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Postmodern Conservatism

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

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

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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.

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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

Can There Be an Alternative to Fox News?



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Ross Douthat wonders about the lack of competitors to Fox News for the right-of-center audience. I just want to make two points.

1. There was a moment in the 1990s when Fox News had competitors for the right-of-center viewer. The Pat Robertson–owned Family Channel had a news program. Laugh all you want. The channel had a right-of-center identity and it offered a different perspective. You also had National Empowerment Television – which usually came across more like a conservative-activist version of C-SPAN (though I remember one truly wretched program where two guys were sitting at a table supposedly drinking wine and basically being jerks). The Family Channel was eventually sold off and became a mainstream entertainment outlet, while NET never found a commercially viable format.

2. I don’t see how it is easy to produce a viable, right-of-center broadcast alternative to Fox News. Douthat is right that the right-of-center audience is underserved, but Fox is actually very good at what it does. Some Fox shows are about making conservatives feel good about themselves. Hannity is very good at that. Some Fox News shows are about giving a reasonably fair-minded account of the news from a right-of-center perspective. The 6:00 p.m. Bret Baier show is great at that. It is the news show I make every effort to watch.

Within the smaller conservative media ecosphere, Fox News has managed to simultaneously occupy the spaces of NBC News (nominally straight news, but liberal-leaning) and MSNBC (stoking the self-satisfaction of the audience on the pretext of broadcasting agitprop).

The problem with creating a competitor to Fox News is that it would be an expensive proposition to beat Fox News at the game of producing news for the moderately conservative or not-very-partisan-but-curious news consumer. It won’t do to mention some idiotic comment made by this or that Fox News personality. The relevant competition would not be Fox News at its worst. It would be Fox News at its best.

I think there is room for a broadcast outlet that presents a conservative perspective on the news of the day and digs in on undercovered stories with fewer of the cultural-resentment angles of Fox News. I’m thinking something that combines the sensibilities of Yuval Levin and Mollie Hemingway with the documentary prowess of NFL Films. I would love to see such a network give Mollie Hemingway a producer’s job and a checkbook, and tell her to make documentaries. Such a network could gain an audience among right-of-center people who find Fox News alienating, and it might win over some Fox News viewers who watch only because there is only one viable right-of-center news broadcaster. It might even win over some open-minded viewers who recognize thoughtfulness and excellence.

But getting from there to here would not be easy, would not be quick, and, most of all, would not be cheap.

The Analytic Tool of Selective Nostalgia



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So I’ve written something commenting on Yuval’s warning — to both liberals and conservatives — about succumbing to the blindness of nostalgia.

Some of you know that I’ve talked about “selective nostalgia” before. I’ve “borrowed” the term from Mark Henrie, although I think I’m more selective in my nostalgia than Mark is.

Selective nostalgia is, of course, aroused in anyone who takes seriously Tocqueville’s “things pretty much are usually getting better and worse” mode of comparative analysis. Democracy is better when it comes to prosperity, technology, and (mostly) justice. But it’s worse than aristocracy when it comes to some aspects of relational life and sustaining the greatness or the displays of soul of particular human persons. It’s also worse when it comes to understanding the limits of human progress. All that means that in democracy the recognition of the truths embodied in theology and metaphysics loses ground. And democracy is weak on those virtues that are rare and noble, such as magnanimity, generosity, and even charity, which it reduces to empathy. It’s also weak on appreciating “caregiving” for what it is, and in thinking of the transcendence of political life by particular individuals as  for joyfully knowing the truth in common — in, for example, the organized body of thought and action called the church, but also in the genuine community of philosophers and scientists. Democracy confuses science with technology and scientism.

One of the greatest threats in higher education in America today is the opinion that justice and technology are all there is to know. Justice morphs into political correctness, and technology and its measurable productive outcomes reduce every other human “value” to a mere preference or hobby.

So selective nostalgia saves us from the optimism of Peter Thiel (which was once shared by Karl Marx) and the pessimism of Wendell Berry and Alasdair MacIntyre.

Carl’s Rock Songbook No. 102, Cate Le Bon, “Cyrk”



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One of the brightest rock talents to emerge in the last half-decade, as far as I am aware or am fit to judge, is the “folky-psychedelic” songstress Cate Le Bon, from Wales.  She and her band have an intuitive feel for late 60s rock of a melancholic, folk-rooted, and noise-friendly manner—60s artists like the Velvet Underground of the third album, Syd Barrett, as well as the “60s-ish” 80s-to-90s David Roback bands The Rain Parade, Opal, and Mazzy Star come to mind in trying to describe her sound.

Now in 2013, prior to recording her third album Mug Museum, which has a less overtly 60s-ish feel, Le Bon and band moved from Wales to Los Angeles.  For those of us acquainted with her image and bio, this was surprising, like hearing that Wendell Berry had abandoned his native Kentucky for a Soho flat.  Berry, of course, is our most eloquent advocate of small-town rural life, and of “sticking” with the home-place, a role Le Bon never claimed.  Still, she was known to have grown up on a farm, to have written a few songs about the animals and landscape there, and most remarkably, to have featured songs in Welsh during the more folk-ish stage of her career.



And then there were her lyrics, quite a few of which seem to extoll, but also to thoughtfully meditate upon, rural living, or which seemed concerned about place and impermanence.  Take these distinct lines from “Cyrk”:

I’ve always loved the, movement of the trees.  Find me a place where, I can watch the breeze. 

I’ve always loved the, turning of the screw.  Find me a place that, I can fold into.

People they change, and often come and go, but I’m raising flags for the long-haul.

I’ll always love the summer till I die, find me a place where real birds fly by.

While those lyrics are a little hard to make out at first, their meaning is fairly clear, which is only the case about a third of the time with Cate—she is a lover of the elusive lyric and the puzzle you have to work at, and in not a few instances it appears her words keep the main meaning of the song to herself. 

So Le Bon “raised flags” for sticking, but for whatever reason, couldn’t stick with this, or arrange for this.  Again, she also raised flags for rural living—in “January,” one of the five songs presented on the (highly recommended) E.P. Cyrk II, we get this:  Well, now, you know you’ve got it made, when the days are yours alone.  Go out, employ the country.  Similar agrarian sentiments, while more mysteriously expressed, seem at the heart of three of the trippiest songs on the regular Cyrk album: “Fold the Cloth,” “Puts Me to Work,” and “Ploughing Out.” And then there is “Shoeing the Bones” from her first album, complete with a farm-horse video, but also featuring the haunting refrain these are hard times, to fall in love.

Why are these hard times to fall in love?  It’s unclear from the lyrics there, but perhaps it’s because, as “Cyrk” suggested, they are ones in which people, they change, and often come and go.  How this works in love-relationships is suggested by a line apparently about one from the intriguing–but to me still half-indecipherable–“Puts Me to Work”And someday our needs will change, and we’ll slip beyond the range; tomorrow’s another day, already been sold.  I cannot but hear an echo in this of Philippe Bénéton’s account in Equality by Default of the way modern mobility and individualism infect the family itself:

Children…are increasingly considered as a passing moment in the lives of their parents.  This is particularly noticeable in the United States, where the child is treated like a guest passing through, a guest to whom one owes certain courtesies but who will before long fly off on his own wings.  The thought of separation is already a separation.

Apply this to eros.  On one hand, Le Bon’s narrator appears to be wisely resigning herself to the impermanence of love—she’s learned that purported “fact of life,” one taught right from the get-go of the sexual revolution in songs such as Jefferson Airplane’s “And I Like It.”  But on the other hand, she sings of the inevitability of love’s impermanence not in the language of nature, but in that of commerce.   That’s unlikely to be a sign of approval.  And we might note that in another Cyrk II song, “Seaside, Lowtide,” she is in dread of the moment in which she detects the love-look depart from her beloved’s eyes.  That dread belongs to the low moment, the one worthy of harrowing guitar-noise.

Le Bon does not, however, “raise the flag” for permanence in love in a manner that denies her own responsibility for the specter of impermanence.  Now, an interview tells us that one of her band’s members has been her boyfriend for some time, but keep that fact to the side and concentrate instead on the persona she presents in her body of song.  She does have a few songs that describe falling in love, but as we’re seeing, there are more that describe partings or the threat of them, and in some of these she is the one breaking off—these songs often feel as if they could be also apply to friends and family, and they are all connected at the hip with Le Bon’s feelings about place and moving.

For example, while “Eiggy Sea” seems primarily about the narrator identifying her spirit with the flight of a sea-bird, there are several striking repeats of the line, And in the morning, I am gone.  Apparently, either family, friends, lovers, or all three, find she has crept out without telling them.  There is also a reference there to our journeyings (hers and the bird’s?) being overdue and the statement there is nothing you can bring, to attract us home.  And then there’s this from “What Is Worse”They come to my room, and tell me I’m so cruel, ‘cause I’ve no plans to settle down.  Of course, in some instances she’s the one who might or does get left behind.  The recent single-only “He’s Leaving” is a straightforward lament about some fellow’s leaving town making her feel like dying; at one point in it she admits, Now what’s a soul like me to do? I like moving, too.

That line reminds me of perhaps the key song to all of this, “January,” the final one of the set of songs that make up Cryk and Cyrk II.  In retrospect, it seems many of those are focused on the home-place and the possibility of leaving it because Cate already had the move to LA in mind. The song begins, And moving kills me, and sets me on fire… and after yet more sea-bird imagery, the likelihood of leaving is front and center:

January’s comin’ back;

I don’t’ know if I’ll be here for that,

but, I’ll still love something,

I still love something…real. 

“January” is thus the sister-song to “Cyrk.”  In fact, we can think of most of the Cyrk-songs as both celebrating the Welsh countryside and sadly bidding it goodbye.  The songs long for the real and to be placed, and yet they are real about Cate’s own longing to journey to new places.  This would not matter to us here at Postmodern Conservative, except that they are done with a superior rock artistry, and that they seem particularly clued into the dismayingly change-infused and thus displacing character of the modern age.  In a coming post we will consider what Cate’s songs indicate about this also being a secular age, as some have said.  These are hard times, in any case, for actually pulling off the long haul with one person and one place, as opposed to simply raising flags for such. 


Speaking of flags, nice pillow!  I have a feeling Cate and her band will one day return to Wales to stay, but who can know?  As Pierre Manent said—see my recent globalism essay—today it seems any person in the world might become a citizen of America.  If Cate does so, well, I’ll say “welcome aboard,” and wish her good days discovering the real things to be found in my Southern California homeland, which I miss.  

But in my mind’s eye I cannot but now see a lone bird soaring above the fields and cliffs of Wales, and, an implicitly-present scene not shown in the Whit Stillman film Barcelona, where the character Montserrat explains to her family that she’s going to marry an American and live in the U.S. for good.  Scenes like that play out all over the world now.  The moving to America, and the moving within it, have set the pace.  Sure, mobility has actually diminished in the extended recession, but it still seems any of us might wind up anywhere, or at least, that none of us ought to count on making a home place beyond one or two generations.  As Tocqueville taught, Tomorrow’s… already been sold.  So, while I hope I’m not entirely too cool for the immigration-celebrating “America” by Neil Diamond if the moment is right, “Cyrk” and “January” are far truer to the feel of our times.   

Tags: rock , modernity , Immigration , love , place , Cate Le Bon

Marvel’s “Civil War” Is About Paranoid Tribalism, Not Paranoid Ideology



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Jamelle Bouie has noticed that Marvel’s 2006 “Civil War” storyline (which is scheduled to be integrated into the Marvel Studios superhero franchise ) sounds awful right-wing. It isn’t. It’s just mindless political tribalism, and the only thing that has changed is the date and the party in the White House.

For those of you who don’t know the story, a tragedy involving superheroes leads to the passage of the Superhero Registration Act, which forces all superheroes to give up their secret identities and work with the government, or else be sent to a government prison in the Negative Zone (just think bad place). Captain America leads the resistance to this law and is assassinated.

Sonny Bunch has some fun with Bouie by pointing out that the writer of Civil War is a self-professed liberal who wrote the series as an attack on the Bush administration. The Superhero Registration Act really is an awful metaphor for the Patriot Act (it wasn’t like the law forced al-Qaeda members to enlist in the US military), but that didn’t matter. It was 2006 and 2007. His heart (and by heart I mean hate) was in the right place. Dixie Chicks/Green Day dissent was the highest form of patriotism. You’ll notice they never said thoughtful intellectually honest dissent was patriotic.

But now it is 2014, and dissent is a pretty low form of patriotism. The idea that a demagogic politician might exploit a crisis to increase the reach of government is less a threat than an opportunity. Never let a serious crisis go to waste. There is a Democrat in the White House and only people who worry about government registration are the ones with their hearts in the wrong place.

This isn’t real an issue of Left and Right. When I was reading Paul Johnson’s Modern Times,  I was struck by a passage in which he wrote that the politics of France between the two world wars was so divisive because it wasn’t my country right or wrong, it was “Whose country, theirs or mine?”* When you get to things like Marvel’s Civil War, the conflicts only make sense when you know that conflicts as being about tribes rather than ideas, and it is all about who is telling the story. You can easily invert the characters because it is about attacking the other (and advertizing one’s own place in the tribe).

It shows up on the right too. Look at the lines of a song written by right-winger Ted Nugent:

Here’s to the laws of Eric Holder,

Congress will pass an act in the panic of the day,
And the Constitution’s drowning in an ocean of decay,
And freedom of speech is dangerous I’ve even heard them say,

Here’s to the land you tore out the heart of,
Holder find yourself another country to be part of

So you have an aging right-wing artist attacking a nonwhite Attorney General, saying that the AG wants to “drown” the Constitution and destroy free speech – strange that Nugent doesn’t worry about what will happen to himself in post-constitutional America. You also have this celebrity trading on his white privilege and telling a nonwhite Attorney General (whose family history in the United States goes back three generations) to leave the country. If Bouie really wants to know what paranoid right-wing extremism looks like, he should have cited this song.

The thing is, the song isn’t really by Ted Nugent. The (racist?) white rocker is Eddie Vedder and the Attorney General is Alberto Gonzalez. No problem.

I have good news for Bouie. The “Civil War” stuff isn’t due to be integrated into the Marvel movies until after the 2016 election. That means that the Superhero Registration Act might be a perfectly appropriate metaphor for the corporate, war on women, Koch brothers fascism of Chris Christie’s first budget. It won’t be any stupider in 2017 than in 2007.

Update: It looks like Captain America 3 will be coming out in 2016. Should be fun seeing the spin.

Vocations and Higher Education



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So I’m back to thinking about higher education.

I’ve gotten several complaints about my post below about evolutionary psychology. Someone was wondering whether it was my “Pope Francis” moment in which I was subtly repudiating Catholic teaching on the purposes of sex and marriage. Well, I don’t think our pope is actually doing that, although I will say he’s filled the air with mixed messages. But maybe he’s right in some way such that, although the truth doesn’t change, recent developments might suggest that the gift of talking about it lovingly and effectively is in short supply. I certainly don’t claim to have that gift.

My presentation of the partial wisdom found in evolutionary biology is that it offers a correction to “angelism.” Angelism is everywhere in our virtual world, but not so much with Christians. Our most extreme from of angelism is found with the transhumanists, who identify being human with pure consciousness and our future with pure freedom from the limits and direction of our biological bodies. It is found with our existentialist Supreme Court, which seems to say that we have a mysterious and unbounded freedom to define for ourselves our personal identities. It’s also found with those who reject relational (or embodied) institutional religion by living spiritually according to the god within.

A strange form of angelism is driving currents of reform in higher education in the direction of measurable competencies and techno-enthusiasm about “delivery methods.” Education is a set of skills or techniques that frees the pure being from the burdens of personal authority and the confines of place. The person is being displaced or disciplined by the screen. More about that later.

For now, I’ve started to give a little attention to one way of justifying the humanities that’s catching on a little: vocation. If you want to learn more, google the Lilly Endowment and its theorist, my old teacher (well, he wasn’t old when he taught me) William Sullivan. He was one of the authors of Habits of the Heart and follow-up publications in that project. In those days (and to an extent now), he wrote against those Americans who didn’t channel their personal aspirations in the direction of egalitarian political reform. He claimed Tocquevillle as an authority, forgetting how hostile Tocqueville was to socialism and the politicization of religion.

Being a cradle Catholic, when I think vocation, I think of the religious life. Priests and nuns don’t get married, I learned, because familial attachments would distract them from a way of life that demanded their full and constant attention.

And when I read the Apology of Socrates, I learn that Socrates was so focused on his (alleged) mission from God that he had no time for anything else. What Socrates calls work (philosophy), we call leisure. What he calls leisure (caring for your family and country), we call work, or your job.

One more thing: I once had a dentist explain to me why he was called to the vocation of dentistry. Because he was very intrusively sticking sharp stuff in my mouth, I decided not to laugh.

Truth to tell: Most of our graduates from Berry will have jobs in which they will somewhat inauthentically play “roles” for money. There’s nothing wrong with that. The alienation of the division of labor is a price worth paying for our prosperity. They can always find satisfaction in worthwhile work well done, and they shouldn’t sell their souls for a price. Some students will be lucky enough to find fulfillment or joy in their work, and love and money will occasionally be on the same page.

In our middle-class society, the goal is not usually the whole-hog dedication of Mother Teresa or Socrates, but finding balance. That means not neglecting what’s most important, which is typically family, friends, community, church, God, and the good. It might also mean that balance is just too hard for most two-career families and that we ought to do more to detach “vocation” from measurable productivity.

We did have a Calvinist scholar speak at Berry yesterday on vocation. He was more about developing a “worldview” into which a person should fit each part of his life. His talk was Christian evangelism, but, to use his own word, he “translated” it into more general or inclusive language.

In my opinion, he went too far down the road of  being inoffensive or unchallenging. So he told students to be serious about choosing their courses and take charge of their own education. That “take charge” thing could easily be understood to flatter the idealistic or mercenary or slacker ignorance of the young.

In his own case, he had to drop out and experiment with Sixties’ communes and do a lot of reading on his own before he could take charge. He was majoring in journalism, figuring out that his so-called studies were nothing but techniques leading him nowhere, when he dropped out. I wish he had highlighted the somewhat offensive point to our students that he wasn’t serious when he when studying journalism (to which you could add management and so forth and so on).

The great thing about Steven Garber’s talk was its positive message: He said that if you’re serious about a seeking and searching education that links the truth about who you are to what you must do to have a real life, read Tom Wolfe, Walker Percy, Simone Weil, and Wendell Berry. In his book Visions of Vocation, he actually adds, among others, the dissidents Solzhenitsyn and Havel.

I sure hope our administrators we’re listening and that we configure our “life ready” interest in vocation to a gen-ed focused on those highly relevant authors.

I admit that his worldview thing is a little too dogmatically Calvinist. So he criticized Tom Wolfe for not ending A Man in Full with a tale of conversion to Christianity.  I tried to explain to him that it really is a Southern Stoic book, with the transformational author, the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (who inspired so many of the Southern aristocrats), replaced with the philospher-slave Epictetus. In a way Stoicism, or “classically confident personal rationalism,” is the secret to genuine liberation or authentic “vocationalism” in both A Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons. (Steve highlighted, to his credit, both books.) Can Southern Stoicism be “democratized,” and can genuine class be divorced from the unjust pretensions of aristocracy? There’s no reason why not, we can hope!

The best takeaway Steve left with us: A good book is good because it tells the truth about who we are. A bad book is bad because it lies about who we are. That’s the method of assessing a book that makes a claim for our serious attention. How do you quantify that? And how can you be sure and convince the experts that a student really has acquired that skill?

Steve’s book deploys Wendell Berry and Neil Postman and others to show the need to detach serious education from the sentimental angelism of the world of the screen and the imperatives of technology in general. I, of course, don’t go as far as Berry, but I certainly agree that teachers should leave those  screens alone.

Scruton and Balio on Classical Music’s Future



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In the spirit of my “Little Man at Chehaw Station” post, here’s a link to a valuable essay “Saving Classical Music” over at Imaginative Conservative by one Andrew Balio, veteran trumpeter with long experience in symphony orchestras.  He also has long experience with the all-too-similar trends that come and go in an effort to reform orchestras, or otherwise make them more appealing to young people.  Here’s a telling bit about the pressure many orchestras face to feature more contemporary compositions in their repertoire:

During this cold war of sorts with living composers, we have let a few come over the border for supervised visits, but our audiences still do not trust them, and frankly, neither do the orchestra musicians themselves. Too many of us have felt betrayed by the fashionable twentieth-century composers with their ugly and inhuman sound art–rather like the obnoxious cityscapes of concrete, glass, and metal that have chased human settlement into the suburbs.

Our audiences, voting with their feet when they smell a modernist lurking, have actually been our best friends in this regard as they have been the firewall that prevented us from jumping head first into the shallow end of the avant-garde.

Even better, Balio has started something called the Future Symphony Institute.  Balio has his eye on the business and marketing sides of contemporary orchestras in addition to the core aesthetic issues.  And he has the good taste to have become influenced by the anti-modernist (and very Porcher-esque) architect Léon Krier, whose architectural ideas he often makes musical analogies to. 

In another good sign, the Future Symphony Institute website features a little taste of philosopher Roger Scruton’s music writing.  RTWT, but this bit is particularly astute:

That tradition is not dead. But it has entered a new phase, in which listening and playing take second place to hearing. We hear music everywhere; we carry it about in our ears; we are locked into it as into a cage. But the experience of active listening, as part of an audience rendered silent by their joint attention, is increasingly rare. So too is the experience of making music together, united by a movement that arises between us and carries each player along on a collective wave of energy. Increasingly – and this is especially so for young people – music is a background to other things, and seldom enters the foreground of experience, to become the sole object of attention. 

Scruton makes the case that as classical appreciation wanes, so do the younger generations’ experience of live music generally, as classical music depended so much more on the live experience.  I’m can’t address that entire issue here, but I will say that while all good music is better appreciated live, to my ears, it is triply the case with classical music.  A number of times I’ve gone to a classical concert thinking, “Well, this sounds okay on the radio, if a little tedious, but let’s give it a chance,” and have been completely won over by the performance. 

Balio speaks about the need to “re-legitimize” classical music.  At some point, that will mean looking at how rock and disco-pop became its chief musical competitors, and in a sense de-legitimized it.  As the author of Carl’s Rock Songbook, I have thought more about such subjects than most have, at least from a conservative perspective.   Scruton looks more directly at the issue of comparative musical quality, and does so from a schooled-in-classical-music expertise which I lack.  But I do think my coming at things from the more typical “schooling” of our time, the anti-formal one so shaped by rock music, can shed its own kind of light on the question of what kind of music feels legitimate for a modern-democratic era.  The Songbook essay Balio-sympathizers would find most interesting on this score is ”Roll over Beethoven.” “It Was the Dawning of the Age of the Harpsichord” and “The SMiLE That Wasn’t” develop some of its ideas further.  They should also peek into the essay on Ralph Ellison below.

Here’s wishing the Future Symphony Institute every success.  

UPDATE:  BTW, as far as I can tell, one of the best ways of keeping up with classical recordings and artists (besides reading Jay Nordlinger in National Review, of course!), is Listen magazine–it is very generous with content online, and you can usually find it at your Barnes & Noble.  

Democracy, Art, and Ralph Ellison’s “The Little Man at Chehaw Station”



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“The Little Man at Chehaw Station” is Ralph Ellison’s most famous essay, and probably his best.  Originally published in 1978 in The American Scholar, it became the lead essay in the Going to the Territory collection published in 1986 (all if its essays are also available in The Collected Essays.)  To my mind it stands as a classic text of the American Canon, alongside the more explicitly political documents such as Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance,” Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural,” or FDR’s “Commonwealth Club Address (see here for the top 50 of such), and the shorter literary essays or works, such as Franklin’s “Way to Wealth,” Whitman’s “Preface to Leaves of Grass,” and Faulkner’s “The Bear.” 

My friend Lucas Morel, a fine Lincoln and Ellison scholar, joined me in writing a paper about it for this year’s APSA; in this post and another, I’ll be sharing a bit of what we learned.   The main thing was, “Wow!  There is a lot more packed into this than we thought!”  

The essay begins by introducing us to a parable about American artistry, and the figure of the Little Man, at the heart of it.  The parable was the invention of Ellison’s classical music teacher at Tuskegee, Hazel Harrison, a musician impressive enough to have worked with Busoni, and to have been friends with Prokofiev, in pre-Nazi Berlin.  Ellison’s initial ambition was to become a classical composer, although he already had a strong affinity for jazz, and a rapidly growing interest in American literature. 

The subtitle of the essay is “The American Artist and His Audience,” and the key characteristic of the Little Man is that he is an audience member who is quite knowledgeable about the tradition the artist is working from.  In presenting her parable to the young Ellison, who had just shamed himself with a poor recital performance on his trumpet, Harrison tells him,

[Y]ou must always play your best” because “in this country … [t]here’ll always be the little man whom you don’t expect, and he’ll know the music, and the tradition, and the standards of musicianship required for whatever you set out to perform! 

As the essay proceeds, Ellison makes this point even more emphatic in his own voice, warning the artist that “the chances are … any American audience will conceal at least one individual whose knowledge and taste will complement, or surpass, his own.”  Such individuals are typically hidden, anonymous, but they often are nonetheless there.  So the artist, out of mere self-interest lest an audience turn against him, and out of his proper ambition to enrich the common democratic culture, must always aspire to the highest standards of the traditions he is working out of, and never seek to pass a fraudulent aping of those standards over an audience’s heads.  I won’t spoil the fun for you, but essay concludes with a delightful anecdote about how a few years after Ellison received the Little Man lesson from Ms. Harrison, he came up against an example of his existence in reality, in one of the most unexpected places imaginable.

However, the essay is not all anecdote and parable, but in the bulk consists of several fairly abstract sections of argument, which (a) delineate the challenge America’s democratic nature poses to its artists, (b) defend the older ideal and metaphor of the melting pot from contemporary criticism, and (c) emphasize the non-exclusive character of American cultural transmission and guardianship.   Ellison’s Kenneth Burke-derived understanding of the American Founding is also in there, and much else.  In any case, the key to the essay would seem to be understanding all that the Little Man stands for, and his relation to the arguments presented thereafter.  Such a reading, however, would ignore the presence in the essay of a second figural image.


 

Keep reading this post . . .

Tags: Ralph Ellison , art , music , classical music , Pop Culture

Learning from Evolutionary Psychology



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So I’m back in town. I will treat you to another little essay on my travel experiences, just so I can deduct them from my taxes in a way that will even survive an IRS audit for my anti-administration thoughts and deeds.

On Ralph’s thoughts on marriage: One educational danger, of course, is that not only he may he be, at this point, pretty much preaching to the converted but that his deep and reasonable thoughts might not even have a place these days in so-called mainstream, elite higher education.

So, let me introduce a point of discussion: Is it possible to to avoid “homophobia” (a deliberately imprecise term) while preserving “heteronormativity” (which at least sounds more scientific)? Well, that is what E. O. Wilson actually tries to do in his evolutionary psychology. I’m not saying that the following is as scientific as Wilson thinks, but:  Some people have been given a homosexual orientation by nature. We should assume that there’s a reason for that, and that gays offer society particular gifts that aid in the flourishing of our species. That means that gays shouldn’t be oppressed or marginalized and compelled to stay in the closet. Being gay is not a choice, and it’s a natural good.

But, it’s still the case that the general purpose of members of our species is to pair-bond, reproduce, and raise their young. It’s the job of a woman to use her sexual attractiveness to attract a mate that will aid her in raising the kids. Nature points strongly in the direction of the of the two-parent family with more than two kids to keep the species going and getting better. Evolutionary psychology show us that our characteristic error is to exaggerate how much we can ingeniously free ourselves from natural inclinations and natural imperatives from the point of view of either social and biological sustainability or personal happiness. Wilson doesn’t address, as far as I know, the issue of same-sex marriage and all that, and this scientific account doesn’t definitively address the issue as it presents itself to us today. It does compel us at least to think about possible social pathologies that we eusocial yet rational (and so somewhat selfish) animals have introduced to a world with lots of single moms and superfluous men. It also allows us to consider the possibility that we can’t reasonably abstract the issue of what marriage is from “nature” understood in Mr. Darwin’s way. I explain in much greater detail here why the evidence from evolutionary psychology presented so ably by Wilson and Jonathan Haidt should be regarded as having moderately conservative public-policy implications.

It is really true, after all, that sophisticated Americans are often caught in a contradiction: They’re all for maximum conceivable liberation from nature and politics in order to be an autonomous being – that is, a being who doesn’t take orders from God, nature, or anyone other person. But they also say anyone who thinks that Mr. Darwin doesn’t teach the whole truth and nothing but  a fundamentalist rural idiot. My thoughts in this paragraph are close to those of the Darwinian political philosopher Larry Arnhart, except that I think that the autonomy freaks (including the Sartrean existentialists) and the whole-hog Darwinians should really listen to each other, because they each teach part of the truth about who we are. There is also some important stuff they both miss.

It’s very possible and reasonable to introduce more relational baggage into the picture, remembering that we persons are both free and relational or way more different from the other cute, smart, social mammals than the evolutionary psychologists imagine. And there’s what we know through faith, which perhaps can’t be law in in a country such as ours.

But to begin at the beginning: Too many ecologists – even, truth to tell, Wilson – are too focused on what we can do to extinguish and screw up the other species and not attentive enough to what we can do to our own. And our Porcher friends remind us of the interdependence of the two forms of reasonable ecological concern. I want students and professors at every college and university in our land to divide up into small groups and discuss.

Fun With Numerology



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When looking at what kind of gains Republicans can hope to make, it might be helpful to look at  presidential job approval the last two times there were Republican gains at the expense of sitting Democratic president.

According to Real Clear Politics, President Obama’s average job approval rating is currently 41.6% and his disapproval rating is 53.4%. On this date in 2010, Obama’s average job approval was  45.4% and his disapproval was 48.7%.

There was no Real Clear Politics in 1994, so I went to the Roper Center and created my own Fake Opaque Politics job approval average for Clinton by averaging the polls from October 1, 1994 – October 19, 1994. I came up with an average approval rating of 44.16% and a disapproval rating of 48.16%.

Obama is now noticeably less popular (or perhaps better to say more widely unpopular) than was the Democratic incumbent in either of the last two Republican wave midterm elections. The median voter in a lot of states is someone who thinks that Obama is doing a bad job, and my guess is that the remaining undecided voters are looking for an excuse to pick the GOP senatorial candidate. That is why I still think the Republicans are going to have one heck of a good night in the Senate.

On the other hand, can you imagine what kind of bloodbath 1994 would have been if Clinton had Obama’s current numbers? Even though the GOP should win the close races, why is it more plausible that the Democrats will gain a Senate seat (or two, or three) in a state that Romney won, than that the Republicans will pick up a seat in a state that Obama won?

Something not-quite-right is going on here. If you have a combination of very favorable circumstances + candidates running play-it-safe campaigns, you shouldn’t be sweating out Georgia and Kansas. A Republican “wave” built on picking up eight seats in Romney states (and barely holding on to a couple of others in Romney states) would give the Republicans an excuse to ignore how limited their appeal seems to be in statewide races even under what should be favorable circumstances.  

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