Monday, February 28, 2011

Get Ready for the Martyrdom of Roger Ailes

Barry Ritholtz reports that Roger Ailes, the president of Fox News, may soon be indicted on federal charges. Judith Regan has alleged in civil court filings that Ailes pressured her to lie to federal agents who were doing a background check on her ex-boyfriend, Bernard Kerik. (That's Kerik who was once nominated to be head of Homeland Security and who is now in prison. That Kerik.) Allegedly, Reagan has audiotape of Ailes pressuring her.

I have no idea if Regan's allegations are true, or if Ritholtz's source is right about a criminal indictment. But I do wonder how Fox News would respond if such an indictment is handed down. At other news operations it would be simple: the network president facing criminal charges would resign as quietly as possible, and the network would try to live it down. But the heart of Fox's business model is that it doesn't play by the rules that everyone else does.

This is a news organization that has cultivated a highly oppositional and combative style. It encourages its viewers to imagine themselves as besieged and persecuted, and some of its on air-talent openly traffics in conspiracy theorizing, tracing out the alleged hidden connections and patterns "behind" totally non-mysterious events. And Fox has no shyness about using the news to drive its own agendas.

There's a real possibility that Roger Ailes could decide not to step down, but to remain president of Fox News throughout a criminal trial. (All of this would be up to Rupert Murdoch, of course.) Even if Ailes did step down, his replacement would likely be highly sympathetic to him.

Should Ailes go to trial, Fox might simply go into stonewall denial mode, and essentially refuse to cover the story. But that's not really their style. There's a real chance that Fox would respond to an indictment of Ailes with an all-out offensive by some or all of its on-air personalities. I can easily imagine some of the major players, like O'Reilly and Beck, being given the green light to say whatever they like on the topic. And it's not impossible that Fox's management could simply give marching orders to the whole network, telling them to beat the drum for Roger and make defending him a priority.

They already have the required narrative firmly in place. They've been building it for years: liberals are out to get conservatives, and the biased mainstream media distorts the truth. They're trying to silence Fox News! A trial of Roger Ailes would not only fit neatly into that narrative, but it would serve as confirmation of that narrative. Fox has been telling its viewers that there's a conspiracy against the truth and they would be able to offer a prosecution of Ailes as "proof" of the conspiracy. He doesn't make a very plausible martyr from a third-party perspective, but it will sound plausible to Fox viewers because Fox has spent years predicting that it will happen.

There's a small chance, but a real one, that Fox could go all in and make the martyrdom of Roger Ailes a central talking point. It only sounds crazy because it is. But that hasn't stopped them before. And it's crazy in precisely the way that bonds Fox's loyal viewers to the network: it creates a sense of shared viewpoint and shared persecution. Ailes on trial would actually increase Fox's value: it would make them the sole source of news its viewers can trust and it would make the whole conspiracy theory about Fox News itself. It would be a golden opportunity.

There's also a small but real chance that an Ailes trial, backed with the alleged hard evidence of audiotape, would push Fox into its final journalistic break from reality. If they've committed hard enough to Ailes's martyrdom (and since they seem to think a few news cycles at a time, they could do that without worrying about their endgame) and Ailes is being convicted on hard evidence, they might feel the temptation to just declare that evidence faked. And then we would have a major news outlet explicitly committed to paranoia.

Should any of this happen, we'd see a few things. First we would find out how much Fox can steer other conservative outlets' agendas. If they're beating the drum for Roger, does Limbaugh pick it up the beat? Do the right-wing blogs? Can they get respectable conservatives in mainstream publications to equivocate?

More interesting is the question of whether Fox could make Ailes's martyrdom a central article of conservative faith for the true believers, just in time for the presidential primaries. If we get to the point where primary hopefuls feel the pressure to take a public stand for Ailes, we'll know whether Fox is an arm of the Republican Party or the other way around.

cross-posted at Dagblog

Friday, February 25, 2011

Dear Oscar: The Depression Was Not That Pretty

I went to see The King's Speech, because it was nominated for all those awards and because Monday is Five Dollar Night. I like the actors in it a lot, but I'm glad I didn't spend more than five dollars. The King's Speech may well win the Oscar for Best Picture, but that just goes to show that you don't need originality, drama, artistic perception or a compelling story to win an Oscar.

From the opening moments of that film I was forced to think, once again, a thought that's been building up slowly and irresistibly over the past several years of movie-going:

I am really, really tired of the Great Depression looking so goddamned pretty.

You know how the Thirties look in the movies: all those lovingly restored cars, polished to a deep black-mirror gleam, all those beautifully tailored vintage clothes, all those hats. At the movies, it seems completely inexplicable that hats ever went out of style: every hat looks so good! Everyone looks so good in hats! How could anyone not wear one? You have to watch a movie actually filmed in the Thirties, rather than merely set in the Thirties, to see what people actually looked like in those hats. You also need to watch a movie made during the Depression, instead of set during the Depression, to have any chance that the movie will acknowledge the Depression itself or the tens of millions of people mired in desperate poverty.

Some of the Hollywood movies from the Thirties are entertainments designed to ignore the tough times happening in the real world, while others make those tough times into the story. But nearly every high-end art-house movie set in the Thirties, the kind of movie that prides itself on being "serious", ignores the tough times that were happening in the real world. Low-brow moviemakers used to offer up escape from the Thirties. Now high-brow moviemakers offer the Thirties as a place to escape to.

Some of this is just the Costume Drama Effect, which invests props and costumes with fetishistic glamor. In old Warner Brothers pictures, people drive cars. In a costume dramas they drive carefully restored antique cars, which is a very different thing. The same thing goes for clothes and hats; there's a difference between wearing a wool jacket and wearing an obsessively recreated wool jacket. The camera treats them differently, too. When you've spent that much time and effort and money getting the cars and hats and silver trays just right, you focus (literally and figuratively) on the cars and hats and silver in a way you wouldn't if you were filming a contemporary setting on a normal costume budget. The same phenomenon is at work when the camera in The Social Network lingers repeatedly over that movie's detailed recreation of the Harvard campus. (No one has been allowed to film on Harvard's campus since the makers of Love Story, another craptastic Oscar nominee, allegedly trashed the joint.) The film makers worked so hard to make its Harvard look real that they need you to notice and admire it. And of course, when you're focusing on the nice clothes and cars and silver, it's natural to focus your costume dramas on the people with the nicest clothes and cars and antique silver. Costume drama has always favored the upper classes.

But just because something has become a cliche doesn't make it less hackneyed or dishonest. There will always be some historical dramas about people with country houses and butlers and really cool cigarette holders. They have their place; there are many that I enjoy. But how many do we need, and why are so many allegedly ambitious and "serious" film makers willing to accept the severely limited view of the world that those country houses afforded? At this point Brideshead has been revisited, and re-revisted, and re-re-re-re-revisited. What makes film makers think there's anything else to see there? In the actual Thirties, most artists knew (or at least suspected) that the world of the aristocracy was not the whole world, and even when the story was about aristocrats there was a healthy understanding that they were not the whole story.

The King's Speech, on the other hand, lazily assumes the Duke of York's view of the world. The speech therapist, Lionel Logue, may be from a much lower class and live in much less comfortable circumstances, but the movie has no real interest in those circumstances or that class. Logue's character exists to serve the Duke of York's, both formally and on the level of plot. The movie is perfectly happy with that; it is convinced that both men belong exactly where the British class system has put them. Any exceptions to protocol made in the speech therapist's consulting room are daring enough; everywhere else they are iron-clad. This is a movie that, entirely without irony, depicts Wallis Simpson's failure to greet the Duchess of York with the proper etiquette as an important character flaw. The only way to be entirely unironic about something like that is to be at least a little bit stupid.

The Depression is nowhere to be seen in this movie. The distant rumblings of World War II are to be heard from far off, but only because they provide context for the movie's great challenge: Albert Windsor's speech impediment. This is a movie that seriously proposes that George VI's speech therapy was a major front in World War II. Worse yet, it doesn't even try to sell the viewer on that proposition. It takes for granted that the viewers buy it.

I foolishly thought World War II was won by millions of factory workers working night and day to build weapons and equipment for millions of soldiers who risked (and often lost) their lives over years of grinding, grueling battle. Silly me. Now I understand that was won by a member of the British royal family keeping his appointments with his speech therapist, except when he didn't. Because, after all, if the King of England weren't able to make a good speech into a microphone, the British would have needed to fall back on the speech-making talents of Winston Churchill.

I'm okay with building up a central character as the prime mover in events that were much more complicated and beyond any individual's full control. Lawrence of Arabia is not a piece of hack work. The Social Network tells another not-terribly-plausible tale of a privileged individual almost single-handedly changing things, but it sells that story, and allows its account to be challenged in the movie itself. (Facebook is obviously not a ground-breakingly original invention, but the winner in a market competition between a bunch of remarkably similar social-networking sites. The question of where Mark Zuckerberg's personal genius comes from isn't rooted in the real world, but at least the movie works hard to root it into cinematic reality for two hours.) Protagonists who can be put forward as world-shakers tend to be very privileged, for reasons both of literary tradition and of real-world opportunity. But a film needs to sell its version. It needs, at the very least, to make it plausible. The makers of The King's Speech don't seem to have entertained an instant's doubt that George VI and his diction exercises were of world-shaking importance. Worse yet, they don't seem to have entertained even an instant's suspicion that anyone else could doubt that either. That makes the film more than a little stupid.

The saddest thing about The King's Speech is how very ordinary its type of badness has become. It's favored for major awards, despite its stupidity, because so many other allegedly thoughtful art movies are stupid in exactly the same ways. It doesn't sell its silly ideas because it expects it audience, the well-educated upscale audience that goes to see historical dramas, to believe them already.

That audience now takes it for granted that a comfortable and privileged figure can meaningfully combat a major political evil (Nazism, Communism, apartheid) simply by espousing a little symbolic opposition. That goes down well with an audience that would like believing the right things (whether left, right, or center) to be all that it takes. The audience has also grown quite comfortable identifying with Very Important People, and doesn't bother to ask why they are important. (At one point in The King's Speech, Colin Firth laments how pointless it is to be a 20th-century king, a lament that this movie couldn't afford if it didn't count on its audience to believe that Firth's character is Very Important and to thrill to the way he Shoulders His Heavy Responsibilities.) This is an audience that doesn't relate to the little guy. They're more than happy to identify with those born into privilege. And for that audience part of the point of historical drama is to gape at the luxury of the aristocrats' lives, and to enjoy all the really wonderful bespoke hats.

Furthermore, although this may simply be my own eroding patience, it seems to me that over the last twenty years or so historical films headed for art theaters have been set more and more often, with less and less nuance, in exactly the times and places where economic inequality was greatest: in the period between the two World Wars, in the Gilded Age, during the British Raj. Maybe I've only begun to notice it more. But either way, these movies seductively and relentlessly present their audience, a highly educated and relatively privileged section of the moviegoing public, a vision of history as seen through the eyes of unearned privilege. In that vision the periods of grossest inequality, the decades marred by needless poverty and rank injustice, are shown as a series of golden ages. As the income distribution curve of our own economy has come to look more and more like that of a third world nation, our most educated and self-consciously intellectual filmgoers have been seeing film after film that makes such retrograde social arrangements look elegant and appealing. Those movies say that it's good to live in such an unequal society, that inequality creates luxury and refinement and charm. Historical drama does for those eras what those eras struggled and failed to do for themselves: hide all the work, and the sweat, and the unpleasant, undeniable truths.

cross-posted at Dagblog

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Your Neighbor's Paycheck Is Your Paycheck

Here's the deal: how much money you get paid is based on how much other people get paid. This is a fact of life. Your paycheck is based on what other people get in other jobs like yours, and what other people in your area make, and what other people with your qualifications make. The price of those people's work sets the price of replacing you if you quit your job. If you make less than they make, it can only be so much less. If you make more than they make, it's only realistically going to be so much more. If you're making too much less than similar workers, it will be cheaper to give you a raise than to replace you. If you're making too much more, it will be cheaper to hire someone else. You may feel like your paycheck is just between you and your boss. But you will always, always be in an important economic relationship with other workers who have other bosses. This basic truth about the world is called "the labor market."

If other people make more money than you do for more or less equivalent jobs, or if they get some benefits that you don't get, you have two ways of thinking about it. You can think of their pay as a reflection on you, and make everything of a question of self-esteem, or you can think of their pay as a market indicator and make it about money.

People who look at it as a comparison end up resenting the other workers and wanting to see them lose their jobs, or have their pay and benefits cut. That way the person doing the comparison can feel good because they're making more, or not as much less, than other people, so they can feel like winners. From this viewpoint, it's not about making more money than you're making now, but making more than other people. If you make five hundred dollars a week and other people make five hundred fifty, and they get two paid sick days a month, this mindset says that the someone else should have their pay cut seventy-five dollars and lose the sick days, because they shouldn't be treated better than you.

People who look at other people's pay as a market indicator, on the other hand, want the people who are making more money to be paid even more. If you are making five hundred dollars a week and get no sick days, but someone down the street with basically the same job makes five-fifty and gets to call in sick two days a month, you should want that person to get another raise, so they make five-seventy-five or even six hundred dollars a week. If they get that much, your boss will eventually have to give you five fifty, and maybe one paid sick day a month, to keep you from quitting and getting a job at the other place. If your boss won't give you a raise, but other bosses keep giving raises to their workers, eventually you will be able to quit and make more money at another job. The point isn't to make more money than someone else. The point is to make more money than you're getting.

If people at some other company get their pay cut, you get to feel better about yourself. If people at that company get a raise, sooner or later you get more money. In fact, the way it generally works in the second case is that you get more money and that makes you feel a little better about yourself.

The Republican position is that you should want other people to lose what they have. Why should they get health care? Why should they have a union? Why should they get a pension someday if you don't? The Republican position is that they will take things away from other people, to show those people that they are not better than you. Then, later, they will take things away from you, because they can. What are you going to do about it? Get another job? All the other jobs you qualify for are worse than yours ... wasn't that what you wanted?

The liberal position is that you should want other people to have good jobs, and for their job to get better, so that yours will get better. If someone gets health benefits and you don't, you should hope that everyone gets health benefits, so that your boss will have to give them to you. If someone else is in a union and you are not, you should hope their union get them a really good deal, because that will raise the market price for your work, too.

This is a basic fact of life. Workers are in it together, like it or not. Bosses are in it together, even if they never hold a meeting. If someone else's boss cuts their pay, your boss will be able to pay you less. If some else's boss gives them raises, yours will eventually have to give you one, too. This is called "the free market."

One of the many freakish oddities of our current political life is that most of the people shrieking about the evils of socialism take an essentially socialist position to questions of wages and benefits. The Tea Party doesn't want workers, and especially public workers, to make what the market demands. They want them to make what they deserve, in the particular Tea Partier's opinion, which is always less than the free market price. The Tea Party may worship "capitalism" when "capitalism" means a very small group of people getting obscenely wealthy, but when it comes to everybody else, everybody who works for a living, the Tea Party is just a pack of raging pinkos.

Remember, any time you hear someone complaining about this or that group being "overpaid," they mean you.

cross-posted at Dagblog

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lois Lane, My Love

cross-posted at Dagblog

Joanne Siegel has passed away. She was the model for the first sketches of Lois Lane and the wife of Superman's co-creator, Jerry Siegel. That gives her the best claim to being Lois Lane that any real person has ever had. In her later years, she was a fierce advocate for her husband's intellectual property claims. I've thought a lot about the Superman creators over the years, and part of me is tempted only to blog about intellectual property. But the truth is that Lois Lane has probably shaped the course of my adult life more than any other fictional character has, without me thinking about it.

All the years I spent reading comic books, before I was old enough to think critically or to act on the messages I was being given, I was picking up a bunch of basic lessons about how adults were supposed to live and what they were supposed to want. You were supposed to live in a big city. You were supposed to have a job. (Even if you could fly and squeeze diamonds out of coal, you were supposed to have a job. It wasn't about the money.) And when you fell in love, you were supposed to fall in love with a poised, confident, and whip-smart brunette, someone who was at least as good at her job as you were and at least as smart as you were: a woman like Lois Lane.

I have Lois and her creators to thank for an adulthood full of smart, interesting women. Women with careers and style, women who appreciate good prose and smart remarks, women who are nearly impossible to intimidate. Some only gave me a bout of spring heartsickness or an autumn of giddy smiles, some became my partners for as long as we could make our partnerships work, and one has redefined my notions of happiness, but they've all been bright and self-possessed and ambitious, and my life has been incalculably richer for it. I grew up presuming that if a straight man were able to do nearly anything he wanted and could pursue anyone he liked, he would choose a woman who was undeniably his equal. With more experience behind me, I still feel this is true. I would like to thank Clark Kent for the tip.

I'm not going to pretend that Superman comics were feminist documents, or that Superman is a good role model when it comes to romance. Everyone knows you shouldn't lie to your beloved, let alone systematically deceive her about who you are; you'd have to be from another planet to think otherwise. And it takes neurosis beyond the scope of mortal man to start a love triangle where you are your own rival, let alone to keep that phantom rivalry going for more than half a century. By the time I discovered Superman, Lois, and Clark's triangular mishegas, the comics had toned down most of the overt snickering at Lois for not figuring out that she was being lied to on a daily basis. In the 1950s, Superman would collude with the readers by literally winking to them out of the panel frame, sharing a joke on silly Lois who couldn't figure out the secret that every schoolboy with a spare dime already knew, and who was moreover a girl. But when I started reading, thirty-six years back, the wink had stopped being part of the monthly formula. And while Lois surely needed rescuing on steady schedule, even as a schoolboy I knew that this was about genre and not gender. Lois had to get herself in regular jams to keep the plot machinery from jamming, and I knew that. But the premise, after all, was that Superman was not like other men, so I naturally chalked up the rescuing to the super part, not the man part. Being rescued by that guy was nothing to be ashamed about; it could happen to anyone.

And it mattered, although I could not have articulated this, that Lois really did get herself in those jams, that it was her fearless sense of enterprise that got her in trouble. In fact, she's much more adventurous than Superman is; she takes more risks. Inevitably, one of her daring gambles would lead to a bad break and she would need to be bailed out by her bulletproof admirer. Lois didn't need rescuing twice a month because she was too stereotypically girly. She needed rescuing because she was too brave.

Lois Lane worked for me precisely because I encountered her in the middle of an extremely male fantasy, a fantasy where she was placed at the core. And in many ways she set a better example than characters like Wonder Woman, who represent a male fantasy about powerful women; you won't catch Lois wearing a pair of slave bracelets. An adolescent fantasy about the strongest woman in the world ends up with her dressed like some kind of harem girl. But with Superman, it's a fantasy of unchallengeable male power. And the lesson was that a strong, confident man wants a strong, confident woman. Made sense to me.

After all, it was always Lois who made the Superman concept work. She was Siegel and Shuster's great stroke of genius: Superman is absolutely invincible in adventure-plot terms, but love lays him low every time. The relationship with Lois, not the nonsense with gangsters and mad scientists and goofy-looking monsters, is the problem to be overcome. Lois, not Kryptonite, is his weak spot. What's great about this is that the adventure-story plot, where any suspense is artificial, becomes openly unsuspenseful, and the characters' relationship, which is potentially interesting, remains complicated and unresolved. Superman always saves the day (as you expected) and he never fixes his personal life (or didn't, until 58 years into the game). Of course, it was part of the formula that Clark and Lois never resolved their issues, but leaving them unresolved again and again focuses the narrative suspense toward what is real and human. Radioactive green rocks from outer space are not a real problem, not for us and not really, when it comes down to it, for Superman either. Love, on the other hand, will kick your ass all the way back to Krypton.

Lois was Superman's key difficulty from the very first episode: she's at the core of his character and the heart of the entire story concept. Before there was Kryptonite, there was Lois. Before there was Lex Luthor, there was Lois. When and if Superman is ever allowed to enter the public domain, Lois will go with him, because she was with him in his very first appearance. And he needs her. Without her, he has no story. Nothing can hurt him. Nothing can keep him from doing whatever he pleases. There's no suspense of any kind. (Put another way, Superman is an enormously boring character, but Clark Kent is fascinating.)

Jerry Siegel's central insight was that superhero comics, which he and Joe Shuster were inventing, are all about girl trouble. All of Superman's superhero descendants are about girl trouble, too, both the reader's and their own. (Bruce Wayne has been in his basement putting on a clinic on How Not to Date Successfully since May, 1939.) When you see a superhero whose relationship troubles aren't actually featured in the plot, the stench of Girl Trouble hangs over the whole enterprise. For Superman, the founder of the species, it's right out there in front. Did I mention I used to read a lot of these things?

Of course, if you buy a Superman comic today, you'll find Clark and Lois happily married and domesticated. That happened in 1996, about two years after Lois, Clark, and Clark's special pajamas would have gone into the public domain but for copyright-extension laws. And that provides an object lesson in what our current perpetual-copyright regime does to very old properties.

Under the terms of the bad deal that Siegel and Shuster made in the 1930s, DC Comics and later its corporate parents gained complete rights to the character for a measly $130. (Later, when Siegel and Shuster complained that DC was creating spin-off characters like Superboy without giving them a cut, they were fired from their jobs writing and drawing the character they'd created.) In 1938, that $130 bought DC exclusive rights for a maximum of 56 years, but since then Congress has extended the terms of copyright repeatedly. This is notionally for the benefit of creators, and more directly creators' heirs (extending the term from fifty years after the creator's death to seventy-five years after the creator's death can really only be about the heirs, and about the publishing company). To some extent this is true, and after one of the later extensions Joanne Siegel and the rest of Jerry's heirs did actually get half of the Superman copyright back. But of course, they get nowhere close to half of the revenue from that copyright. Creators and their families do get thrown the occasional bone, because they're the big media companies' official excuse for extending copyright again and again; you've got to at least hand out a few bucks to maintain the pretense. But the real profits of the extension go to companies like, say, Time Warner. It's nice that Siegel's family finally saw a piece of the money, but it's only a piece.

Meanwhile, Superman and Lois remain in the exclusive custody of DC comics, 73 years after they were invented. That means DC Comics gets to define the characters and shape their portrayal. Some fans of perpetual copyright actually cheer for this exclusivity on the grounds that the corporate owner looks after the characters and guards the core of the tradition. But in fact, DC Comics (a subsidiary of Time Warner) drastically reinvented Lois and Superman and removed the core of their storyline. Characters who were defined by not getting together are now blandly married. (Actual married life is not blander, simpler, or less interesting than single life is, but married life in Action Comics is just one long snore.) And with that half-smart re-thinking, the only legitimately interesting thing about Superman vanishes. (It's a bit like deciding that Romeo and Juliet's families should get along better. If one company still had a monopoly on Romeo and Juliet and decided that, it would just be a story about two good-looking kids and a bedroom window.)

This is what happens when fictional characters outlive their original creators but are kept from the free market. The official custodians are now too far from the moment of creation to have any intuitive sense of how and why the characters originally worked, but rival creators who might have a better or smarter grasp of the characters are barred from competing. Over time the writers and editors at DC forgot that Lois was supposed to be the humanizing weakness and started to wonder why their perfect superhuman leading man had this puzzling and "uncharacteristic" weakness. How could the Greatest Superhero of All Time be such a loser in his personal life? It made no sense! They had to make the character more consistent!

It wasn't enough that Clark Kent was immune to bullets, gravity, and abdominal fat. No, he had to have a perfect love life, too. And so he became perfectly boring. Now I have to root for Luthor.

If you're one of the fifty thousand people or so who reads a Superman comic this month (what remains from the old audience of millions), you'll find that the focus is on just how perfect Superman's conduct and values are, and on how much all of the minor DC Comics characters admire him. (What's interesting about the world-famous character is sacrificed in order to make him a more effective backstop to valuable DC properties like Beast Boy and Air Wave.) And there's now a heavy emphasis on Superman's "Midwestern values." You see, he's such a good person because he was raised in Kansas. And if being from the Great Plains States isn't an interesting character hook, I don't know what else could be.

The indomitable Lois Lane of my own childhood won't be infiltrating youngsters' boyhood fantasies, alas. Her publishers gave up on selling to kids long ago, or selling to anyone but a small core of hobbyists. (When I wanted to read a Superman comic, I got thirty-five cents and a posse of friends together and walked to the variety store. These days, Superman is sold in specialty shops, like kayaking gear.) And even so, she's no longer quite the same fearless adventurer who stealthily rearranged my expectations of what adulthood and adult relationships would be like. But the deed is done; I long ago graduated to real women, smart and confident professionals like the famous Miss Lane, and discovered that a few of them actually wanted to spend their time with the nerd in the glasses, and liked me even if I couldn't fly.

Thanks, Jerry. Thanks, Joe. And rest in peace, Joan.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Being a Pseudonym

cross-posted at Dagblog

Some of the folks who read me at Dagblog may have come to suspect over time that "Doctor Cleveland" may not be my actual name. Meanwhile, readers who have actually met me in three dimensions may have thought (but been too polite to say) that the name "Doctor Cleveland" is a pretty lame disguise.

Yes, it is. It is a ridiculously lame disguise. And while I've never blogged about why that is, I think this is as good a time as any to explain.

When I started blogging, I deliberately chose a pseudonym that would be extremely easy for anyone who knew me (or who knew of me) to see through. "Doctor Cleveland" works fairly nicely for this purpose; the moniker does not communicate my identity to those who don't know it, but doesn't hide it or even pretend to hide it effectively. I could not deny being Doctor Cleveland with a straight face; anyone who asks me has already figured it out. And that's all for the best, because I don't intend to deny anything that I publish on my blog. Retract, maybe. Reconsider, absolutely. But I will never refuse to admit that I have written something that I published on the internet. My pseudonym is not a mask. It is not meant to allow me to write things that I will not stand by. And so I chose a moniker that reminds me (should I be tempted to forget) that there is no hiding place and that I should never publish anything that I would not publicly own.

My reasons for using the pseudonym are not about secrecy or privacy. Nothing one writes on the internet could be either secret or private. I use a pseudonym for the same reason that many other bloggers who are professors in their daily lives do. In fact, I'm sure my decision was colored by the fact that so many academic bloggers I admire blog pseudonymously. Hilzoy has always been my most important role model as a blogger, both for the brilliance of her posts and for the unfailing civility and integrity she brought to them. And the blogosphere is still full of pseudonymous academics I admire, from internet institutions like Tenured Radical and Historiann to my peeps Renaissance Girl, Flavia, and Medieval Woman. But aside from emulation and peer pressure, I have two basic reasons for the pseudonym.

The first is to keep my current students free of my political and topical opinions. The best thing about the phrase "Doctor Cleveland" is that my students never google it when looking for me. The pseudonym is an extension of my policy of keeping partisan politics, or at least my own partisan politics, out of the classroom. My 1689 Rule is still very much in effect. Students doing a quick internet search on their professor shouldn't come into class feeling that I'm hostile to their politics or feeling somehow licensed to push their politics on their classmates because they expect me to sympathize. They should figure out the rules of the classroom from the way the rules are actually applied in the classroom, rather than walking in the door with preconceptions that take the first thirteen weeks of the semester to break down. I can't tell myself I'm committing to keeping current events out of class when I'm publishing editorials in the blogosphere under the same name I use to teach.

One side effect of this separation between the teacher and the blogger is that is also creates a split between my other writing, the research I do as part of my profession, and the blog. There's no way to identify myself with my academic writing on the blog without identifying myself in internet search results, so you won't see Dr. Cleveland talking about his book. But that's fine; the blog and the book don't have much to do with each other, and never did. (It's different for writers like Genghis, whose book grew out of his blogging. Have I mentioned that everybody in the world should buy Genghis's book?) The occasional person searching for my work on Shakespeare doesn't need to find my opinions on John Boehner, banking reform, and Tahrir Square, and the person who's happened across my blog while looking for general opinions on topics of general interest doesn't really need to find highly specialized nitty-gritty about Elizabethan playhouses. The difference between my blogging pseudonym and my scholarly byline provides a clarifying division between two different kinds of writing for two different audiences.

The tiny areas of overlap between those two audience's interests, the blog posts about academic life and the way American universities work, actually lead me to the second major reason for the pseudonym. When I write as "Doctor Cleveland" I am very deliberately not writing as an employee of the institution for which I teach. I have blogged occasionally about how American universities work and the challenges they face, and I suspect I will be blogging about that more often over the next several months. What I write under my own name is necessarily a public comment by a faculty member of a specific educational institution. Should I find that I need to make a public comment about the institution that employs me, I will do so using my legal name. When I write about general issues of higher education, which hold true throughout American higher education, I prefer to use the Dr. Cleveland pseudonym, which I use to for general-interest blogging rather than for expressing specific concerns.

I do not use my pseudonym to blog about my own workplace. I use my pseudonym to make it clear that I am not writing about my own workplace. When I discuss academic issues or educational policy in this space, I am not describing the particular concerns of my school or department, not am I advocating for my personal interests. If a question is not of broad concern throughout a large segment of higher education, it is not worth blogging about. Neither am I interested in advocating for policies that happen to be to my own professional advantage; my goal as an academic blogger is to think publicly about how universities work, not to argue for my own professional privileges. While I necessarily draw upon my own experiences and perspectives, my goal is not to argue only for my own place within the system but to analyze how the system functions and why. That which is true only of me, or only of my employer, is not interesting for these purposes.

I have from time to time used details from my own working life as illustrations, but in every case I have chosen details that illustrate broadly representative experiences faced by many college teachers today, rather than peculiar experiences that imply anything unusual or atypical about my employer. I am very much a typical humanities professor of my generation, and the career details I choose to share on the blog are typical ones. I was lucky enough to find a tenure-track job, for which over a hundred other new and newish PhDs in my field had applied. I went through the tenure process, with its attendant anxieties, and got tenured. I work in a department that is slightly less than half the size it was at its peak strength, and I am the only specialist in my particular field although my department once had four or five tenured faculty members in that field. None of this is unusual, or peculiar to my employer; this is what has become normal.

I am also, like almost every academic of my generation, expected to be more productive as a researcher than my predecessors were, but this says nothing about me particularly. I was hired with the basic expectation that I would publish more, and more prestigiously, than any scholar in my particular field has ever done at the college where I work. But anyone that my department hired would have been expected to do that, and if it hadn't been me it would have been one of several dozen other people. Everyone else in my department was hired with the same baseline expectation. If you're hiring a Dickens scholar today, you're hiring someone to be the best-published Dickens scholar your department has ever had. If you're hiring a medievalist, you're hiring someone to be the best-published medievalist your department has ever had. This doesn't mean my colleagues and I are smart or special in a way that our predecessors were not. It means we work under a different system with different expectations and demands. If I had been hired for a job where I had not been expected to become the most-published or at least second-most-published Shakespearean in departmental history, that would have made me special and unusual. It would mean that I had gotten one of a tiny handful of elite jobs. Instead I have a perfectly typical job at a perfectly typical school. This is the way it is everywhere.

I'll be blogging more about this in the coming weeks and months, but none of it will be about the school where I work, and none of it should be read that way. I'm not blogging about one school or one person, but about the experience of my academic generation. The writing I do under my own legal name, like every other scholar's, is dedicated to establishing an almost exhaustingly specific and individual professional identity. Everything I publish as a scholar is expected to differentiate me from all of the other scholars, to testify to my unique intellectual viewpoint and my peculiar depth of learning; that is what the publishing system, and the hiring system, demand. What I publish as Doctor Cleveland is not about me. It is not about the ways in which I differ from the rest of my profession, but about what I share with them.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

About the Muslim Brotherhood

cross-posted at Dagblog

The protest movement in Egypt has suddenly alerted many Westerners to the existence of the Muslim Brotherhood, a newish group who did not emerge in Egypt until almost the end of the Coolidge Administration. Furthermore, this fast-breaking development has alerted Western pundits, bloggers, and politicians to the urgent need to say something about the Muslim Brotherhood. And so they've starting intoning their opinions on every news medium known to man, telling us how the Muslim Brotherhood are indistinguishable from al-Qaeda, or else a group of sedate and peace-loving moderates, or else again that they "are" some other, scarier Islamist group that formed outside Egypt over the last 82 or 83 years, because that non-Egyptian group originally looked to the Brotherhood for inspiration. (By this standard, the United States "is" Liberia.)

The big question almost everybody winds up with, explicitly or implicitly, is how much we should allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in Egyptian politics. When you're asking yourself the same policy questions that Hosni Mubarak spent the last thirty years asking, you're not paying attention to events.

Let me lay my own cards on the table: I have spent about a week and a half of my life thinking about the Muslim Brotherhood, more than twenty years ago, and haven't thought much about them since. I won't pretend that they got my undivided attention back then. I recall writing a brief undergraduate paper about a manifesto by their founder, Hasan al-Banna, but I couldn't for the life of me tell you anything that that paper said and for most of the last two decades I've been referring to al-Banna as "Hasan al-Basra," a mistake like mixing up Martin Luther and Martin Luther King but worse. (I was off by about twelve hundred years). All of which is to say that I don't know jack about the Muslim Brotherhood. I would be embarrassed to pretend that I did.

On the other hand, it's painfully obvious that many of the people opining authoritatively about the Brotherhood haven't spent even one day in their lives thinking about the Brotherhood, and that they haven't actually started now. They're just repeating whatever they've been told recently, using their most serenely confident voices, and they aren't embarrassed in the least.

I don't know what role the Muslim Brotherhood will play in post-Mubarak Egypt. No one pontificating about it on cable has any idea, either. Maybe they'll stay committed to a civil process, as they seemed committed to peaceful participation in the last parliamentary elections. Maybe they won't. Maybe they'll be content to participate as one party among many. Maybe they will demand some "guardianship" role that puts them in charge for good. Maybe their moderate wing will predominate, and maybe their radical wing. I don't know, and I don't believe the Muslim Brotherhood themselves know yet how things are going to shake out.

But here's my question: if the Muslim Brotherhood ends up operating as a peaceful political party, content to win and lose like other Egyptian political parties and take its turns in and out of power, what's the problem? If an Islamist party can actually live by the rules of peace and democracy, how is that not a victory for Western values?

Don't get me wrong. I don't agree with the Muslim Brotherhood on almost anything. I don't believe any country should be governed by strict religious laws, I don't share the Brotherhood's particular religion, and I'm so far from being anti-Western that I'm an actual Westerner. If the Muslim Brotherhood participates in free and fair elections, I will root for them to lose every time. I think they are backward and wrong-headed in many different ways. I think most of their policies would stink. But that doesn't make them any different from other parties, in other countries, that I would also like to see lose. The fact that I, or you, or most North Americans who've heard of the Muslim Brotherhood want them to lose elections does not mean that they should not be permitted to run in the first place.

Some liberal and progressive bloggers like to deride Christianist voters and politicians as the "American Taliban," which is not quite fair. The Taliban is not only an Islamist party, but an authoritarian Islamist party that has no use for genuine elections and wants to impose its version of Shari'a law by force. The only people in America who could be justly compared to the Taliban are the people who commit or support violence against abortion clinics and against doctors like George Tiller. But if the Muslim Brotherhood becomes a non-violent party focused on promoting their version of Islamic values through legal and democratic means, they would become something very much like the American Christianist movement. In fact, they'd probably share some policy goals with American Christianists.

Some people run for office in the United States on a platform that involves banning the teaching of evolution in the schools, or limiting access to contraception. I absolutely oppose those candidates and their platform. But there is no question that they should be allowed to run for office. If someone runs for the House or Senate promising to help restore America as a "Christian nation," they have every right to do so, even if I happen to think they're wrong about everything. Banning Christianists from politics would obviously be the wrong thing to do.

Neither would the Muslim Brotherhood, if they submit to a democratic process, be meaningfully different from the various ultra-orthodox religious parties in the Israeli Knesset, who are explicitly dedicated to promoting their religious teachings through legislation (and who have a disproportionate influence on Israeli politics because of Israel's proportional-representation system). Those parties are every bit as stiff-necked, confrontational, and anti-modern as any parliamentary Muslim Brotherhood faction could be. Would a Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition complicate the Israeli/Palestinian peace process? Probably. But on the other hand, it's not like Shas has been especially constructive.

Now, if the Muslim Brotherhood decides to only participate in the democratic process when it wins, or if it decides to rig things so it never loses, then all of the above is moot. (Also, if the Brotherhood splits into two groups, one of them playing by the rules and one not, the above is true for the group that lives by the rules and not for the group that doesn't.) Any party that won't play by the rules of civil society has to go. The crucial thing is that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt submit to the same political process that every other Egyptian party does, in the same way that the American religious right and the Israeli religious right and the Hindu religious right do. People have the right to vote for these parties as long as they also have the right and the opportunity to vote against them.

The important distinction to make is between Islamism and jihadism. The first is a political ideology that I despise and oppose, but others might choose to support. The second is a violent version of Islamism, that relies on force and permits no choice by the people and is no therefore no different from any other flavor of authoritarian rule. Jihadism can never be acceptable, because it refuses to accept any viewpoint but its own. But if the United States decides that peaceful and democratic Islamist parties are still unacceptable to us, Egyptians will perceive that as a simple expression of bias against Islam. And the Egyptians will have a good case.

If the Muslim Brotherhood can manage to reinvent itself as a conventional right-wing political party but we try to prevent it from doing so, we will be the enemies of democracy and our moral case for opposing international jihadism will be undermined. We, and not the jihadists, would be the ones refusing to let the people choose for themselves. It would be stupid in any case: the Muslim Brotherhood has been banned in Egypt more or less since it was founded, and it hasn't gone away. Banning it again won't make it go away, or make it less popular. If we try to have it banned, or lean on third parties in Egypt to ban it for us, we will be playing the same losing game that Mubarak has just lost. I'd like to see the Muslim Brotherhood shut out of power forever. But the only people who can do that are the Egyptian voters themselves.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Staying Allied with Democracies

cross-posted at Dagblog

There's an old chestnut that says that two democracies have never gone to war. It's not quite true, or only true if you aggressively redefine "democracy" until you've fallen into the "no-true-Scotsman" fallacy. ("No true democracy ever goes to war with another ...." ) But it is an instructive half-truth: functional democracies very rarely go to war with one another.

That general rule is important to think about this week, as the protests in Egypt bring out America's deep ambivalence toward democracy in the Middle East, or at least in the Muslim Middle East. Of course, we all officially want democracy, and most of us instinctively want it. Nobody feels entirely comfortable being against democracy. But on the other hand, many Americans are very uncomfortable with the kind of leaders and policies that Egyptians would choose if allowed to vote freely. This ambivalence is most painfully on display in the conflicting postures taken by American opposition politicians. (To be fair, the current Administration doesn't have the luxury of taking theoretical positions on this, because it actually has to figure out a practical way to cope with events as they unfold. The Administration's conflicted thinking gets expressed less directly than its critics'.) Some conservatives have been asserting that the protests in Egypt represent Bush's "democracy promotion" agenda in action, and fault President Obama for not supporting the protesters more loudly. On the other hand, some conservative critics of Obama have clearly decided that this is not a pro-democracy movement but instead "rioting" or "unrest," which we should view as a menace. Those critics are prone to muttering darkly about the Muslim Brotherhood and running down Mohammed ElBaradei's personal character. And of course, as Kevin Drum points out, a few confused conservatives do both.

Here's the core of the problem: Mubarak is in fact a tyrant, which we dislike, but he supports our general Middle East policies. The Egyptian populace finds our general Middle East policies intolerable and infuriating, and no Egyptian government that actually reflects the popular will is likely to go along with us the way Mubarak has.

Let me go back to the question of democracies avoiding wars with other democracies. I used to assume that wars between democracies were rare because it's harder to get a voting public behind a war; I figured that democratic electorates worked as a brake on belligerence, so that democratic governments were harder to provoke into war. If American politicians want to get voters sneering at France, it's pretty easy, but if they wanted to get us behind a military invasion of Marseilles, that would be a pretty hard sell. So I was thinking that democratic governments were more likely to tolerate provocations that might constitute casus belli, and allow more time for tensions to ease.

But this is clearly not the whole story. There are a few examples of patience in the face of provocation, such as South Korea's reluctance to attack North Korea, but that's mostly about military reality. And there are plenty of examples where advanced industrial democracies grab hold of a colorable pretext for war and refuse to let go. (The explosion of the USS Maine was all the reason American voters needed to get behind the Spanish-American War, and they didn't want to hear that might have been an accident. The public wanted a good reason to fight Spain.) And surely, the lower frequency of wars between democracies isn't about shared values or common dedication to democratic principles or holding hands and singing kumbaya. Advanced democracies declare wars all the time.

What you see in practice is not that democratic nations are slower to respond to military provocation, but that they're more reluctant to give provocation to another democratic country. Some of this is about the fact that other democratic countries tend to have advanced, industrialized militaries, but that's not the whole story. (You won't see the British or French hassling Belgium, and that's not because they dread the Belgian air force.) The advanced military powers treat democratic nations much more deferentially than they treat authoritarian nations. We commit military provocations against nations run by strongmen far more easily than we commit them against countries where real elections choose the leadership. Think of the various places where we've authorized air strikes over the last twenty years or so. How many of them would you consider democracies?

If you authorize predator drone strikes in a country where the voters are actually in charge, there are two very predictable results. First, the voters will hate you. Second, they will elect a government that hates you, and demand that that government actively oppose you. Nobody gets re-elected by backing foreign aerial bombardment of the homeland. Can you imagine? If Pakistan and Yemen were functioning democracies, we wouldn't be sending drones to destroy villages where jihadists might be hiding. Doing so would quickly bring the fall of any pro-American government and lead to the rise of an aggressively anti-American one, probably for a generation or two. There are jihadists lurking somewhere in Hamburg, too, but we're not sending predator drones or a Special Forces detachment after them. Everyone understands that if we did that we would be antagonizing the German people and that they would not get over it.

But when you're dealing with dictatorships, juntas, Communist oligarchies, and so on, you tend to count popular opinion out. After all, public sentiment can't replace the dictator, junta, or Politburo. Having the folks on the ground love or hate your country more than they did last year doesn't make any immediately apparent difference. It's natural to focus on how the people at the top respond to your actions. So, if you're having static with Muammar Qadhafi and you feel bombing some targets in Libya will get him in line, that seems like the logical course of action. Sure, the average Libyan might hate the US because of those strikes, maybe for a generation or so, but it's not like that changes anything in the short term. If Qadhafi takes his beating quietly and backs down, it looks like a satisfactory Libya policy. If Saddam Hussein attempts to have a former US President assassinated, you authorize an air strike on his intelligence headquarters in Baghdad. That works like a charm in terms of managing Saddam Hussein and his intelligence apparatus; they learned that specific lesson pretty well. How the rest of the citizens of Baghdad felt about having their city attacked by planes was beside the point as long as Hussein was in power. Their support wasn't any real help to us, and their resentment didn't hurt us. It wasn't like we needed them to vote for some hypothetical pro-American political party, right?

Even if your own country is a democracy, the demands of policy can easily lead you into viewing the people of a dictatorship through the dictator's eyes. He ignores what they want, so you do as well. You would never just ignore what the French or British or Canadian public wants, not completely, because the consequences of doing that are obvious. If you're dealing with a country where the people have a say, you pay attention to those people. If you're dealing with a country where only a few people have a say, you only pay attention to those few people. This approach works just fine, until it doesn't. When only Saddam Hussein made the decisions, taking out his radar installations every few weeks was a very useful tool for managing his behavior. Then one day you find you've committed yourself to free and fair elections in a country where large swaths of the public hate your guts and you're still fighting armed irregulars every day. That's when it turns out that Iraqi voters have been forming their personal opinions of the United States for a long, long time.

In the same way we feel freer to attack countries where the people can't vote, we feel freer to use military force in areas controlled by authoritarian allies. If the CIA wants to kidnap a jihadist off the street in Italy, and apparently they sometimes do, that has to be a clandestine operation because it's going to antagonize ordinary Italians. If the CIA wants to launch a missile strike at a target in Pakistan or Yemen, there's nothing clandestine about it. We make our deals with the Pakistani and Yemeni leadership, so it doesn't matter if the general population is upset. Until, of course, it does.

This is how we've gotten ourselves into this bind: decades of a Middle East policy that ignored what everyday Arabs wanted, no matter how badly they wanted it, because everyday Arabs didn't get a say. It's not that we didn't share the same views of Israel and Palestine that everyday Arabs did; you don't need absolute agreement to have a sane dialogue. It's that we utterly ignored everyone in the Arab street, because we were dealing with the guy in the palace. The various Arab sultans and generalissimos might have been willing to tolerate some of the uglier episodes in the ongoing Israel-Palestine debacle, because they were paid to tolerate it. The sultans and generalissimos might have gone along with the invasion of Iraq, because it was in their interests to go along. But the people on the street, the people who in any democracy would be the voters, weren't getting rewarded for going along with our policies. They were simply watching other Arabs die on the TV news. They didn't like it. They're not going to like it tomorrow, either.