollywood, K Street, and academia.

According to Postman, it was Aldous Huxley, not Orwell, who seems to have gotten America’s future right.

What Huxley teaches is that in an age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours.

Taking a cue from Marshall McLuhan, Postman argues that the technological medium by which we now receive our world contains within it tacit assumptions about that world which are ideological in substance and the influences of which are very deep and go undetected by an unreflective cultural audience.

Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. 

Postman describes political discourse in the age of television as an exercise in suppressing ideas to accommodate the requirements of visual interest, where political figures do battle with good looks and empathy, and where the perceptive will recognize the early manifestations of what would flourish into the Washington Mark Leibovich describes as essentially one giant backstage green room to a nationally televised soap opera. Only now this is one soap opera where everyone can join, because with the addition of social networking, we can all enroll into the political cosplay of Left versus Right.

At the very heart of Leibovich’s book is a chapter titled “How it Works.” “It,” in this case, appears to refer to a person: Kurt Bardella, or perhaps more to the point, the type of person of which Mr. Bardella is a representative, a recent class of Washington insider politico inspired not so much by history but its televised counterpart.

What Kurt believed in most deeply was the Hollywood version of Washington, the city at its most titillating and televised. Kurt was of the generation of neo-political junkies whose passions were ignited not by an inspirational candidate or officeholder like Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, or Ronald Reagan but operatives on TV, fictional (Josh Lyman) or real (James Carville). They were the players in a thrilling game. He wanted in.

Leibovich spends a chapter on the impulsive young staffer who at the time was Darrel Issa’s press secretary, drawing connections between what he characterizes as an immature political adrenaline junky and the larger community of D.C. politics of which his subject is but a representative. But it took a decade for a young Bardella, inspired by the antics of a Josh Lyman on Aaron Sorkin’s TV show The West Wing to grind his way into the inner circles of congressional hearings. The last decade has seen technology optimize the efficiency of this evangelizing process as it has become transformed from spectator sport to role-playing game. The social network has displaced the far more circumscribed institutions of polemics of the past, like the spin room, or perhaps more accurately dissolved the walls so that the world may take part in the reality distorting sport.

In Dan Balz’s account of the infamous first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney almost half of the narrative is Balz’s record of what transpired on Twitter.

On Twitter, Chuck Todd of NBC said, “An old Clinton trick by Romney, using real people stories to make his point.” Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic tweeted, “Romney did better on the subject of Obama’s anniversary than Obama did on the subject of Obama’s anniversary.” . . . A tweeter dubbed @LOLGOP sent out a comparable message: “I think Mitt Romney had his first Frappuccino tonight,” . . . In the Obama war room, Stephanie Cutter could see what was happening. The debate was being lost in the opening fifteen minutes because of a medium that had not even played a role in the campaign four years earlier.

When the Obama team re-grouped for the next debate among their strategies was to orchestrate a Twitter barrage of positive tweets by supporters to pre-empt a similar catastrophe. Dan Balz quotes David Plouffe from the Obama team.

“One of our goals for the second debate was within the first ten minutes to have you guys on Twitter saying, ‘Okay, Obama is better, he’s back.’ We need the press corps to say you’re off to a good start.”

So it is that through the magic of social networking the public can now participate in the reality-distorting arts that was once the sole purview of professional flacks.

At the center of Neil Postman’s argument about the corrosive effects of amusement on public discourse was the precipitous collapse in quality it has produced in the content of national public debate. It’s doubtful for instance that you will hear from a participant in any televised debate today a statement like the following:

My friends, silence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgment, your understanding, and your consciences, and not to your passions or your enthusiasms. (Stephen Douglas – Ottawa,Ill., 1858)

Or,

It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say in an hour and a half. (Abraham Lincoln – Freeport, Ill., 1858)

Writing in the 1980s, Postman’s examples of the comparatively vacuous political discourse of his day seem quaint compared to the 2012 debates of which the highlights included Big Bird, and who didn’t build what.

What distinguishes the quality of discourse of the past from the present is what Postman describes as “the Typographic Mind” which over a century ago dominated the American culture.

To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated impersonal text. That is why a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph.     

And yet, less fully examined in Postman’s critique is why the culture turned away from typographical culture. When Postman imputes to television the root cause of that turn he argues that it is by virtue of the potent immediacy of image and words.  But, as history suggests, it would be more accurate to say that television simply revealed a predisposition that was always potentially there in human nature as the gladiatorial games and the vulgar theatre did in previous cultures. Most problematic is Postman’s identification of technical literacy as the sole critical missing piece in our present culture which betrays a modernist tendency going back at least to John Dewey that would portray reading as a technical activity of which the sole benefit is the noetic skill that it cultivates divorced, it seems, from any higher cultural purpose.

The problem is that the America of the 18th and 19th centuries was uniquely literate because it was the product of a culture that viewed literacy as essential to something no less than salvation itself, scriptural revelation. In contrast, at the beginning of the 20th century, the new schools of education led by John Dewey sought to sever curricula from such higher purposes in its focus on education as strictly training in skills, thus paving the way for anything to fill the spiritual void. The subsequent century has revealed the logical consequence of a society that, unanchored to its cultural endowment, has been left to appetite to decide the question of how to invest its free-time and energies. Television, and now the internet, has simply filled that void and the quality of our ideas, our politics and our intellectual discourse have been debased accordingly.

What Leibovich and Postman unintentionally reveal in our politics and our culture is the vindication of the Straussian criticism of the larger modernist project, that in our desire to conquer nature by means of techne’ alone, we

. . . no longer distinguish between the wise or right and the foolish or wrong use of power… for social science and psychology, however perfected, being sciences, can only bring about a still further increase of man’s power; they will enable men to manipulate man still better than ever before; they will as little teach a man how to use his power over man or non-man as physics or chemistry do. (Leo Strauss, The City and Man)

Dewey’s modern theories of education were simply the vehicle that brought this to our culture by way of the classroom, television and the internet screen are simply filling out the implications of that project. The problem of course is how to remediate a century of bad cultural choices, especially since, as Postman notes, Huxleyan decomposition is particularly hard to mobilize against.  

An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan one. Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?

The challenge is further exacerbated by the fact that, as I explored previously, politics has become the new vehicle for so many to fill their lives with what amounts to a false sense of dramatic import. On one side we have the amusements of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but on the other the Organize for Americas of the world.  

“Who will take arms against a sea of amusements?” Postman asks. Indeed, how to take up such arms against a world and a medium that is militant in its embrace of the digital opiate that is our Soma?

Tags: Politics

Thumpin’ Studies



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I just heard on NPR that studies show that Americans don’t care about the upcoming midterm election, despite the record amount of money that’s been spent to psych them up. That, of course, might be dismissed as liberal spin. Any time I’m about to lose some big game, I explain that I don’t even care — and no one else does — anyway. 

I heard on NBC that voters don’t care because they’re disgusted with gridlock. They don’t think voting can give them change they can believe in. Polls really do show that voters are disgusted with the two elected branches of government. But a truthful analysis would have to add: Outrage is focused especially on the person who is president. The genius of our system is that, typically, blame for the country’s not going in the right direction is focused on the branch where all the power is held by one person. 

Still, it’s unclear whether this election is going to be a Republican “wave” when it comes to the Senate. The odds are the Republicans will end up with control of that chamber. But the particular races have a lot of quirks and uncertainties, and nobody really knows what’s going to happen. At the top of that fuzzy list is Georgia, where Nate Silver (whose analyses do deploy sensibly the data that are really available) thinks the most likely outcome is a January 6 runoff. I’m not as sure, thinking that Michelle Nunn is closing pretty strong. (She has saved her best positive commercial — featuring her statesman dad — for last.) If this is a wave year, however, the polls wouldn’t be picking up completely the anti-Obama surge. Not only that, you might add, but the last couple of polls actually do seem to show a modest Perdue surge. In most wave years, there is an element of good luck; the party that rides the wave happens to win just about all the close ones.

Perhaps the most telling early sign of the big Republican wave, Silver reminds us, would be a Scott Brown victory in New Hampshire. The polls show the race pretty much a dead heat. But few really believe, at this point, that that’s a close one the Republicans should believe in.

President Bush the younger candidly described his 2006 repudiation as a “thumpin’.” President Clinton described his 1994 experience in equally candid, if less folksy, terms. As Peggy Noonan reminds us this week, the first step in a twelve-step presidential self-help program is acknowledging not only that the voters think you have some big problems but that you really are pretty bleepin’ clueless. Certainly Clinton and Bush both became much better or less clueless presidents in response to a wake-up thumpin’. 

President Obama didn’t derive an equivalent therapeutic benefit from his 2010 thumpin’, thinking it was necessary collateral damage for the great progress in social justice that was the ACA. Just as the Federalist expected, he took refuge in his fixed term, expecting that the positive benefits of his reforms would kick in by 2012. Arguably, they didn’t, but he got away both with asking for more time and with blaming his predecessor for things remaining somewhat screwed up. Maybe most precisely, he could plausibly claim that things were somewhat better than they were in 2009; the economy wasn’t bad enough on election day that Romney could get away with “The economy, ’nuff said” as his ticket for ousting the incumbent.

As I’ve said before, maybe the most self-evident reason for not reelecting any president these days is that second terms have been pretty uniformly disappointing in recent decades, partly due to the 22nd Amendment. Obama’s drop-off in popularity and competence has been combined with a startling upgrade of aggressively rogue executive action. A lot of that behavior can be explained by the inability to run for reelection; the Constitution, in a way, becomes the president’s enemy if his second is undeniably his final term.

Even the president’s friends are worrying big-time about his cluelessness, his fecklessness in the face of change he didn’t anticipate and is really slow to believe in. (President Bush’s friends were doing the same in 2006.) Maybe nothing could help Obama’s performance more than a thumpin’  (or, to use his word, ”shellacking”) he’s stuck with acknowledging. That goes for everything from thinking realistically as commander-in-chief to backing off on obviously unconstitutional executive orders, such as the projected amnesty one. 

The new Republican slogan (one that might be reluctantly affirmed by some Democrats): What the president needs, for his own good, is the tough love of a good thumpin’. Surely the therapy will be more effective than it was in 2010. The president can’t run for reelection as an antidote this time. Honk if you love the president and want him thumped! I’m not being ironic at all when I say I wish him well and hope things get better for him and our country.

The situation might actually be pretty perfect for Obama and the Republican leaders in Congress to start to work with each other. I hope the Republicans don’t get caught up in the illusions (again) that they can govern from Congress or that they can put the country on hold until they recapture the White House in 2016. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t  be developing a cogent 2016 plan, beginning with coming up with a candidate who can both win and govern. But they shouldn’t count on that plan’s working out. Studies show, for example, that Romney would easily beat Obama now, but he would still lose big to the Clinton who hasn’t been president yet. The same goes, more or less, for the Bush who hasn’t been president yet.

Tidbits: India, Postmodern Jukebox, Higher Ed



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1. India has put a probe in orbit ‘round Mars.  Impressive, but this important new The National Interest essay The India Myth” explains why India is not going to become a new superpower anytime soon. And its geo-strategic weaknesses vis-à-vis China are starker than you think.

2. Indeed, the essay makes me worry whether in these coming decades of Democracy in Retreat in the developing world, and in visible elite-fostered Decline in the West, that a pro-China, and down-on-democracy dictator could do well in India. Or elsewhere in Asia. That is, assuming a continued U.S. policy of dilly-dallying from behind, the first nation to “break faith” with the loose collection of nations that seem to be becoming semi-allied against Chinese bullying, i.e., Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan, could reap real rewards. We know Australia, Taiwan, and Japan never would, and have strong reasons to think the same with Vietnam. But if things go very badly in India or South Korea with modern democracy, I can imagine other calculations eventually. The Philippines is perhaps too America-connected to become China-allied, but it seems very exposed. I know too little about Indonesia to opine one way or the other.

3. The band/web-phenom Postmodern Jukebox is on tour this fall. A very talented group of musicians who have attracted attention with what you might dismiss as a gimmick, their covering current pop hits in a vintage styles from the 20s to mid 60s, and especially in swingy styles from the 30s–40s window. Here they are revealing the inner strengths of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” somehow redeeming the I would have thought inherently wretched “We Can’t Stop” by Miley Cyrus, and here they are with a cover of Lorde’s (good enough to actually be superior in the original) “Royals.” If nothing else, their site will give you a good chuckle or two, but the real point is the music. I meant to write on them some time ago, to try to relate their musical work to my some of my Carl’s Rock Songbook scribbling, but Mark Judge did a good job on their basic significance, and I at least want to call attention to them while they’re on tour. The main thing is they have excellent taste in musical (and adjectival!) style, and the chops and arrangements to deliver. Too bad in C-Ville they’re not booked in a venue with a dance floor.

4. Since I’m in retro musical mode here, the new Allah-Las album, Worship the Sun, is another one I’d recommend. Not as strong as the debut but with its own groovy-loose kind of ’66 charm. 

5. There’s a fine Chronicle essay by Geoffrey Vaughn, “Town and Gown:  What Great Cities Can Teach Higher Education.”  t sort of suggests that just as the whole “cities are dying — the future is entirely suburban” idea you sometimes heard in the 60s-to-90s proved wrong, the idea that college education is going to become massively online will likewise prove. And it’s a bad idea to begin with. As Léon Krier could tell you — or show you — in day-to-day life people need places to center themselves ‘round. That likely applies to educational life as well.


Tags: Postmodern Jukebox , Leon Krier , democracy , India , China , Geoffrey Vaughn

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