Friday, December 30, 2011
Mitt Romney used to be Governor of Massachusetts, a commonwealth which has at various times been A) the closest thing to a theocracy America has ever had and B) the poster child for tolerant secular liberalism. Many vocal religious conservatives now insist that the tolerant secular liberalism is an infringement on their religious liberty, and that they can only fully exercise their religion when the state actively endorses and promotes their religious values for them.
Back in the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, of course, the government did actively promote religious values, and the official magistrates were under the indirect supervision of the ministers. (Massachusetts was never such a theocracy that the ministers were directly in control, but the religious leaders could make and break the politicians; they weren't officeholders, but they were political bosses). This is the closest resemblance that any historical fact bears to the Christian Nation narrative popular with today's religious right.
Here's the thing, though: none of the people currently demanding a Christian Nation would have been able to exercise their religion under that system. Virtually without exception, today's right-wing religious activists belong to denominations that were banned in colonial Massachusetts (or would have been, had they been founded in time). Mitt Romney, likewise, would not have been allowed to practice his faith or even to remain in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The Massachusetts authorities in the 17th century were given to expelling members of dissident religious groups, such as the Baptists, with an instructive public whipping to hasten them on their way. They executed people for the crime of being Quakers. (Those executions led the English government to tyrannically curtail Massachusetts' religious freedom by forbidding the colonists to hang people for being a different flavor of Protestant Christian.) After the King outlawed religious executions, the God-fearing colonists had to content themselves with whippings, expulsions, and breaking into to private homes to see if anyone was holding a Quaker service inside.
Baptists were outlaws; the Pentecostalists and other later evangelical denominations would surely have been outlawed too. Practicing Catholicism was out of the question; Massachusetts Puritans looked on the Catholic Church as a diabolic organization headed by the Anti-Christ. The Catholics didn't enjoy religious toleration in England, let alone Puritan New England, and as late as the 1830s a mob burned down a convent in greater Boston, because it was full of, you know, nuns.
And as for being a Mormon, if there had been any Mormons yet, forget it. Groups that got driven out of 19th-century Illinois wouldn't have stood a chance in theocratic Boston. If Mitt Romney had shown up in the Massachusetts Bay Colony he would have been immediately thrown in jail, publicly flogged, and (if he caught a few bad breaks) hanged. In fact, every single Republican candidate for the presidential nomination, including Herman Cain and Tim Pawlenty, belongs to a church that would have been criminalized in early colonial Boston.
On the other hand, "Godless" liberal Massachusetts, that terrible threat to religious freedom, has treated Mitt Romney remarkably well. Not only did he get two degrees from Harvard (whose Puritan founders would have never admitted anyone of his faith), and he was actually elected to John Winthrop's old job as Governor! (We're still trying to harness the original colonists spinning in their graves to make green electricity.) He didn't do any of that on a wave of religious support from his fellow Mormons, of whom Massachusetts has approximately none. He did it with the votes of people who don't believe in his religion and have no particular sympathy for it, even some people who view Mormonism as slightly crazy. Those voters disagree with Romney's personal religious choices, but respected his right to make them and did not penalize him for them. Tolerant liberal values gave Mitt Romney the maximum freedom to practice his faith.
The people of Massachusetts did expect Romney to live up to the traditional separation-of-church-and-state deal, in which the elected magistrate represents the interests of the whole commonwealth and not his private religious convictions. If Mormon Governor Romney felt that, as a Latter-Day Saint, he had to close down all of the state's bars, liquor stores, and coffee shops, he wouldn't have been Governor Romney for even a week. In fact, Romney signed the repeal of the old Puritan-inspired Blue Law against selling alcohol on Sundays. He acted on behalf of the voters who had delegated him his authority, rather than using that authority to express his own religious concerns or impose them upon the public.
Was this a limitation of his religious freedom? No. It was a recognition that an elected leader is a representative of the public. If Romney had insisted that his freedom of religion entitled him to use his office to promote his specific values, he would have been barred from that office, because under that system no reasonable voter would ever choose to empower any candidate whose religion differed from their own. If we all agree that the President of the United States will keep his religious practice separate from his public duties, then anyone can be President. But if we considered the President of the United States free to use the powers of office to promote his or her own faith, then no one who doesn't share my particular faith, or yours, would be acceptable to me or to you. We can have, say, a Quaker president (like Nixon), because we know that the president won't simply disband the armed forces to keep with his Quaker faith. If Nixon had undergone a (spectacularly unlikely) crisis of conscience and decided that he had to be true to his religious upbringing he had to abolish the army and navy, he would have been impeached faster than he could resign.
Today's religious right complain about the separation of church and state as a hindrance to their religious freedom. Most recently, some Catholic bishops have complained that they can now longer receive taxpayer funding for adoption-placement services that exclude gay couples from adopting. They are free to run a Catholic adoption agency, and free to turn away gay couples if they choose, on the principle that children are better off orphans than raised by two men or two women. What they view as "government-backed persecution" is that the taxpayer will no longer underwrite this. Apparently, the bishops feel the government is obligated to fund an adoption service that deliberately limits the pool of adoptive parents, rather than giving its money to adoption services that accept more potential parents and therefore place more kids. “In the name of tolerance, we’re not being tolerated,” one of the bishops has told the New York Times, which reports that these bishops fear "an escalating campaign by the government to trample on their religious freedom."
To those bishops, I can only say: get over it. If you feel that it is important to keep orphans from being adopted by gay couples, and want to run a heterosexual-only adoption service, you can do it with donations from like-minded donors. You're not being "persecuted" because the government won't fund it for you. Taxpayers don't want their money spent to keep orphans from being adopted. Keeping orphans from being adopted because your religion currently teaches certain ideas about gayness is also not a public benefit. And as far as intolerance for the Catholic faith goes: baby, if this feels like persecution to you, you have clearly arrived. Nobody's set fire to a nunnery in this town for a long, long time.
Today's religious right defines "freedom of religion" as the freedom to use public resources, and public authority, in order to further the goals of their own specific religion. But almost without exception, the groups who feel "persecuted" by the government's religious neutrality are the groups who would never have been tolerated in the United States under the kind of arrangement they're currently agitating for. The Catholics, evangelicals, and Latter-Day Saints, for example are all traditionally disfavored religious groups who have only managed to thrive in this country because the Establishment Clause defends their religious freedom through tolerant neutrality. Their attacks on "tolerance" and "liberalism" as a kind of persecution is an attack on the very things that have shielded them from persecution in this country. It's like watching people trying to tear the roof off their own house. They might succeed in leading this country into a new period of deep religious intolerance. What they won't succeed in doing is escaping that intolerance themselves. It wouldn't just be the people that the religious right dislikes who would become targets if they ever got their way. And God forbid that they ever do.
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Last night, thanks to Annie Laurie from Balloon Juice, I finally understood what the Republicans are about to do to themselves.
I've been thinking of primary voters choosing whether to run Mitt Romney or to run an undisciplined crazy person.
Of course, they will end up running Mitt Romney and an undisciplined crazy person. Of course they will. They're just working out which one.
Now I don't feel well.
Saturday, December 24, 2011
It's Christmas time, which means "War on Christmas" time, which means a whole bunch of bizarre complaints about persecution by members of an overwhelmingly privileged religious majority group. This bad behavior is often understood as part of the most intense and fire-breathing American Christianists' fire-breathing intensity. But that's only half the story, or maybe less. The support for more public displays of Christianity comes from two very distinct groups: one group of very intense church-goers and another group that spends little or no time in any kind of formal worship. (Flavia got me thinking about this second group with a great post about Rick Perry's appeal to the people who aren't "in the pew every Sunday" but who nonetheless feel uncomfortable with gays.) If that seems paradoxical, the thing to understand is that the second group wants more public religiosity precisely because they have no particular religious practice of their own.
The familiar Christianist groups take the position that they can't exercise their freedom of religion unless they can exercise it everywhere, and for them exercising their religion means constantly attempting to spread it by any means necessary. Those believers cannot tolerate any religiously neutral public square, because they feel obligated to claim everything they can for their particular version of Christ. That's a coherent but wrong-headed position, which basically insists on the bitter sectarian struggles that the Establishment Clause is designed to prevent (struggles that the Founders could picture all too clearly). These groups want school prayer, public Nativity displays, and monuments to the Ten Commandments because they want to establish their (very, very specific) version of Christianity and disestablish the rest. As part of that process, they want to turn every inch of the public square into a site of red-hot theological controversy.
But the other group who's interested in public displays of religion is interested in an extremely bland and unobjectionable Christianity, with no religious controversy or debate at all. They want religious displays that are specifically Christian, but not specific to any group of Christians; the goal is something that 90%-95% of self-identified Christians can sign off on without feeling bothered. Yes, that excludes and marginalizes all of the Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and so forth. But it turns out that excluding only the Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews without also excluding more than 5 or 10% of the Christians is a very complicated proposition. It demands minimal content and superficial symbolism; since Christian groups agree on so little, you can absolutely not afford to get into even a limited discussion of what any of this means. The question of how to be a good Christian, of how to put Christian moral values into action, is right off the table. There's a reason that so much Christmas and Easter symbolism is not actually religious; Christians don't have centuries-old disagreements about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But we can't talk about Mary for more than five minutes before hitting some deep-seated differences. Santa Claus is a much safer topic of conversation. The need to avoid controversy makes America's public Christianity so watered-down and superficial that it's really religion in name only, symbolism without content.
There are plenty of Americans who like to think of themselves as Christians without actually doing anything about that, who don't go to services, don't read or think about any religious writings, and certainly don't do anything so outrageous as to give to the poor or follow any of Jesus's directives about mercy or compassion. But they like to think of themselves as Christians, and taking away the token gestures makes them face the reality that they don't even have a church to go to. The "War on Christmas" bothers them because it impinges on their no-cost, no-effort religious identity.
What many of these Christians-in-their-own-minds miss is the sense of an established national religion that those lame and superficial Christian gestures helped to create. They're not longing for America as a Christian Nation, in the current idiomatic sense: they don't want a society where religious hard-liners set the agenda for the rest of us. They want a strictly notional but national "Christianity," a shared recognition for a lukewarm and nearly content-free faith. They want Christianity as a badge of social cohesion and a symbol of tradition. In fact, they like public expressions of Christianity precisely because it excludes Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews. But they don't actually want any public practice of Christianity. The actual teachings of Christianity are irrelevant, because they're not using Christianity as a religion per se; they're using it as a way to promote social solidarity and in-group identity and other goals that are not religious in nature. It's very common for national religions to become more national than religious. That's another reason that the Founders didn't like them. National churches bury the genuine believers inside a crowd of conformists and hypocrites who are there to get along or get ahead instead of getting to heaven. (You may have heard a claim that no one can serve two masters at once. That never gets mentioned in those vague and nominal expressions of public Christianity.)
When you read conservative pundits, especially "moderate" or "centrist" pundits bemoaning our secular age and the loss of our civic religion, etc. etc. etc., remember what they're pining for is an era of meaningless lip service to a vague and denuded parody of Christianity. In essence, those pundits are feeling nostalgia for hypocrisy. And I suppose that hypocritical expressions of loyalty to a lukewarm religion have their uses, but I don't want any part of them. National and civic goals should be pursued by national and civic means. Religions, on the other hand, should be left to their own goals, thinking about their followers' spiritual and moral development rather than serving sociological cohesion. It's a pretty simple principle really: give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God's what is God's. And no, that's not from the Federalist.
Season's greetings, all. May you each keep the winter holidays in your own ways, and prosper in the New Year.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Hey there, conservatives. I know a bunch of you have had a good ride bashing on gays in the military for most of the last twenty years. (If you're a conservative who hasn't, good for you. You can ignore the following advice, with my hearty compliments.) And I know those of you who've been doing the public hating also hate to give up a good thing. Now that gays are openly serving in the military, I understand that it feels like time to double down. The issue's always been a winner for you before. Why wouldn't it be a winner now?
Here's your problem. For the last twenty years, you've been arguing against the idea of gays serving our country in the military. And since no one could be in uniform and out of the closet at the same time, you could serve up all the scary fantasies you could imagine; you do have a talent for serving up those fantasies. But now that our gay soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are openly gay, you aren't arguing against a hypothetical policy any more. Now you are publicly attacking real people. And the people you're attacking are American soldiers and marines during a war.
When you were attacking imaginary gay soldiers for doing vague imaginary bad things, you could pass yourself off as guardians of tradition. But when you are attack American servicemen and women who are serving in a war zone, it makes you look crazy, unpatriotic, and mean. That's not a coincidence. It really is a crazy, mean, and unpatriotic thing to do. And that's what it looks like.
If you want to make this a central campaign issue, that's fine with me. You'll get pummeled, and I'll enjoy watching. If that seems impossible to believe, let's put it this way: there have always been gays in our military, but they could not admit it. That allowed you to say whatever vile thing you liked about them without being contradicted by inconvenient facts. Now those same gay soldiers and Marines can speak up for themselves, and even more importantly, they can let their service to our country do the talking. Some of those people have served three or four tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, your main contribution to the war effort has been attacking the character of the guy who served those three tours. I wouldn't call attention to that if I were you.
Merry Christmas. It's a good time for kindness and decency. And it's never too late to start.
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Twenty years ago I got my first teaching job, as one of two young English teachers hired by a little high school in greater Boston. The other new teacher was a guy named Kevin Hogan. Kevin was already a much better teacher than I was, assured while I was struggling, deft where I was stumbling, natural in the classroom in a way I wouldn't be until years later. The kids loved him. I liked and admired him. I certainly didn't feel any shame in being the second-best rookie English teacher in the building (and I was a very distant second); I was just figuring things out, and Kevin was obviously and enormously talented.
We each left that school after a couple of years, and lost touch. I eventually went to graduate school and became a college teacher. Kevin ultimately remained a high school teacher, and a coach, becoming chair of the English department at a highly regarded charter school. The last time I saw him was on his wedding day.
Over the last two days Kevin has been been publicly dragged through the mud by a scandal-monging Boston TV reporter named Mike Beaudet, who ambushed him in a parking lot during Thanksgiving week. If you want the details of the scandal, you can already find them spread humiliatingly across the internet; I'm not going to collude in Kevin's humiliation. Kevin has been suspended from his job. He is in real danger of being fired. And he will likely never find another job as a teacher. That is a sad thing, and not just for Kevin. Teaching may be the single best thing he does for the world, and the world will be much the poorer if he leaves the classroom.
Many of Kevin's students, past and present, have rallied to support him. So have some of the parents, and many readers and viewers, who are angry at Beaudet's voyeurism and at his TV station's low journalistic standards. Setting out to ruin a person is not investigative reporting, and it's not a public service. Beaudet does not pretend that Kevin has done anything remotely illegal, or that he did the things he's being shamed for while employed at the school where he teaches now. And no one pretends that it did any harm to his students or, indeed, affected them in any way. Like most students, they didn't know anything about their high school teacher's private life. But then that private life was put on TV.
Watching Beaudet ambush Kevin is sickening. There is no goal except to confront an unsuspecting person with humiliating information, on camera. They don't need an interview to report the story. What Beaudet really wants is to make some pornography: he wants to degrade another human being on camera, inviting his viewers to take pleasure from that spectacle of degradation, and to make money from it. Like porn, Beaudet's little scene dehumanizes the person on camera, strips away his dignity and invites us to see him not as a person but as an object whose sufferings we can enjoy. But at least a pornographic movie is made with the performers' consent; Beaudet doesn't do that. He has gone out to degrade and dehumanize a person who has not agreed, someone he does not allow to say no. He's just going to violate someone on camera. If it were actual pornography, it would be illegal.
It's a very hard thing to watch done to someone you like and admire. But liking and admiring them isn't even what makes it hard; the hard part is just watching it done to someone you know. The process demands that you imagine the victim as someone not quite real, someone who makes no demands on your sympathy or your shared humanity. TV wants to turn us all into sideshow freaks and sideshow gawkers, jeering and staring. But when you see that happen to someone whom you cannot forget is an actual person, it's like a kick in the stomach.
If you must watch the clip, let me say that the Kevin I know appears only for a split second, just at the start. For the rest of the ambush, once he's realized what's happening, he can only try to escape or hide. But in the instant that Beaudet approaches him, asking something that Kevin initially doesn't understand, Kevin turns toward him slightly with a warm laugh, not because Beaudet's said anything funny but because Kevin uses the laugh to put people at ease and create rapport. He's begun doing that so fast that you could miss it. Some stranger has asked Kevin a strange question; his instinct is to draw that person into a friendly exchange, and before you notice he's already started doing it. A second or two later Kevin realizes that he's being attacked, and he shuts down. But that quick initial flash of warmth is pure Kevin; it took me back twenty years. It's what makes him so easy to like. It's what makes him so good in the classroom. That's the talent that Mike Beaudet wants to push out of the schools. That's the person he doesn't want you to see at all.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
I would like very much not to have a revolution. I know that you don't want one either. I prefer my change peaceful and democratic. You, I suspect, prefer any changes to be strictly top-down, decided upon by the existing power structure. But neither of us want lawless, spasmodic change. So please take my advice: leave the protestors the hell alone.
I know like the Occupy Protests seem like too much to you, that they're going on too long and spreading too far. There is a reason that you think this. You are completely out of your minds. You have lost all sense of perspective.
We have real problems in this country, problems that long since became unacceptable. And he have a power structure that declares even the most modest, common-sense solutions to those problems unacceptable. Limiting the pay of bankers whose banks were being propped up with tax dollars? Impossible! Raise the taxes of the super-wealthy by a small increment! Unthinkable! Use the Federal Reserve to reduce the unemployment rate, as the Federal Reserve is officially charged to do? Too radical! Fine. But don't tell us that being angry about these things is unacceptable, too. Something's got to give. And if you can't deal with peaceful protests, you're essentially demanding less peaceful protests somewhere down the line.
It's been nine percent unemployment for years now. The miracle is that the protests didn't start earlier. If you ignore the suffering of large groups of citizens over long periods of time, this is what happens. Now, it's obvious that Washington, Wall Street, and the mainstream media have no interest in taking the concerns of average Americans into account. At the moment, the big kerfuffle in Washington is a fight between the party that wants to pass some counter-productive budget cuts in the middle of a long recession and the party that wants to pass massive counter-productive budget cuts. And the hand-wringing is that the bipartisan "supercommittee" failed to reach a collegial consensus on how much to hurt the economy. That's madness.
Mass protests serve an important political function. They give the people in power a reality check. When angry people are in the street, it's time to figure out what's not working. A healthy and sane government tries to figure out the underlying problem and fix it, so that the anger diminishes. A rigid and unhealthy regime commits to ignoring those problems, and tries to shut down the protests so it can go back to ignoring them. That is an invitation for the public anger to grow, and for the public to give up on the regime. And that, bizarrely, is what we've seen in America over the last weeks. I never thought that I would see it in this country. And it is very disheartening to see this foolish and counter-productive police response to such manageable and reasonably-sized protests. The overreaction suggests that many of our ruling class are much more frightened, and much less practical, than I ever dreamed. It's amazing that they would draw the line this early.
It's shocking to find that America's current rulers are stupid enough to go to what is essentially the Hosni Mubarak playbook, especially when they just saw how that works out. It's even more disturbing to think that centrist American politicians have been looking at the Arab Spring and identifying with the dictators. That they've drawn exactly the wrong conclusion, trying to crack down harder on protests. Here's the lesson: you can't crack down hard enough, ever. Sooner or later, you have to give people what they want. If you don't, they'll get it without you.
America has survived because it's been flexible; the system has changed over time to keep from breaking down completely. We haven't had a revolution for the last two centuries because we've always managed to reform the system enough to maintain order; maybe not to reform it as much as we should have, but enough that we didn't completely break down.
This is one of those times that demand big changes, the kind that have seemed out of the question to the people in charge. But those changes have to come, one way or another. They are no longer out of the question. If the people in charge want to stay in charge, they need to do the reforming. It that seems impossible to them, sooner or later it will happen without them. It looks today like it will happen without them. My only hope is to get rid of those people through our existing political process, before something worse happens. Revolutions are messy and people get hurt. Bad decisions get made. I'd like to live the rest of my life without one. But if the voters' welfare doesn't matter any more, there's going to be a change. Resisting change with violence is the surest way to make that change violent. So, please, authorities: call off the cops, take a deep breath, and let's figure this out at the ballot box.
Tuesday, November 08, 2011
Hello, GOP primary voters. I know you're feeling upset about the new and graphic charges against Herman Cain. And I know that many of you blame white liberals, like myself, for allegedly drumming up these allegations to keep Cain from winning your nomination. But let me say on behalf of my fellow honky pinkos that this one really, really wasn't us. Because, you see, we would love for Herman Cain to win your nomination. Oh please, please, please vote for him anyway. There's no one we'd rather see run against Barack Obama in the fall. We're willing to beg here.
I won't lie to you. If Herman Cain became the nominee and then terrible and scandalous new information came out about him just before Columbus Day weekend, that probably would be us. We have no problem letting people know about ugly things your candidates have done. But what we would really never do is mess with your primaries so that your weak candidates give your strong candidates less trouble. And, brother, is Herman Cain a lousy candidate: much, much weaker than Mitt Romney, whom we probably dislike more than you do. If there's any way that you can keep Romney from getting the nomination, we'd be grateful. And we'd certainly never do anything that gets in the way of that. Go Herman!
I know that many of you have this theory that if you nominate an "American Black Conservative" then black voters will flock to the GOP and abandon Obama. Last night, as I drove through our country trying to find Monday Night Football on AM, I heard many people discussing this theory as established fact. But sinister white liberals like me are not so worried about what will happen if Obama ever faces a black conservative at the polls because, try to follow along now, that has already happened. It was 2004. It was Alan Keyes. It was not suspenseful.
Yes, I know that you're deeply committed to not remembering anything that happened in that time period, and even more committed to not drawing obvious, common-sense conclusions from the events of those days. But liberals like me have this weird bias toward evidence. If you want to know what would happen if you tried something (such as banning handguns, or investing in railroads, or running an eccentric black conservative against Barack Obama), we suggest looking at what actually did happen when that was tried before. I know this approach sounds odd to you. Treating it as a pure thought experiment that happens to give the result you want is probably more accurate. But even so, if you want to make Mr. Keyes Herman's running mate, we'd be cool with that.
Barack Obama has lost an election to another African-American candidate. That candidate is Mr. Bobby Rush. Now, we know you don't have a huge supply of former Black Panther Party members in your candidate pool. But if you want to take a big slice of the African-American vote away from Obama, we'd suggest you find someone like Rush: someone more, and not less, outspoken about white racism than Obama is, someone more warmly disposed to old-school social welfare than Obama is, someone who is further to the traditional left than Obama is. If you have anyone like that, we'd be happy for you to nominate that person, too.
Thursday, November 03, 2011
Last weekend, Hollywood released Anonymous, a costume drama whose promotional materials ask "Was Shakespeare a Fraud?" They're not really asking the question; the movie clearly promotes the argument that it was "really" Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who wrote the plays. The studio has also sent out course materials to schools, so that teachers can teach students to
If you followed media coverage of the movie, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the "authorship controversy" is a lively and interesting debate. If you looked at the documentary record from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, you'd find that actually it's pretty boring. We have a large stack of historical documents that explicitly name William Shakespeare, the actor from Warwickshire, as the author of those plays and poems. No one from the time shows any doubt about this. We have lots of witnesses who identify Shakespeare, by name, as the writer. We have no witnesses who name Oxford, or Bacon, or anybody else. The math isn't hard.
Now, some Oxfordians will tell you that when a historical document from the sixteenth century says "William Shakespeare" that actually means "Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford," because "William Shakespeare" was his pseudonym. (I'm not making that up. That is a standard Oxfordian claim.) Why do they believe this? Because they really, really want to.
(I'm not going to go further into this issue, but if you wish to hear fuller arguments you might go here, here, here, or here; the comment thread in the last link features screenwriter John Orloff's angry and not-thoroughly-competent attempts to argue back. And the best book on this subject is James Shapiro's superb Contested Will.)
Why does this matter? Because ultimately, this conspiracy theory is about the desire to claim that Shakespeare is in the 1%. Only an aristocrat, the conspiracy theorists say, someone in a tiny elite on top of the social and economic pyramid, could have created such art. The stakes here are to make William Shakespeare's works the property of the inherited elite.
The Oxfordian argument is, in short, a crasser and crazier version of a process that is going on all the time, in which the small elite of the super-wealthy are given credit for the achievements of the rest of society. Not only are they allowed to hog the fruits of everyone else's industry and ingenuity, but they demand to be given credit for that intelligence and labor as well. (See, for example, the "job creators" meme, which imagines wealth creation in a capitalist marketplace as the gracious gift of Lord Bountiful.) The claim, ultimately, is that we NEED to coddle the 1%, because that 1% creates everything good, such as the works of Shakespeare. All those middle-class actors, poets, and audience members were just obstacles to aristocratic genius.
And the Oxfordians' campaign displays a lot of the standard features that we see in pro-elitist propaganda campaigns:
There's the fake populism, that poses as an attack on the smug "elite" of university professors, although the actual point of the whole enterprise is to take credit away from William Shakespeare and give it to someone more elite. (And for the record, I'm not asking you to take my word for any of this because I have a Ph.D. I'm simply pointing out that there's a whole pile of evidence that you could check out yourself.) Part of the point, as always, is that middle-class professionals are to be attacked when they don't serve the super-elite agenda, like those greedy, lying climate scientists.
There's the false-equivalence press coverage, with the "on-the-one-hand" lead-in, which makes each "side" of any controversy sound equally plausible even when one of those sides has, basically, nothing.
There's the paranoid shifting of the burden of proof, so that questioners demand proof that there is not a conspiracy instead of offering any proof that there might be. Can you prove that when people said "William Shakespeare" they didn't mean someone else? Can you prove that George Soros isn't behind this?
And, of course, there's the character assassination. The historical William Shakespeare can't just be presented as a middle-class man of middling education. He has to be a completely illiterate and unprincipled buffoon. (It always blows my mind that these conspiracy theories portray Elizabethan actors, who typically performed six different plays a week and tended to have two or three dozen roles in their head at a time, as unable to read. How the hell would they learn their parts?) Anyone who's not in the 1% must be lazy, stupid, and so forth. Because meritocracy, of course, is for the lazy.
Because of that, the historical inaccuracy that most enraged me about Anonymous had nothing to do with Shakespeare. It had to do with the Essex Rebellion, an actual (documented) historical event that took place in 1601. The glamorous Earl of Essex, the Earl of Southampton, and a bunch of other aristos decided to have a coup against Elizabeth. They paid Shakespeare's acting company to put on his Richard II, which is about deposing an English monarch, before the balloon went up. (Emmerich's movie gets the play wrong, but never mind.) The idea was that the people of London would rally to Essex's cause.
And in Emmerich's movie, that's what happens. The common people get so moved by watching a Shakespeare play that they charge across London bridge as a mob, hoping to put the Earl of Essex on the English throne. (In Emmerich's movie Essex is secretly Elizabeth's son, as are Southampton, Oxford, and heaven knows who else. Can you prove they weren't?) And then Elizabeth's soldiers massacre them with cannon, on London Bridge.
That is a lie. No one rallied to Essex. No force was used against the citizens who rallied to Essex's side, because none of them did. Angry crowds had formed in London before, and they would again, but no one ran into the streets to fight for the right of an over-entitled aristocrat to get even more of his way. Essex was in fact counting on the public to rally behind him. They did not. His revolt was over before the afternoon was.
So whatever else you choose to believe, let's amend that historical lie. Essex, the entitled aristocrat, was not the hero, and the people of London did not see his botched revolution as heroic.
Some of the wealthy and privileged have done great things with their wealth. Others have not. But there's no need to rewrite history to suit the fantasies of the uppermost class.
Friday, October 07, 2011
It's become disturbingly clear that the people occupying Wall Street, and the centers of several other major American cities, have no plan for the future. No vision. No coherent ideas. No sense at all of what to do next.
I'm not talking about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Expecting a protest movement to have a shovel-ready legislative agenda is silly. If there were a bill in Congress or an existing major-party platform that would make these people happy, they wouldn't be a protest movement. They'd be a lobbying movement. I'm talking about the people who occupy Wall Street on normal days. They have been entrusted with a huge influence over our national economy, and heavily subsidized by our taxes. And three years into our economic crisis, they're just plugging along as if nothing had happened, doing the same things they used to do in the boom times. They have no plan at all.
The people occupying the Federal Reserve have no coherent plan. Most of them realize that something is badly wrong with the economy, but they have no actionable agenda for fixing it, and a few of them actually worry that workers' incomes will grow too high. That's just fantasy land.
The people occupying the Treasury Department are callow idlers, more dedicated to maintaining a certain kind of lifestyle than to addressing our structural economic problems. Timothy Geithner expresses his desires for the economy, but has no plan that could actually be put into practice. Geithner apparently has no idea of what to do.
The people occupying Washington, DC have no practical grasp of the situation. They have some incoherent sound bites, they have a grab-bag of small-bore proposals that don't address the big problems, and they have deeply impractical ideological commitments to ideas that would make things worse. They have allowed their encampments to generate into chaotic, directionless debates between people who want to do too little about our problems and people who want to do nothing about our problems. They are not putting forward any sensible or workable program.
The people occupying major newspapers and news channels have an unrealistic and immature grasp of basic realities. They are incapable of articulating solutions to our national problems, or of talking about them in anything but the most emotional and incoherent terms. They don't even know what it is they're asking for.
The people who occupy positions of our power in our society do not have a coherent plan for the nation's future or any idea how to address our economic woes. They have emotional attachments to a certain way of doing things, but no serious or concrete plan for making things better. Some of the people who occupy those positions of power, wealth and privilege fault the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators for not providing the kinds of workable proposals that the leadership class has failed to provide. But the obligation to provide those plans is on the people who occupy the positions of leadership. Angry crowds without a specific plan are understandable. A leadership class without a specific plan is an abdication of duty. And the angry crowds are the natural result of leaders who offer no solutions.
The message of Occupy Wall Street is messy and multivocal and muddled. Different protestors say different things. Of course. But when you step back a little from all those angry voices, you can hear a pretty clear set of demands:
THIS IS NOT WORKING.
STOP PRETENDING THAT THIS IS OKAY.
WE CAN'T TAKE ANY MORE OF THIS.
If you occupy a place of power or influence in our country, if you want to preserve that place for yourself, then you would do well to start your to-do list with those items. Nothing else is going to work.
Thursday, October 06, 2011
I bought my second phone on that trip, because I couldn't afford to be out of touch until I got home, and because on the last leg of the trip I was supposed to stop off for a brief visit with someone whom I was not dating exactly, but very tentatively exploring the possibility of dating. Standing said person up with the "lost my cell phone" excuse seemed like it would be an admission that I wasn't really an adult. So I got a new phone and programmed the tentatively-possibly-almost date's number into it.
It felt a bit odd to make such an iffy romantic prospect, if "romantic" was even the right word, the first number in my address book, especially because I temporarily entered her as one of the five close friends that I got to call for free. I wouldn't have anyone else's number until I got home, and there seemed to be no point in paying for cell minutes when I didn't have to. I certainly wasn't going to tell her that she was "in my five", even for a day, because that would have seemed creepy. And I was planning on switching her out when I got back and dug through my address book.
As it turned out, she stayed in the five for the rest of that phone's life. Five days ago, I married her.
Our marriage involves a lot of travel back and forth between the city where I work and the city where my spouse lives. I traded in that second phone, the one that I bought in order to keep our maybe/maybe-not coffee date, for a smartphone that helps make the weekly travel possible. A small part of what it takes to keep my specific marriage healthy is GPS capability, hardcore weather applications, and the ability to cope with my work e-mail (and open attachments) from highway rest areas and truck stops. The new phone also has a handy traffic widget that calculates the length of the commute back to my spouse, so that I can sit in my office late in the afternoon and watch the end of my weekly drive slip further and further away. In an odd way, I recommend it.
The phone I just replaced had one special feature: years of text messages, which I had left unerased, starting from shortly before we began our relationship until a few weeks before our wedding. They started with updates from the road the night before the coffee date, my side of the conversation full of oddities as I fumbled with a new autocorrect system, and then came weeks of flirtatious banter and jokes, gradually settling down into a snapshots from a maturing relationship. By the end, the text messages were mostly prosaic, bits of literal and figurative housekeeping between domestic partners coordinating their errands: picking up dinner, picking up cat litter, picking up the car from the shop. The messages told a story, and eventually that story got dull, because the happy ending had already come by.
I'll miss that little phone, and those hundreds of little messages, much as I occasionally miss our old apartments and our months of courtship. By that I mean: only a little bit, when I'm feeling wistful, with no sense that anything's really missing. The texts that I send these days tend to be simple and boring. Mostly they just say, I am coming home. That's all I want to say.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
cross-posted from Dagblog
It's strange to be cajoled, everywhere you turn, to "remember" September 11. It's not like we've forgotten it. Who needs a reminder of this? It's like being told "Remember gravity!"or "Remember oxygen!" I am reminded every day, thanks. It's all around us.
I used to think very specifically about the September 11th attacks at least twice a day, for the simple reason that I owned a clock. Every day, morning and evening, one digital display or another would flash that 9:11 at me and I would notice. I would also be reminded when working out at the gym, nine minutes and eleven seconds after I had started on each particular machine; since I often used two or three on indoor-cardio days, I could count on my heart rate spiking two or three times every session. On September 11, 2006, I think I did exactly nine minutes and eleven seconds, as fast and as hard as I could, on five machines. I didn't need a reminder about the fifth anniversary, either.
Sometimes, these days, I look at my watch and it's nine thirteen, or nine seventeen. When I'm doing penance on the exercise bike I no longer tend to notice when the 551st second of the workout goes past. And I no longer look at all the big flat-screens at the gym with that dreadful apprehension I used to feel, thinking of what a horrible place that room would be the next time we were attacked, how it would be to have all those TVs playing the next September 11th footage at once. These days I can go two weeks, sometimes three, without experiencing a visual memory of people falling to their deaths. Is that forgetting September 11? Hell no. I'll remember the attacks until I'm put in the ground myself. There's no forgetting. It's too late.
It's true that I now remember September 11th differently than I did two or five years after the attacks. It no longer feels as if I am reliving the experience of the original day. I no longer feel the full emotion of that day seizing my body, the shock and numbed fury and stomach-churning grief. Or perhaps I should say that memory brings me those emotions less often, and less fully. I can think of that day without locking myself in an instant replay. I can remember it as part of a whole. But that is not forgetting. It's only in the last five years or so that it has become a genuine memory. Before that it was a flashback.
Sometimes, when I hear people saying "Never forget," what I hear them trying to say is "Do not change the way you remember those events. Do not gain distance from the feelings that you experienced that day. Do not allow the passage of time to change your perspective. Do not let September 11th diminish in significance. Make sure it looms across your awareness the way it did that morning, blocking out everything else, as if there would never be any other, newer day. Do not move your heart from that day." Maybe not everyone who says it means that, and probably not all of them mean all of it. But it's hard for me to know what else they could be saying, when they're talking about not forgetting things that are impossible to forget.
There are people who remember events in the past as clearly as if they are living them, every single day. They're called trauma victims. Many of our veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq can remember the traumas of battle there as if they had never left, as if the most terrible eighty seconds of their lives had never stopped happening. In fact, they can't not remember those horrible events, so they really will be in Afghanistan or Iraq until those memories become less vivid and intense, until they become painful memories instead of return tickets to hell.
Part of the response to a terrible event such as September 11th is to attach importance to it. The pain and horror you felt on that day can only make sense if it is somehow for a reason, if that event that cost you so unbearably much is monumental and unforgettable. That's an understandable reaction. But making that bargain means giving the terrible event power over you forever. Refusing to move on, because you need to honor the original pain, someday becomes a way to increase the pain. And you let the trauma take over your life.
I understand that many, many people need to find a meaning in the terrible events. But I cannot bring myself to. The things that happened that day were only bad, unbearably bad. They achieved nothing good. They had no reason. The were fully and entirely wrong. We did not become a better or stronger country because three thousand of us were murdered. We were a good country already, and we did not deserve to be attacked that way. No one who was killed, no one who lost anyone, deserved that loss. And we did not learn any lesson. Osama bin Ladin had nothing to teach us. He never could have. I will not give the terrorists or their murders credit that they do not deserve. I will not make September 11th the most important day in our history. It was only one of the worst.
And I will confess that it has always been my hope, since even a few days after the attacks, that September 11th would be forgotten over time. Not for me, or by me. It's too late for anyone of my generation. But I want, have always wanted, for those days to become a distant, historical memory for the next generation to be born, and the generation after that. I want September 11th to become a boring fact in a history book, no sadder and no more important than Antietam or Little Big Horn or the Battle of Long Island. Because it won't be until the memory of September 11th fades that we have won.
The things that your country remembers forever are the defeats it did not come back from. The scars. The wounds. If our grandchildren think of September 11th the way we do, with shock and fear, if they are still angry about September 11 fifty years from today, it will be because we failed, because we never returned to being the country we once were. The point of fighting terrorism is for our grandchildren to live in a world where they are not in fear of terrorism. If they are still furious, and still fighting, fifty years from today, then we will have lost. I hope, I pray, for September 11th to become a faded and forgotten memory, a footnote written by violent men whose violence could not change the main course of history.
Wednesday, September 07, 2011
I spent a lot of the summer driving U-Haul trucks instead of blogging, so I didn't keep up with the early Republican jostling. Tonight, I'm going to do something useful with my time, so watching the Republican debate is out of the question. But the New York Times published a great piece about the Republican's political situation three months back. It simply didn't use the words "republican" or politics. It was a piece about movie studios and Comic Con.
Comic-Con, of course, is the country's biggest comic book convention, held in every summer in San Diego. It's an annual Mecca for fans of superheroes, science fiction movie franchises, and fantasy mass media. It's a place for people who can discuss Boba Fett's family history in detail, who have turned their smartphones into startlingly detailed replicas of Captain Kirk's communicator device, and people who not only come dressed as little-known comic book heroes but can sustain detailed arguments about the best alternate version of that character. (In other words, these are my people.) And media companies long ago realized that Comic Con was the best place to roll out new computer games and to promote big summer movies. The relatively small group of hard-core fans (and by "relatively small" I mean a hundred thousand and change) can build enthusiasm and word of mouth for upcoming science-fiction movies and video games, and they turn out to be the classic influential subgroup. Get those hundred-plus-thousand fans revved up, and they will go out and rev up millions of more casual fans across the country. They are the grass-roots activists for mass-media science fiction. They are Hollywood's base.
But it turns out that there can be misfires. The base is not simply a more intense version of the general population; they are, inevitably, distinct from that population. So sometimes movies that seem like perfectly good bets are in fact ruined by a poor reception at Comic-Con, often for reasons that movie executives didn't see coming and that the general movie-going public won't care about. (The Comic-Con fans might have very strong opinions, for example, about which version of the Green Lantern story gets filmed.) So they can kill things that might otherwise be viable. At the same time they can become rapturously excited about movies that ultimately appeal only to very hard-core fans, leading studios to invest tens of millions of dollars in films that then make, say, threes of millions of dollars. The base doesn't just like things more than the average person does. They like different things.
So it is with either political party that becomes enthralled to its activist base. Viable wide-release candidates can get killed off because they have no niche appeal. Niche candidates can be treated like the Next Big Thing by a base that cannot believe that everyone has not been waiting forever for someone Exactly. Like. This! And sooner or later the parties,, like the studios, have to check their guts and ask how big a bet they want to lay on the convention crowd's sense of the world.
Monday, September 05, 2011
cross-posted from Dagblog
It's college football season, and that means corruption and scandal. (Margaret Soltan at University Diaries blogs superbly and tirelessly about that corruption.) We've actually gotten to the point where Sports Illustrated, not the Chronicle of Higher Education but Sports Illustrated, has called for a major university football team to be disbanded. But the moral conversation about college sports remains so focused on abstractions like tradition and idealism that the "moral" conversation itself is corrupt, and corrupting. Arguing about ideals is fine. Mistreating actual human beings in the service of your ideals is depraved. By that standard, few institutions in America are more fundamentally depraved than the NCAA. The ideal of the scholar-athlete is not a bad thing. But it becomes a bad thing when it is used to exploit and mistreat people and to promote dishonesty. The NCAA, which is essentially a group of college athletic directors, doesn't protect the kids who actually play college football and basketball, or allow them to behave honestly. It is actually focused on punishing the exploited kids even more, and on forcing them into hypocrisy. (One of the big football scandals this year centers on some players who traded their autographs for discounted tattoos. The NCAA views that as major wrongdoing.)
Let me propose two simple principles for college athletics: 1) the powerful should not abuse or exploit the powerless, and 2) lying is bad. That still leaves some room for things like school tradition, nostalgia, and the romance of the scholar-athlete, but those things have to operate inside the framework of the two principles. If your hallowed college traditions really can't survive without lying, exploitation and abuse, then something is wrong with your traditions and your school.
How should college football (and college basketball) continue without lying, cheating, and mistreating the players? Three steps.
1. Let colleges pay athletes openly. And make them pay.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with running a minor-league professional sports franchise. There is nothing wrong with an 18-year-old kid signing up with a minor-league sports team, getting a chance to develop as an athlete and hoping for a shot at the big leagues. And there is nothing wrong with that athlete getting paid. It's strenuous work, that involves both specialized skills and significant personal risk. When your enterprise is making millions of dollars off people who are risking concussions, spinal injuries, and damage to their ACLs, you should not be asking yourself if it would be wrong to pay them.
Nothing is wrong with a high school graduate who signs up with a minor league ball team. People who want to be professional baseball players but don't want to go to college have an avenue to do that. They get a job, and people pay them. Baseball players who do want to go to college are free to do so, and college baseball doesn't have the kinds of scandals that college football and basketball have. Kids who want to get paid in the pros do, and kids who would rather go to college do that instead. No one's confused. Nobody's lying. Neither minor-league baseball nor college baseball are hotbeds of corruption. And the most important reason for that is that the athletes are allowed to choose, and to pursue the rewards they actually value. A baseball player with no interest in a college education can just get a job, and those who want a degree can get one.
In football, and with a handful of exceptions in men's basketball, there is no choice. If you want to be an NFL player, you must first pretend to be a college student. You are not allowed to just train for your sport. Aspiring NFL and NBA players are forced to play for free, even when the colleges and coaches make many, many millions of dollars. (The sports media whines and moans when basketball stars get paying jobs after only a year or two of unpaid labor.) Talking about "amateurism" in this context is a lie, because the players do not choose to be amateurs. Rather, they are forced into unpaid labor by an unofficial but very effective cartel. The NCAA is, in effect, the price-fixing arm of the NFL and NBA.
If football players could choose between working as professional athletes or forgoing that in order to play college ball, then we could talk seriously about amateurism and scholar-athletes. In fact, many of the "amateurs" are indentured servants, and the education they are given in exchange for their labor is often a sham. The sheer demands of training in a pre-professional league such as, say, the Big Ten don't really leave the time, let alone the energy, for a serious full-time degree program. Pre-NFL football and pre-NBA basketball are consuming, round-the-clock pursuits. And when a player enters college ill-prepared as a student, which is pretty frequent, the intensity of the sports training program guarantees that they will never catch up. In fact, they'll keep falling further behind.
Colleges that wish to conduct pre-professional sports programs, with the big TV and ticket revenue, should be allowed to operate their professional teams openly and legally, dispensing with the fiction that the players are full-time students. The usual proposal that some new football minor league be created is unrealistic; that league would quickly be killed off by the existing college franchises, with their advanced development, capitalization, brand recognition and market share. A startup league could not compete with the professional-except-in-name-league. The solution is to rename the existing leagues and admit what they are.
Colleges who wish to do so should be allowed a charter or license to operate professional football and basketball franchises. They might be allowed some special tax exemption, so that the sports revenue can be used to run their non-profit. And they should be allowed to pursue different approaches. Some schools will want to operate their teams themselves. Others might outsource the sports franchise to professionals for a fixed annual revenue, essentially licensing the team's history and brand. (This should make schools conscious of the value of their brand.) Teams that go pro should be allowed to play teams that stay amateur, and vice versa. If Notre Dame wants to stay an amateur school, but keep playing teams that have become pro, they should be allowed. Whether or not this is a good idea will become clear in time.
Some schools, of course, will simply stay amateur, just as many have kept from having truly pre-professional teams. The Dartmouth Big Green is going to remain a team full of future surgeons and bond traders. Some schools will field a mix of amateurs and young pros, just as they do now, and that is also perfectly fine. Pro teams who want to add a college scholarship to their pay package should be permitted to do that, but not to stipulate that the scholarship be taken while the athlete is playing. (If you want to pay a kid to play tight end for three to six years, and give him the option of going to the sponsoring college for his BA when his playing days are over, that's a good thing.)
But if you're not going to educate a kid, pay him. If what he wants is playing time and a shot at the bigs, give him a salary and benefits. The market will work out the price for that. The economics of big-time college sports might change a bit. The coaches might not be able to demand seven-figure salaries when the players are no longer free. But an enterprise generating tens of millions of dollars, the way televised college football does, should be able to budget reasonable five-figure salaries for the kids whose bodies are out there on the field. And if big-time college sports can only make money by making the kids play for free, then it is morally indefensible.
2. Set up legal penalties for pretending to field amateurs
What you shouldn't be allowed to do is have a professional team and call them amateurs. This should not be policed by the NCAA, which has compromised morals and a ludicrous idea of what constitutes a penalty. Having a "high-minded" outside arbiter come in to "void" previous championships doesn't stop anything. Allowing people who have been wronged to sue on their own behalf, in court, can curb misbehavior quite effectively at times.
If a college sets up a professional team, or a team with a number of professionals on it, and then presents them as amateurs, then they are committing fraud. They are falsely pretending amateur status in order to increase fan interest, and they are defrauding the real amateur teams they play, who get made to look bad and whose student-players are put at physical risk. If a team full of pre-meds who train twenty hours a week wants to play a team full of young pros who train for eighty hours a week, that's one thing. But the amateurs, and their coaches, should know that they are playing the eighty-hour pros.
A team that falsely claims amateur status should be liable for all their football-based revenue, plus penalties, to the team they have played. If you want to get a prime holiday matchup against Notre Dame by claiming to be a bunch of scholar-athletes, and then use your under-the-table pros to beat up Notre Dame on TV, Notre Dame should be able to sue you for your share of the TV money, the ticket fees, the concessions and souvenir sales, the whole megillah. And the US Attorney should be able to come after you for fraud, including tax fraud. (Those who pay kids under the table do not pay employment taxes. QED.) The penalties have to be substantial, to make the financial risk of cheating prohibitive.
If boosters or assistant coaches have done the paying, the team should be held liable but allowed to recover their costs from the booster or assistant.
3. Set up legal penalties for infringing on the education provided to student-athletes.
If you're going to give a kid an education instead of cash, you should be required to give him the education. Telling a kid that his reward for playing football is a college education, but then making the demands of football so intense that he can't avail himself of that education, is the cruelest exploitation imaginable. If you're not going to give the athlete a salary, give him time to learn organic chemistry.
Don't let the NCAA set the rules for how many hours students can be made to train or practice every week, or how many classes they can miss for road games. Those rules and that policing have been completely ineffective. Give players who want the option of full-time sports training a chance to play in pro leagues, and allow scholarship athletes to sue if they are deprived of the value of their scholarship. This isn't about ideals or noble traditions. It's about contract law. Athletic scholarships offer a consideration in exchange for a service; you can get four years of tuition if you'll play on this specific team. If the student leaves the team, they give up the scholarship. But that has to cut both ways; if you're holding the eighteen-year-old to the requirement for athletic service, you have to let them get a real education. If you don't, they should be able to sue the school, and there should be potential criminal penalties as well. This of course will sound scandalous to many American sports fans, because it treats student athletics as real work, and the athletes as real people. It's considered terrible when a student athlete looks after his own interests. But if people are not allowed to take care of their own interests, or to be rewarded for their work, we aren't really having a moral conversation.
Monday, August 22, 2011
Although it's been crowded out by actual news, there's been another uptick of interest in whether or not Sarah Palin will attempt to run for president. Palin herself is being even more inscrutable than usual these days. Her mixed messages seem baffling until you realize that Palin does not want what most people considering a presidential run want.
Most politicians considering a presidential campaign want to become President of the United States. They balance that desire against the grinding misery of actually running for the job: the endless daily schedule, the constant petty humiliation of raising funds, the life in a fishbowl. The usual question is whether you want the job so badly that you will sacrifice the rest of your life for a shot at it, and how realistic you believe that shot to be.
But Palin is facing a different question with different incentives. She doesn't want the job, and knows she can't win, but she wants to keep the campaign-mode freakshow going as long as she can. Most politicians try to sacrifice as little family privacy as they can while still getting elected governor. Palin quit her job as governor and put her family on reality TV. What other politicians see as the cost, Palin sees as the benefit, and she has no interest in holding office, which is what other politicians consider the prize.
I've argued before that Palin's profession has become potential presidential contender. She has stopped being a politician in order to play one on TV. The catch is that her media career is founded on the public's belief that she might make a serious run for the Oval Office. Once the general public understands that Palin will never get the Republican nomination, her A-list career will end and she will become a B- or C-list media figure. She'll still make very good money and be on TV, but she will make much less money and get much less attention than she does now.
The end of Palin's run on the A-list, if she sticks to the conventional choices a candidate faces, is roughly six months away. If she runs in the primaries, she will likely suffer a major defeat in New Hampshire and lose several other primaries pretty badly, and it will become obvious that she will never be a viable national candidate again. If she tries to avoid that defeat by sitting out, it will become clear that she is never running. Her core audience hates Obama, and will never accept that Palin sat out the 2012 campaign. Either way, Sarah Palin will stop being a hot commodity and become just another celebrity has-been.
I have always thought that Palin would use Obama's first term to rake in all the money she could, while she could, and then make her choice between the two conventional options. I no longer believe this is true. Palin does not want to relinquish her A-list status, and she is not willing to let the circus move on without her. Her strange behavior (the bus tour, the cancellation of the bus tour, staying out of the Iowa Straw Poll, showing up near the Iowa Straw Poll with her bus) only makes sense for a person who is trying to extend her political celebrity by not choosing. Palin wants to find a way to run and not to run at the same time. She can't get the 2012 nomination, and doesn't want it, but she also needs to keep people talking about her as a possible contender for 2016. She's looking to stay out of the race but stay around it.
Palin's perfect outcome would be to lose the race, but to lose in some way that does not seem like a real test of her political strength. If she loses a normal head-to-head matchup, she's finished. What she'd like to do is lose some strange, irregular contest that makes it look like she lost because of the freaky circumstances. Ideally, she would like to scapegoat someone else, like the Republican Party Establishment or Mitt Romney, and act the martyr. In Palin's perfect world, she would lose but people would walk away saying that she was robbed. Her goal is to create the impression that she has has not yet been given a fair shot.
Years ago, a Boston Globe columnist named Ron Borges predicted that Mike Tyson would either beat Evander Holyfield in the first three rounds or find a way to lose by disqualification. Tyson was no longer in shape to go the distance with another serious heavyweight, so if he couldn't knock out Holyfield in the first ten minutes, he would try to find a way to bail out by making the referees stop the fight. Tyson didn't want his weaknesses as a boxer to be exposed, Borges argued, so he would look for the DQ. That way, people wouldn't know for sure that he couldn't beat Holyfield. He didn't lose. He was disqualified.
Sure enough, in round three Tyson bit off a chunk of Holyfield's ear. And he had his DQ. That deepened Tyson's reputation as a freak, but it concealed the fact that he was no longer a real contender. It allowed Tyson (and others) to pretend that Tyson might have won if the match had gone all fifteen rounds. And more importantly, it allowed Tyson's managers to get him more big-money fights on pay-per-view, because he was still considered a contender.
Sarah Palin is cruising for some version of the political DQ. She wants to lose but somehow pin that loss on the refs, so that she can avoid having her weakness as a candidate exposed and continue pulling down big paydays at contender prices. This is not easy to do, and she may very well mismanage it, but I'm convinced that it is her goal.
I don't expect Palin to be in the primaries throughout the nominating season. I expect her to jump in midway through the primaries, or to bail out before Iowa and New Hampshire, or even both. She may well attempt to create some kind of drama at the convention, although Republican party rules no longer leave much room for that. (I think her dream would be to have herself put forward at a divided convention, and then lose and blame her loss on some back-room deal.) She might well try a write-in campaign in certain states, which insulates her from the loss because she wasn't even on the ballot. I think Palin herself is improvising, based on political events that are hard to predict. She's close to being displaced by other candidates at the moment, which was surely not in her plans, and she's certainly going to try something to get some media oxygen back.
What I don't expect Palin to do if she can help it is to risk a big loss in a straightforward primary or caucus. She lost Iowa, which was once a real opportunity for her, about eighteen months ago; there's no way to win that caucus without major campaign infrastructure on the ground, and Palin hasn't built it. She can't catch up with the other candidates now. New Hampshire has always been out of her reach, unless its Republican electorate has changed radically over the last few years. I don't expect Palin to allow herself to be on the ballot in either state, or really in Nevada. She might try to make a stand in South Carolina, if she sees a chance, but the chance might not be there. What's more likely is that Palin jumps into the campaign after the first primaries and caucuses are finished, and does some strange version of a campaign that gets a lot of attention, goes nowhere, and provides a built-in excuse for defeat. ("She wasn't even on the ballot in twenty-three states! Half the delegates had been chosen before she even declared!" Whatever.)
And if Palin seems likely to be exposed at the ballot box, I expect her to quit the campaign with whatever half-baked excuse seems handy. If she can't find a way to make her claim sound convincing, she'll just spew some paranoid accusations around. Sure, that will only make her look crazier. But Palin would rather be considered crazy than lose an election with the whole world watching. If she runs and loses like a sane person, her market value will plummet. Crazy she can take to the bank.
The Libyan revolution is coming to a rapid end, although there is fighting left to do. Twenty-seven weeks ago, Muammar Qadhafi's armed forces fired on peaceful protestors across Libya. Today, he's in hiding, and a rebel army that didn't exist six months ago, combined with NATO's air power, has managed to take control of most of the country.
Let me point out a basic truth: that was really fast.
It doesn't seem particularly fast to Westerners, because the rapid developments in other places and the Ritalin-addict speed of our news cycle makes a six-month war seem long. We're used to having the conventional phase of a war over within weeks. It took much longer than the Egyptian Revolution (or the part of the ongoing Egyptian Revolution that was covered on American cable), because the regime decided to fight. It took much too long for Obama to justify his actions under the War Powers Act. But it was still very fast. In fact, one of the problems that NATO policymakers face is that the rebels are winning faster than expected, and the Western policymakers haven't put any transition plans together. (This, of course, presumes that the Libyans need and will gladly accept a Western transition plan.)
A lot of complaints you hear from Westerners are, in one way or another, grounded in impatience. There was the now-discredited argument that the rebels could not win without Western ground troops, an argument that implies that it is unreasonable to wait 180 days for an army of irregulars to defeat well-equipped professional troops. There is the surreal and scurrilous complaint by Senators McCain and Graham this morning, who insist that President Obama should have taken a larger role in backing the rebels (because apparently success is not enough, and success without American casualties is, from McCain and Graham's pathological perspective, somehow unpatriotic). And of course, there are the realistic worries about the future of Libya which are expressed as an unrealistic concern that the Transitional Council doesn't have a plan yet.
The future of Libya really is worrying. But if they had a plan already, that would be even more worrying. The transition Libya is about to begin may succeed or fail, but it certainly won't succeed with a plan put together hastily.
This morning I came across a complaint that the rebels don't have any clear leader. That's true. But having a clear individual leader, before they've put together any kind of governance or power-sharing plan, is not at all a good thing. What was the Qadhafi regime but an individual leader who took precedence over any other governmental principle? The quickest transition is always a coup by a strong man, who doesn't worry about process but simply grabs operational control and keeps it. That's also the most inefficient and undemocratic transition; strong men don't deal with the country's real problems and needs. They don't fix underlying tensions or nagging dysfunctions. They just grab a country with all its flaws and hold on as long as they can.
Working out a sane political future for Libya is only possible if it happens slowly and peaceably, with the Libyans themselves working out an arrangement that includes all of the necessary political constituencies and ensures a functional administration. You can't achieve that in a minute. It requires a set of complicated negotiations and compromises. And you can't plan it from London or Paris or DC, because the people who need to compromise and negotiate and share power are not in those places. In fact, the nature of Qadhafi's regime, which suppressed most public political expression, ensures that Western policymakers don't have any idea who the real constituencies are or what concerns they have.
Actual nation-building, working out a viable set of political arrangements and building a functioning national administration, takes time. It took the United States something like a decade and a half, if you include the Revolutionary War years, to work out a practical and effective set of basic governing institutions, and the work continued well after that. The Transitional National Council hasn't even been on the job for six months.
The Libyans, acting on their own and dealing with their own internal political realities, could still make a mess of their country. That would be all too easy. And taking more time won't ensure success. But haste, in this case, ensures failure.
What the Libyans need, when the last shooting is over, is time to work out a plan that they can live with for the next 20 to 200 years. During that time, they need to keep domestic peace and to keep basic government services like water, energy and transportation working uninterrupted. They may not get that time. They may not manage to use it. But if they don't, they will have a new set of problems that will haunt them for decades.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
This summer I've moved house three times. My job and my partner are in two different states, a common problem for my generation of college professors. I count myself lucky that our jobs are only a few hundred miles apart, which means the highway and not the airport. But keeping a one-person apartment in each place has stopped making sense, so we've bought a house in one city and rented a professional's bachelor pad, a short walk from my office, in the other. Voila! Three moves: from my partner's old place to the new house, from my old apartment to my new one, and from my old apartment to the house. If anyone needs some spare boxes, I'll leave them in the comments section.
And yes, I have the carbon footprint of a brontosaurus. Any time someone wants to put some money into high-speed rail, or simply stop beating up on Amtrak, that would help me turn the guilt into something practical.
Although it's definitely a first-world, luxury-box problem, packing for more than one destination turns out to be slow and complicated. The two great questions of moving, "Should I keep this?" and "How do I fit it in the box?" have picked up a dilatory and nagging third, "Which place should this go?" Should this pot or pan go to the kitchen I share with my partner, or become part of the bachelor-pad cooking set? Which umbrella goes where? You can't simply stow it all in boxes and load it into a truck; every individual object needs to be considered. Again, this complication, like so many other wastes of energy and time, grows from luxury. Could there be a more privileged question than "How do I divide my overly numerous possessions between my multiple homes?" (Except of course, "How do I get this done before my trip to Europe?")
The big problem for me, as always, is my books. I have far too many and, of course, not nearly enough. Even after I part with some, there are hundreds and hundreds to sort. Faced with so many books, and so many different places to keep them, I'm forced to consider why, specifically, I keep each book, what I'm likely to do with it, and why I find myself in the various places I keep them. At the very least the problems of privilege should make you think about your privilege. Why have I amassed all of these objects?
Some I need for work, which usually passes as a bullet-proof excuse in our culture. I couldn't do my teaching, my research, or my professional writing without a whole lot of books. In fact, my job requires more books than I could ever personally own. No one can teach college literature without a college library, and no one can write a scholarly book without a serious library AND inter-library loan. But there are plenty of books that I either use all the time or am likely to need unexpectedly. I want to be able to check them when I need them, and I don't want to hog the library's copies for months or years. A few are old and relatively valuable, things I've tracked down on the used-book market over the years, and I've often been grateful for those purchases. Those books have helped me out of more two-in-the-morning research puzzles than I should be having at this age, and saved the day when I needed to fact-check something right before a deadline.
Some books I have for personal and sentimental reasons. Some are beloved favorites, which I've read and reread over the years and expect to read again. Some are by friends or members of my family. A few are autographed by someone famous, or soon to be famous. A few others are collectible for one reason or another, and a bunch of old science-fiction paperbacks are collectible in the sense that I collected them because those particular books have gotten hard to find. Some I have because, frankly, I feel like should have them. (Yes, Moby Dick is surely available in the public library and no, I won't reread it over the next two years, but I have it in the house for the same reason I have a copy of The Federalist: I'm an American.) And of course, there's a pile of books that I have because I'd like to read them.
Some of the division is easy. The personal keepsakes and collectibles, the books by friends, and the inscribed gifts almost all go to the house. Who knows what my autographed copy of Blowing Smoke will be worth some day?
Other books obviously go to my campus office: textbooks and student anthologies, books I often consult while planning lessons, works about teaching methods and about academia itself. The "advice for new faculty" books are no longer for me to read but to lend out to new colleagues, and belong close at hand in my office.
But things get complicated fast. I occasionally use those expensive old reference works to plan lessons, but mostly use them for research and writing, so they stay at the house in my study. I almost never get much writing done in my campus office, where I'm generally busy with teaching tasks or committee work. And I expect to do more of my writing at the house than I get done in the new apartment, where I will probably only manage to get one solid block of writing time a week. So every book in my academic field has to be examined. Is this a teaching book, or a writing book? If it's both, how often do I use it for one and how often for the other? In the meantime, dividing the books involves planning my weeks, plotting out which of my tools will be in this or that place at this day or that hour. This collection of essays will be in my office, which means using it while I am on campus. This invaluable research tool is shelved in my house, which means using it for research early on weekend mornings, or on Sunday afternoons. This is what I hope or expect to get done in my apartment near campus, and these are the books I need to leave there in order to accomplish that.
The new working week apartment is the part I don't quite have in focus yet, the place where I can't quite imagine myself. I have very few work-related books there, since I will almost always be just coming from or about to go to one of the other two places. It holds several books that I can read one section at a time (essay collections, back issues of McSweeney's, superbly organized works of non-fiction). It has enough fuller-bodied works to keep me from being bored when I eventually, inevitably, get snowed in for an extra night or over a weekend. (In some ways, the bookshelf there is like the bookshelves in summer homes, except that it's the winter non-vacation home.) And since almost all the bookshelves there are in the living room, where visitors can see them, those books need to look minimally respectable. Although I hate to admit it, one of the reasons I own books is to display them, and thereby to display certain things about myself: education level, personal tastes and interests, things like generation and background. So the books in my living room don't necessarily need to be impressive (because the most impressive ones are in another living room), but they can't make me look like a mess either. It's a truth that I don't like, but books are partly about the face I show to others, and the face I show myself.
My books feel to me, on some deep and irrational level, like my most important possession, my patrimony. "Books constitute capital," as Jefferson said. Some people own land, and I own a library. They are the visible embodiment of the educational and cultural privileges I've been given, which can otherwise seem evanescent. Degrees are abstractions; books are solid. Slowly mastering the particular intellectual training demanded by my field is a much less tangible achievement than amassing hundreds of well-chosen volumes. It's not so much that I have the books to show other people what a scholar I am. It's that I have them to remind myself. Years ago, when I drove across the country to start Ph.D. work, I left behind all of my books except the ones I would actually need for my specific academic work (just a milk crate or two loaded into the car). And that was a reasonable decision, but a depressing one in the long run. After a while I slightly felt cut off from the world of reading and writing that my work was allegedly about. Why study English lit if it means not having your favorite novels with you, and not owning any poetry that you wouldn't write an essay about? I don't have that problem today, with a dozen boxes still left to unpack. But the sorry truth is that I only feel at home when I've put books on the shelves. They are a physical connection to my chosen work, and to all the reasons that I chose it.
Monday, August 15, 2011
So, the Iowa Straw Poll went overwhelmingly to candidates who would have been considered fringe last time around, with Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul combining for something like 55% of the vote. Some Democrats are taking this as consolation, on the theory that even if Obama is vulnerable the Republicans will nominate someone too extreme to beat him. Meanwhile, we have the usual "centrist" columnists indulging the the usual "centrist" fantasies about some miraculous "centrist" third-party candidate who will solve all of our intractable problems by being, um, "bold." (Because who loves bold solutions more than someone who considers both the mainstream party platforms too extreme?)
All I can say to that is: whatever. I've been here before, dude. Last time it was called "California," and it didn't go well. In fact, it's still not going well. And now we're repeating the California debacle on a grand scale.
In California, where one can have a long and very successful political career inside a single red red red or blue blue blue district, the Republican Party has long resisted nominating moderates for statewide office: only truly true conservatives are pure enough to get the nod for Senator or Governor. This, of course, is a great plan for losing, in a gigantic state with plenty of very blue districts in it. But compromise is for wimps.
This often tempted the Democrats into nominating dull and uninspired candidates who had paid up their party dues and who would not always set the world on fire, but could step back while the Republicans doused themselves with gasoline. About ten years back, a steady and reliable centrist Democratic Governor, the aptly named Gray Davis, was in real political trouble, with his popularity diving from the high fifties to the low forties. Privatizing the electrical grid had turned into a debacle with sky-high prices and occasional rolling blackouts, Davis was unable to fix the problems or to rally the voters to his side. Since he was so vulnerable, and the governor's mansion was in the Republicans' grasp, they nominated a good ideologically pure conservative to make sure they got full value after they won the election. And that's why they didn't win the election. The guy they put up couldn't even beat Gray Davis.
This is what set up the recall election that made Schwarzenegger governor. The Democrats were hoping to stagger through because the Republicans were even more unpopular than they were. And the Republicans were too ideologically rigid to do the sensible thing. It was only through the strange recall process, which sidestepped the Republican nominating process, that a moderate Republican (exactly the candidate the political situation most favored, and the kind of candidate the GOP should have put up to begin with) got on the gubernatorial ballot at all.
There's your Obama-will-get-through-this-because-they're crazy strategy, right there. And I'm not eager for a repeat with higher stakes. Sure, Obama might stagger to a 47%-42% victory, the way Davis did in his re-election campaign, but what's he going to do after that? It's a recipe for a mess.
And for the Friedmans of the world, longing for an independently wealthy centrist to arrive on a big white horse, Schwarzenegger's governorship should provide an illustration of how well that goes, which is not well at all. I despised Schwarzenegger's first campaign, but his attempt to govern was basically sensible and reasonable, and it got him absolutely nowhere. Difficult financial problems don't respond to personal charisma. And entrenched political difficulties don't magically fix themselves when you elect an "outsider." In fact, the problems were worse because Schwarzenegger was basically a governor without a party. His fellow Republicans in the legislature were too ideologically pure to listen to him, and the Democrats didn't owe a Republican governor anything. Neither party had really backed him, and neither had any stake in helping him. Arnold couldn't pass a budget. By the second term, he couldn't pass a slow U-Haul on I-5. Nothing makes legislative partisanship worse than taking the party leadership away. The rank and file legislators just revert to their base political instincts.
If our current Senators and Representatives won't reliably listen to Obama and Boehner, why on earth would they listen to someone with whom they have no political relationship or alliance? If Beltway columnists managed to make enough animal sacrifices to the gods and get, say, Michael Bloomberg elected, that would not be the end of Washington gridlock. That would initiate a new era of much deeper Washington gridlock, as the President of the United States would find himself with no one who would cast a vote, let alone a difficult vote, to help him out.
California is still a political basket case, and it's in real trouble. And lately I've been hearing the same allegedly clever ideas that made California's problems worse passed around as possible "solutions" for the whole country. It's a little like proposing that we put the whole country on the San Andreas fault. It worked badly before, and it will only be worse on a larger scale.