Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Praise for the Foremothers

This is how it works: men and women do things - write books, build institutions, start movements - that change your life forever, and the men get into the history books. The women mysteriously fall out of the story, over and over. How many times have you heard or read the words, "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to be free"? How many of you can name the writer off the top of your head? That's what I'm talking about. As Virginia Woolf put it, "Anonymous was a woman." Men learn to make their debts to other men public, to make a virtue of acknowledging what they owe their forefathers, and to forget what they owe women.

I like to think of myself as pro-feminist, and I was raised by a woman who had a badge and a gun. But when I list the writers and teachers who have been influences on me, the women somehow get left out. I don't do it on purpose, or know that I am doing it. No one is ever explicitly taught to do that, but somehow in our time and place it keeps happening.

If you asked me which teachers in college had been the greatest influence on me, I would have named two younger men, early in their teaching careers. That is true as far as it goes. Those teachers were obvious role models for me, and bits of their old teaching personae still show up in my classroom. If you asked me who my senior role model was when I was an undergraduate, I would have named a particular eminent man, a beloved and revered figure who was nearing retirement. But while I still think of that professor with affection and reverence, his influence on my own teaching is virtually non-existent. There is no trace of his pedagogy in my classroom. When I was nineteen, under the spell of his charisma, I thought that I would follow his particular specialty myself, but that has not been the case. I stopped studying his field even before I had graduated.

On the other hand, until about five years ago I would not have singled out the influence of the very senior female professor, the person I have blogged about as "Professor V.", who taught the introductory lecture classes for the major. It wasn't until I had finished a PhD, found a job, written a book, and achieved tenure that I began to reckon with her deep and pervasive influence on my scholarly practice. I use some intellectual tools and approaches that Vendler herself seems to think of with dislike or indifference, but there remains a baseline of critical practice that Vendler herself laid down, a bright thread of her influence that runs through the way I read poetry no matter how many other, less Vendleresque, threads I weave. And that level of influence is only more striking because Vendler only taught me intro in a lecture class with hundreds of people. She has never known me as anything but an 18-year-old face in a 10-am crowd. But even her lessons for beginners had an influence I will likely never shake off.

But to be honest with myself, Vendler was not the first woman to have an intellectual influence on me. It is only that, like many other men, I have unconsciously dropped the female influences from my intellectual autobiography. The first book of literary criticism I ever bought, which I bought for myself as a high school student, was written by a woman. The first scholarly book I ever bought, the first book with footnotes, was written by a woman, too. It was Jane Ellen Harrison's Mythology (bought, I think, in the gift shop of the Boston Museum of Science), a book that was probably too erudite to be on the kid's shelf where I found it, but I doggedly read that book and the endnotes too. Partly because Harrison got to me so early, before there was even any intellectual radar to get under, I still have a soft spot for her particular approach to Greek mythology, the so-called Cambridge Ritualist school.

If my childhood interest in mythology led me to Harrison's scholarship, my teenaged interest in science fiction led me to my first book of essays about literature. It was Ursula K. Le Guin's The Language of the Night. Like the Harrison book, it turned up randomly in a gift shop aimed at the young, offered among books it only superficially resembled. Maybe because those books dealt with fantasy or fairy tales, and maybe also because they were written by women, they were offered to young people without much thought given to how challenging those books might be. Le Guin, like Harrison, slipped through the lines because she was being underestimated.

I no longer know how many times I have read The Language of the Night. And while it was not the full-dress academic literary criticism that is part of my job today, it was my first example of how to write an essay about a piece of fiction. More importantly, it was my first model of an essayist's prose, and I could not have had a better. Le Guin's prose, lucid and evocative, as clear and as complex as running water, still gives me my sense of what a paragraph or a sentence ought to be.

I am occasionally complimented by other academics for the clarity of my academic prose. That of course is just what people say when they are being nice to me, and we are still talking about academic prose. I can never really know how clear my own writing seems to other people. But clear writing is, at least, something I value. The most obvious influence on my scholarly writing is my main scholarly mentor, my famous doctoral advisor and his own famously clear and jargonless prose. That is certainly true in itself. He is a great influence on me, and I became his student because I valued many things his work embodies. But I did not meet that mentor until late in my twenties, when I already had a degree in creative writing from another university. Other influences had shaped my writing long before I met Stephen. If I had asked about those influences even a few years ago, the first name I likely would have said is Orwell's, and that's not untrue either. Orwell's essays, and perhaps especially his newspaper columns, have been important. But until the last few months I think I would not have mentioned Le Guin, and she may be the most important influence of all.

I was all too slow to be aware of it, but this is the truth: I am trying to write like Ursula K. Le Guin. I am always trying to write like Ursula K. Le Guin. This is no less so because I do it without thinking of it; it is only more so. Her style is the ideal against which I am measured in my own judgment. She is the essayist I wanted to be when I grew up, and she is the stylist whom I, having grown up, would like to be. My fiction shows less of her influence, and is the poorer for it. But as an essayist I am and remain her apprentice. She has never met me, nor I her. But she has left her mark on everything I write. Her influence has only grown stronger, further from the surface and deeper in the structure, as my writing has matured. In the middle of my life, better late than never, I am obliged and honored to acknowledge her as my master.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Where Is the GOP's Mr. Reliable?

Last month when I blogged about the Republican primaries, I was struck by the fact that no front-runner has emerged as the role of the safe, electable choice. Primaries frequently resolve into contests between an establishment choice who runs on electability and an outsider or dark horse who runs on ideological closeness to the party base or, to pick up the dating metaphor from my earlier post, the primary becomes a choice between the safe, reliable suitor your parents want you to marry and the exciting boyfriend or girlfriend with shakier prospects.

The Democratic primary was already falling into that classic pattern in September, with Hillary Clinton offering the respectable, electable choice and Bernie Sanders bringing the this-may-be-crazy be-still-my-heart romance. Over the last month, those roles have shaped up even more clearly. On the other hand, it was remarkable that the contest was all about the exciting, untrustworthy outsider candidate, Trump, but that neither Jeb Bush nor anyone else had managed to establish himself as the Mr. Reliable option. A month later, it's even more obvious that the Republicans don't have a leading "electable" candidate. In fact, the Mr.-Reliable types have only fallen further behind, and Jeb Bush is cutting his campaign budget while he tries to persuade his donors and the media that he isn't already cooked. Today, Hillary Clinton looks more like a safe and formidable general election candidate than ever, and the Republicans seem further away from producing a viable nominee than ever. What is going on over there?

Let me present three possible theories, none of which are completely mutually exclusive:

Theory Number One: GOP Voters Aren't Ready to Settle Down Yet

This argument is simple and has often been made, although it's beginning to get a little frayed. Under this theory the Republican voters will eventually settle down and back an electable candidate once they have sown their wild oats with more ideologically exciting candidates.

This is a pretty good description of what happened in 2012, as Republican primary voters had a series of one-or-two-week whirls with dark horses before settling down and accepting safe, boring Mitt Romney's proposal. One perspective on 2012 claims that most Republican voters knew it would be Romney sooner or later, but wanted to have some fun while they were still single. Under this theory, the problem with the Jeb Bush campaign is that it's too early for the primary voters to settle down with Jeb Bush just yet.

This may still happen in 2016. The best case for this argument is that the real elections haven't started yet, which means the effect of campaign organizations haven't come to bear. There is plenty of room for a well-funded, well-organized candidate to make up a lot of ground once the primaries start, partly through advertising but more importantly through a strong ground game.

Donald Trump has very little campaign organization. Ben Carson apparently has almost no campaign organization at all. Getting little old ladies rides to polling places is not those candidates' thing. They aren't going to do a great job getting out the vote in the early primary and caucus states, but some of their more traditional opponents will. And once we're past the first few states, the rest of the primaries and caucuses will start coming much too fast to build  effective campaign organizations if you haven't already done it. There is a scenario where a Trump or Carson comes out of the first two or three contests with a real but shaky lead but then loses Waterloo on Super Tuesday, just because he hasn't planned to run real campaigns in that many states at once.

The argument against this theory is that none of the "safe" or "electable" Republicans is anywhere close to the standing in the polls that Mitt Romney had four years ago. Jeb Bush isn't even polling at 10%. For the voters to settle down with a Mr. Reliable, they need an identifiable candidate to settle down with. Maybe the Republican voters will get one last fling out of their systems and settle down, but with whom?

Theory Number Two: The Establishment and the Base Have Parted Ways

This is the scarier option, whereby the Republican Party has fractured so badly that the establishment can no longer influence the party electorate's choices. The falcon cannot hear the falconer, and some rough beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching toward Bethlehem to accept the nomination.

Under this theory, the problem is that more than half the primary voters aren't looking for someone electable at all (or that they are so ideological that they cannot reliably gauge electability, because they can't imagine the median voter's perspective). It could be that 2012 led a large number of Republican voters to conclude that settling for a Mitt Romney doesn't work. The voters don't want to settle down. The voters want what they want.

The best argument for this position is the current polls, in which three candidates who have never won a single election between them are garnering more than half the party's support. The party isn't just flirting with exciting dates before settling down. It isn't even choosing between an exciting but irresponsible boyfriend and a dull but reliable fiancee. It's choosing between two irresponsible boyfriends. They're not asking "Trump or Bush?", "Rubio or Carson?", "Romney or Herman Cain?" They are actually asking "Trump or Carson?" That's not choosing between a banker and a street musician. That's choosing between a street musician and a rodeo clown.

The second-best argument for this theory is that the GOP establishment and its media allies have encouraged it. They have spent seven years pushing unrealistic goals on their party base, goals that amount to undoing earlier irrevocable losses. Republicans, including some who knew better and some who apparently didn't, have campaigned on repealing Obamacare, long after it was clear that it would never be repealed. They have appealed to a base that wants Obama impeached, a base where some people fantasize that Obama could somehow have his election invalidated. The rhetoric has not focused on getting past Obama, but on making it as if Obama never happened. And that cannot be done. But the establishment has spent years motivating the base with impossible goals. They can't complain that the base isn't willing to be realistic about what's possible now.

The third argument for this theory is the disarray among the House Republicans, where some members view almost any attempt at pragmatism or realistic governance as treason. That really does suggest a party that's coming unglued. But if that carries over into the nominating process, we should expect maximal upheaval and chaos, because the figures who've been pushed to the front of the primary field are unusually capricious and unstable, prone to strange reversals and vulnerable to self-inflicted meltdowns. Settling down with one of these guys means never settling down. That relationship will be nothing but drama.

Theory Number Three: The Reliable Options Are Unreliable

Sometimes, your parents pick someone for you and they are simply wrong. The person they think will have a bright future is actually going to struggle just to make a living. That nice budding dentist isn't going to get into dental school; the boy who's in line to take over his uncle's dry-cleaning business turns out to be hopeless as a businessman and will end up driving the supply truck. You would be better off marrying your flaky art-major boyfriend who eventually becomes a well-paid product designer.

Under this theory, the party establishment has chosen "Establishment" candidates who are so badly flawed that they don't bring any of the usual benefits "Establishment" candidates have. The so-called "electable" candidates are not electable.

Mitt Romney, who dropped out before the primaries began, is too badly damaged by his last try to be viable this time around. (Certainly, you can't promise the base that Romney will win for them if they give up the guy they really want.) Chris Christie, obnoxious but moderate governor of a blue state, is mired in a scandal that will keep drip-drip-dripping all through the general election, with an outside chance that Christie himself will be indicted. Worse yet, Christie is mired in a scandal that voters understand. It's not some technical thing about which e-mail address he used for what. It's a politician closing a bridge and creating a nasty traffic jam in order to punish some other politician. Everyone can get their heads around that one. And then there's Jeb Bush.

Under this theory, the problem with the Jeb Bush campaign is Jeb Bush. There is no way for Jeb Bush to run without the baggage of George W. Bush. How could there be? And that leaves Jeb(!) with at least three problems: Iraq, the financial crisis, and Katrina. Heckuva job, GOP.

In fact, the idea that any of the smart money has ever been on Jeb Bush for 2016 shows you just how smart that money is not. The idea that even a section of the party establishment wants to get behind another Bush Restoration is evidence that at least part of the establishment's judgment is impaired. Making Bush the nominee demands that the voters get into some hard-core revisionist denial about how the Bush years went, and once we go there the other, flagrantly unelectable candidates are much, much better at that kind of reality distortion. I mean, if you're going to be insane, why not just go with the full-on crazy? This leaves Jeb Bush boring but also unelectable: both a loser and a nerd, with no future AND no motorcycle.

In this theory, it's not that the base has gone crazy and the the establishment can't talk them back into reality. It's that the Republican establishment is crazy too. The base may be louder and less polite with its crazy, but the genteel madness of the establishment runs every bit as deep. The base may not be choosing the unelectable candidates over the electable ones. They may just be in touch with a basic reality the party establishment is too crazy to see: ALL of these people are unelectable in the general, and the primary voters are simply choosing the hopeless case they like best.  If there's no one on the horizon you could settle down with, you should at least go with the one who's the most fun right now.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Sunday, October 18, 2015

What Is a "Good" College? Two Tentative Answers

Sometimes, because of my job, people ask me advice about choosing colleges. It's always nice to be helpful, but talking about college reputations can be a minefield. Obviously, you learn quickly that you should never put any college or university down, but that's not enough. People can also get very prickly when you don't praise a particular college enough. Saying it's a good school may not satisfy them; they sometimes want to hear that School X is much better than School Y, or that School X is just as good as School Z, and will feel insulted unless you tell them what they're looking to hear. Then your choices are 1. giving people helpful practical advice that will offend them, or 2. being polite but misleading.

Before you can say anything useful about college choices, or analyze those choices in a clear-headed way, you have to get past the "good school" problem. People do want to know which colleges and universities confer the most advantage on their graduates, which are "better," but they do NOT want to hear anyone say that any college they already have a connection to is not a "better" than another. What is a "good school?" That's the problem right there.

The first half of this problem is that we talk about "good schools" and "bad schools" as if we were talking about educational quality, which is extremely hard to judge from outside an institution and which can vary widely for different students at the same college. Students don't get exactly the same education at the same school; they all take a different series of classes with a different mix of teachers and they each bring different things to those classes, so the range of educational outcomes at each college or university can be wide. What we're really talking about when we discuss "good schools" is the perceived quality of the education. That perceived quality obviously has some relationship to how well educated the students are, but that's only one factor and not necessarily the biggest. Mostly the discussion of "good schools" is about schools' reputation and prestige. That's fine. In fact, I prefer to frame the "good schools" question in terms of reputation, which is a fuzzy concept but still a thing we can measure in the world, rather than in terms of educational quality.

But the question of reputation is the second half of the problem. Because once you have a connection to a school, you have some stake in its reputation yourself. It is better for you if people think better of your alma mater. If your alma mater's reputation declines, that is at least slightly bad for you. And saying that School X is better than School Z does not just convey an opinion; it is a concrete act, an attempt (however slight), to build up School X's reputation. After all, a school's reputation is just what people say it is, so if enough people start saying that School X is better than School Z, School X will eventually have a better reputation than School Z. Conversations about college reputations are never just impartial discussions about the facts. They are part of a complex social interchange, perhaps better explained by an anthropologist, in which participants try to promote (or protect) the reputations of schools in which they have some reputational stake of their own. This is one of the reasons why talking about college reputations at all risks making you sound like a jerk, because actual jerks do spend a lot of time bragging about where they went to school (or where they send their kids to school), and putting down other colleges. But even if you're not trying to be a jerk, the project of talking honestly about colleges' reputations is always at cross-purposes with the people's desire to move the needle a bit in their old school's favor.

How can you evaluate colleges, then? How to have any rational conversation that doesn't slide into boosterism or hurt feelings? I would propose two things that we CAN talk about, as bottom line issues. One is strictly objective and factual. The other is still a bit of a judgement call, but as close to objective as such a question can get. Instead of talking about educational quality or reputation, I prefer to break things down to the questions of Resources and Reach.

What I call "resources" is the basic question of how much money a school spends on teaching its students. How well a college spends its money, and how much educational bang its professors provide for the college's buck, is impossible to know, except perhaps until you have spent four years at of your life at the school and the question has become moot. But how much money a college has to spend, and what it spends it on, are questions with concrete answers.

The cheapest proxy for resources is to look at the college or university's total budget. But that's not the approach I'd suggest. Universities spend their money on many different things, and what matters if you're applying to schools is how much they are going to spend on educating you. A university that contains many different schools (say a business school and a medical school and a school of dentistry) may have an impressive overall budget but the slice that goes to teaching undergraduates may be much smaller. Any university that operates a hospital or medical center is going to have a whale of a budget, but that doesn't mean the budget for teaching undergraduates won't be pinched. And even if you manage to find the budget for just the undergraduate college, schools can spend on many things beside teaching: they might build fancy new buildings, or put in some sweet amenities that attract students. In fact, the standard college visit is about impressing prospective students with all the money that's going to be spent on them, with the shiny new dorms and the big sports stadium and the rock-climbing wall in the state-of-the-art workout center. All of that is designed to communicate affluence and the sense that the student is going to be treated well, but it isn't necessarily connected to how much the college is spending in the classroom. At some places, students get to enjoy the new jumbotron in the football stadium but don't get to meet many full-time faculty for their first two years.

My preferred quick-and-dirty method of evaluation is to look at a few departments where you think you might major and see how many faculty those departments have. I also usually recommend subtracting out people with titles like "Instructor" or "Lecturer," not because people with those titles are not good teachers (they're usually hired only for the high quality of their teaching), but because those are usually lower-paid jobs (usually teaching intro classes) and that indicates something about the amount that the school is spending on educating that particular set of majors. Is this the whole story? Or course not. But it is one real and important part. If you want to major in, say, history at a small liberal-arts college, and one school you're thinking about has five history professors while another school, with the same number of students, has fifteen history professors, that is telling you something that you should not ignore.

Sometimes ask me if College A or University B would be a good place for their son or daughter to study Shakespeare. Getting into the general quality of the schools is like getting into quicksand. But I can say, perfectly factually, that University B only has one professor who teaches Shakespeare. That's not the whole story, of course (and, full disclosure, for years I was the only professor teaching Shakespeare in my department). But it's not none of the story, either, and it's the easiest part to get your hands on.

I also suggest looking at the lists of classes offered over the last four or five semesters: not just the list of courses in the catalog, which sometimes includes courses not taught for years, but the actual classes the department has taught over the last two or three years. And if you are at all interested in going on to graduate school after college, I'd advise searching for all of the books, articles, etc., that the professors in each department have published in the last ten years. There are great teachers who don't publish much, or don't publish much anymore, but a department where no one is producing new scholarship can have trouble placing its students in graduate schools.

The second issue you should consider, "reach," is simply how far a school's reputation stretches. Where does graduating from that particular school give you an advantage? The question of how good a reputation a school has opens up impossible questions and risks hurting feelings. The question of how far a reputation extends is much closer to an objective question.

There are schools which have a local reputation: people in the immediate area of the school (say, in a particular city and its suburbs) are likely to be more impressed by you for graduating from that school. But in the rest of the world, people either have not heard of that school or have no particular opinion, for good or ill, about it. They may recognize the school's name, but not think much more about it than, "Oh, yes. That is actually a college." But in that school's city, having gone to that school may actually be an advantage when you are looking for a job.

There are also schools with regional reputation. People have heard of that school, and think well of it, across an area of several states. A degree from such a school might give you some competitive advantage across the South, for example, or across the Northeast.  Then there are a smaller number of schools with national reputations: having a degree from that school is a good thing on your resume anywhere in the country. Obviously, a school with a good national or regional reputation often has an even better local reputation. A school that's respected throughout the South might be considered a very big deal in its home city. Then there are a few American colleges with international and a tiny handful with global reputations. When a school actually has a global reputation, people recognize its name anywhere in the world. If you have to explain what, or where your school is, it doesn't have a reputation where you are.

Think of it this way: how many British universities can you name? And how many can you say are impressive? Almost every educated person in America has heard of Oxford and Cambridge. And you know that those schools are supposed to be big deals. You may have heard of the University of London, or St. Andrews. They have international reputations, at least. Oxford and Cambridge have truly global reputations. There are a number of other excellent universities in the UK, but I will confess that I cannot distinguish between the reputations of most of those colleges. Is the University of Hull more or less prestigious than the University of Kent? Is Manchester "better" or "worse" than Nottingham? Other than my regard for individual British Shakespeare scholars at those places, I have no idea. Those are schools with national, regional, or local reputations. On this side of the Atlantic, they are hard to tell apart.

Likewise, when you move to a new city in the US, you will hear for the first time about a number of local colleges that are considered fairly prestigious. Those schools have local reputations. It is much harder to realize that this or that college from your own home town, which some of your high school friends dreamed of getting into, is basically unknown where you live now. (Just today I had to explain to my spouse, a professional academic herself, the reputation that a particular Boston-area university has in Boston. That school's reputation is regional at best.) There are, however, a few colleges that have specialized reputations within a particular field: largely unknown to the general public, but well known for people in a particular business. Think of a school with an incredibly strong meteorology program, whose meteorology majors have a national advantage when competing for meteorology jobs, but no one who majored in anything else gets any advantage outside the local area.

The important point here is that local and regional reputations are not illusions. It is not that your new neighbors in your new town are wrong about how good some local college is. The college really does have the reputation they think it has. It just doesn't have that reputation in other places. If you graduate from the college in greater Boston my spouse was asking about today, that degree will serve as an advantage to you in the Boston area, and likely throughout New England. It simply won't give you that advantage anywhere else. Outside the New England states, that's not a "good" school or a "bad" school, but simply a school. HR staff will look at your resume and see that you went to college. If you move to say, Chicago the week after graduation, you will likely lose any edge that the degree might give you in Massachusetts.

How much the question of reach matters in choosing a school depends on what you want to do after college. If you are planning to move after graduation, to enter a profession that will likely require you to move, or to apply to graduate or professional schools outside your area, you are better off if your college has a national reputation. If you plan to live your days happily in or around your hometown, a school with a local reputation might be more than enough. You can go to the Boston-area school my wife hasn't really heard of, settle down on the South Shore, and be just fine. But if your lifelong dream is to go on to, say, medical school at UCLA, then trying to get into UCLA from a school that's only a big deal in Boston is not the best plan. In fact, there are other Boston colleges that might, inside Boston, seem no better than Nameless Boston-Area College, or even have slightly less local cachet, but whose cred travels further. This is when you need some candid expert advice.

The question, both in terms of resources and reach, isn't how good the school is in some abstract way. It's what the college is going to offer you.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Dr. Cleveland's Rule for Evaluating Rumors of Affairs

So, the latest Republican self-immolation in the House apparently has now also spun off nasty little rumors of an affair between two Members of the House. Let me say, straight off, that I don't give a damn whether or not that's true. My issue with today's Republicans is not the conduct of their private lives, but the scandalous and shocking conduct of their public lives. They face important moral questions in the House every day and give immoral answers. When someone is for torture and against feeding the starving, adultery is really not the big moral issue.

But that said, I'm inclined to believe that the rumors are more likely to be untrue than true. I could be proved wrong: it's maybe a 60-40 or 70-30 proposition. But the stories could just be a smear, especially considering the very shaky sources of the accusation so far. In fact, news outlets promoting this story should be ashamed for circulating these rumors without even one good source that can testify to their truth. And I am also skeptical because of my Rumored Affair Rule of Thumb: always be more skeptical of a rumored affair when the people involved are attractive.

Rumors like this get started for many reasons (including, occasionally, because the rumor is true). But people repeat them for reasons of their own. Sometimes, a rumor like this has legs because circumstantial evidence keeps it going. Sometimes, the rumor sticks because people have an ulterior motive that the rumor furthers, as in many political situations. But also, in general, people tend to repeat a sexual rumor if they think it's hot. The sexier the people in the story are, the more people like that story. It's basic human nature. So a flimsy story featuring two attractive people (or just a conspicuously attractive woman) tends to flourish despite the lack if any good reason to believe it. The reason people believe those rumors is because believing them is titillating.

People love love love talking about the rumored JFK-Marilyn Monroe affair, for example, although the evidence seems to suggest that it was basically just a one-night stand. But people love love love talking about it because nearly everyone finds at least one of those two people sexually attractive. Telling that story, or thinking about it, is a way of titillating yourself. On the other hand, you've probably never heard that Bob Hope had a confirmed and quite torrid affair with Ethel Merman, and you will probably blot that information from your mind by the middle of my next paragraph, because you really may not want to picture that.

So my rule of thumb, especially but not exclusively with show business rumors, is to take a story where the protagonists are sexy (by the standards of their profession) as suspect until proven otherwise. When the sexiness of the couple is in doubt, I go with the question of how sexy the woman in the rumor is. Rumors about sexy people fly further on flimsier wings, so when someone tells you a hot rumor about Celebrity A and Celebrity B, what they are really saying is "I enjoy thinking about Celebrity A-and/or-B having sex." They're not necessarily telling you anything else.

The current scurrilous rumor about two Republicans in the House involves two perfectly nice-looking people for their age and profession. They could not star in a teen romance movie, and neither happens to be my personal cup of tea, but for forty- and fifty-something politicians they look pretty good. And, more importantly, the female politician in the story is conventionally very attractive. When that woman's fellow Republicans gossip about her committing adultery, what they are really saying is that they enjoy thinking about that Congresswoman having some illicit sex. And a lot of them are admitting that they would like to be committing adultery with her. Maybe she actually has a lover. But that's not really the point. The rumor flourishes because the men she works with enjoy thinking about her with a lover. It goes with the territory, still, in 2015.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at Dagblog

Friday, October 09, 2015

What Just Happened to the House GOP?

As you have all seen by now, Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has dramatically withdrawn from the race for Speaker of the House. As every news story has made clear, McCarthy was undone by the opposition of a group of hard-liners (probably about forty of them). What the news stories don't make clear is that those hard-liners could not have come close to beating McCarthy at the caucus election where McCarthy resigned. The GOP caucus would have elected McCarthy comfortably if he had let them vote. But the forty malcontents who shivved McCarthy refused to accept the result of their own party's election. They were going to vote against McCarthy on the House floor with the Democrats. No news story explains this particularly clearly, but it's that, rather than the details of McCarthy or Boehner's individual political fates, that really suggests a major change.

The usual political logic is you try to get someone you want as your own party's candidate, but then you stick with your party's choice in the election with the other party. If you don't like Pelosi or Boehner (or Gingrich or Hastert or Wright or O'Neill or ...) you vote against them in your own party's caucus vote. But if most of your party still votes for Pelosi/Gingerich/Boehner/O'Neill, you go out and vote for that person, too. The forty-or-so malcontents in the self-described "House Freedom Caucus" are done playing by those rules. Unless they are given what they want (indeed, apparently almost everything they want), they are going to shiv their own party's elected leaders.

Boehner didn't lose support among Republicans in the sense that a solid majority of House Republicans did not back him. He resigned from the Speakership because a minority of House Republicans refused to accept what the majority of their own party wanted.

What this means is that the Tea Party, more or less (the most conservative segment of the House Republicans) has begun to operate like a parliamentary third party. Specifically, they are beginning to behave like the tiny minority parties (often fifth- or eighth- or ninth-parties) who gain disproportionate power in multiparty parliaments like Italy's or Israel's. The major parties in those parliaments, while much larger than the tiny parties, can seldom form a majority coalition alone. Neither Likud nor Labor wins more than 50% of the seats in Parliament. So they have to cobble together coalitions by bringing in various small parties, each of which gets to make its demands. And therefore those small parties get significantly more influence than the number of actual voters they attract would suggest. The tail gets to wag the dog a little bit every time a government forms.

Now, the Democrats and Republicans have both always been somewhat unlikely and unruly coalitions, with pretty strange bedfellows in each party. But mostly, the Democrats and Republicans have mostly operated like single parties, keeping the fractious infighting on the inside. But the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus/Hostage Takers are no longer playing by those rules. They are willing to sabotage their own party's candidate for Speaker of the House, the same way various small Italian or Israeli parties are willing to sabotage their natural allies' chance of building a governing coalition until enough favors have been extracted.

Note here that the group of Congressmen doing this is unrepresentative in two ways. They represent a tiny minority of voters, easily less than 10%. And they are on one of the far ends of the political spectrum. It's not the forty most moderate Republicans demanding to call the shots or they'll burn the whole pool hall down. It's the forty most hyper-conservative Republicans, the ones furthest away from the median voter.

In earlier periods, before the Democrats and Republicans were as cleanly sorted along ideological lines as they are today, a small minority in Congress, suggesting a closely-divided public, usually led to a more moderate, compromise-oriented Congress. There were enough conservative Democrats and enough liberal Republicans that neither party  could make big changes without a big majority. A party with a slim majority in the House could not ram through big initiatives that the other party hated, because the moderates in your own party would vote with the other side. That seemed roughly to reflect the will of the people.

Now the most-conservative Democrat is more liberal than the most-liberal Republican in Congress, and vice-versa. So there's little danger, especially for Republicans, of House members defecting to the other party. Now the danger is that the hardest-line members of your own party (people who, maddeningly, have no closer political ally than you in the world) will betray you and disrupt the functioning of government in order to get what they want. So the current system gives outsized influence to tiny political groups, who are far from the ideological mainstream and have done various things of which the country deeply disapproves. It is not pretty and it is not fair, but it seems to be what our system is becoming. Of course, it didn't used to be this way.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Update from Old Friend of the Blog (or, Kevin Hogan Is Back!)

Four years ago, I blogged about my old friend and colleague Kevin Hogan, a Massachusetts teacher who was ambushed in a parking lot by a Fox News reporter peddling a sex scandal.
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.
I was afraid that Kevin's educational gifts - and Kevin is a genuinely gifted educator - would go to waste, unused. But last week I got a surprise e-mail from out of the blue: Kevin Hogan, who has now become an LGBT activist. I cannot tell you how pleased and relieved I am to hear that news. If Kevin is being kept out of classrooms, his talents as a teacher and communicator can still benefit us all in the public square.

And Kevin does have important things to teach us, not least the hard truths of surviving the 21st century's vicious public shaming. He's currently finishing a book, Healing Stigma: A Survivor's Guide to Repairing Identity in the Internet Age, and I am looking forward to reading it. This is news that stays news. We don't yet have our minds around what we, in the internet age, are doing to private individuals, but Kevin's experiences and his thoughtful reflection can help us understand. Here is Kevin on the recent Ashley Madison hack, something widely taken as an opportunity for gleeful internet heckling:
On the morning of August 19th, I woke up early and went online to check the news. A headline in the business section caught my eye: "Ashley Madison infidelity site's customer data 'leaked.'"
A chill crept over me. I ran to the bedroom, where my wife was just waking up. She must have recognized a familiar look on my face, because she immediately reached for my hand and asked what was wrong.
"People are going to die," I whispered to her, dreading the words as I said them. 

You can read the rest of Kevin's post here. It's very much worth the read.

Welcome back to the fight, Kevin. This time, I know our side will win.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog