Monday, June 28, 2004

What's The Matter With Kansas?

Great book for a journalistic screed--the rhetoric hits some high points but becomes wearing. The explanation of working class conservatism seems fundamentally correct: this is Populism with class reconstructed as a package of "lifestyle" issues and economic concerns wiped out of the picture. I suppose we all knew this--but who can resist hearing it again?

One minor flaw is the author's underestimation of the depth of anti-intellectualism in the US. It didn't start with FDR's appointment of credentialed social planners and re-emerge during the McCarthy era but was a feature of American life since the colonial period (if Hofstadter Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is correct).

The major flaw however is the author's unconvincing attempt to pin the image of political correctness that riles up working stiffs in fly-over country on advertisers and the media catering for the interests of Republican plutocrats. People magazine indeed features the rich and semi-famous campaigning for animal rights and promoting radical chic, but academics do it too. Advertisers feature tight pants teens with body piercing to sell products but they wouldn't feature them if there weren't takers.

Some academics, journalists and other intellectuals engage in "fashionable nonsense" but the real perpetrators are our semi-elite clients: groupies in the "helping professions"--teachers, social workers, therapists and liberal ministers--vegetarian housewives, Buddhist chickies and other wannabes who parody our preoccupations. Working class people never meet us, but they know them well--and are bullied by them. These are the intellectual middlemen who, from the cultural point of view, play the role of Korean shopkeepers in LA ghettos.

Still, it was we who started it as adolescents in the late '60s. We despised and lionized the working class by turn, and always patronized them. But we graduated and put away childish things: a few of us achieved authentic downward social mobility through the counterculture but most, including myself, went on to occupy the social niches that had been prepared for us from birth. It was then that the semi-elite picked up our broken toys and our "revolutionary" rhetoric, suitably modified like Beatles tunes smoothed into shopping mall muzak, became part of popular culture. Smug schoolteachers pumped cultural diversity and treated working class parents with disdain when they came as supplicants on back-to-school night begging for phonics and grammar. Self-help gurus denounced their domestic arrangements as sexist, opressive and sick. The media lampooned the suburban dream that they'd scraped and sacrificed to achieve. Working class people recognized that they were being trashed and fought back.

That they are now fighting back is uncontroversial and it seems likely that they are winning. What to do is a mystery and one that Kansas does not address, though the author hints that consciousness raising and unionization would be a good thing. Personally, I would favor genocide--cultural rather than material. We could let them in and by doing that dismantle their culture--we could wipe out the working class by assimilation. If, as the author suggests, class has become a matter of ethos rather than economics then anyone can join the elite. Ideas are free: anyone can, and should, be a liberal "intellectual."

But we excluded the working class by romanticizing their "culture" and despising their religion, by adopting passes and signs to keep them out and by consuming positional goods to set ourselves apart from them. We despised their food preferences and body fat, their fundamentalism, their leisure activities, their grammar and the little boxes made of ticky-tacky in which they lived because those were the things that set them off from us and gave us claim to elite status. We didn't want them to slim down, repudiate fundamentalism, speak grammatically or develop a preference for microbrews over Budweiser because then our status symbols would be tarnished: there's no point in eating whole grains or practicing Wicca if everyone else does.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Back from China!

Hello, Blog! I've just come back from China after an SCP conference at Chungdu University surrounded by sightseeing in Beijing, Chungdu and various points on the Yangzee River which we cruised down to the 3 Gorges Dam.

I have many thoughts about China, which will probably emerge over the the next few weeks. Visiting China, the worlds longest running high culture I felt crude, vulgar, barbaric and fat. I was at least happy to be short, for the first time in my life.

The cities are hideous though they've been careful to preserve a few pagodas and temples, some of which where splendid. Most of the buildings seem to date from the 1950s and beyond which makes me wonder what was there before the Revolution. The pagoda we visited on the Yangzee cruise, essentially a spiral staircase to the top of the mountain to which it was attached, was built without any nails (except for the floorboards), all pegs and joinery, and it seemed to a number of the other older buildings where like that too--I checked. One of the buildings had a second story that was attached entirely by some system of joints in four tortoises that held the thing up.

I found the culture oppressive. It seemed like what Egypt would have been if the culture had survived intact and, as I said to my roomie, 5 minute idea that it is, it made one realize what a revolution it was when the archaic smile broke, people started arguing and classical Greece emerged.

I've now visited 3 exotic cultures--Kenya, Iceland and China, of which China is by far the most exotic. China and Iceland are liveable while Kenya is not and China is certainly the richest, most interesting place. But prescinding from the utter poverty, crime and misery, and the unliveability, Kenya was in some way more comfey.

However, I'm fed up with exotic cultures. If I ever go anywhere again, apart from England with is more or less like going to Baltimore or New Jersey and doesn't count, I want to go to the conventionally nice places--Venice, Florence, Vienna, Ravenna, Rome, the south of France and, please God, Greece! And to Constantinople because I want to see Hagia Sophia before I die. I want to see, touch, immerse myself in the Mediterranean. It only struck me recently what "mediterranean" meant--I remember my mother saying the Romans called it "mare nostrum" and so it is: our sea, in the middle of our land and, reminiscent of pop biological documentaries about life emerging from the oceans, the sea from which our culture came, our birthplace.

Monday, June 07, 2004

The New York Times > Week in Review > The Sheik Takes Over: In Iraq's Next Act, Tribes May Play the Lead Role

Maybe it is time to bow to the inevitable--civilization can never defeat or assimilate the barbarians: at best it can contain them.

Domestically, we've been trying to civilize the barbarians and introduce law and order in urban slums for decades, working without much success to wipe out gangs, curtail violence and assimilate the underclass into civil society. It may be time to take a new tack and recognize that we can only govern the underclass in the US and abroad through tribal war lords, sheiks, paramount chiefs, big men and gang leaders.

It's time to call a truce: to get out of Iraq and to cede the slums to gang leaders: grant the Bloods, the Crips, the Sopranos and the rest semi-autonomous status and stop interfering in their affairs. Let the tribes in the US and abroad conduct their own turf wars, fight battles over women and other booty, negotiate amongst themselves and, if we're lucky, kill one another off so that we can be done with them.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

What Reagan Got Wrong - Liberty is not the absence of government. By William Saletan

Reagan is dead, and it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Good riddance.

Reagan was the most destructive president to occupy the White House and the icon of an ideology which, over the past 25 years, has trashed the country.

Before war and scandal made Americans cynical and depressed, we imagined that we could create a Great Society with economic security and fair treatment for all. That was hardly a pipe dream: with vast natural resources, a developed economy and political stability we could easily have created a society where all Americans enjoyed the good life. Instead we let Reagan and the conservative ideologues that followed lead us into the pit.

In the ancient world Tyche/Fortuna was worshipped as a god because there was little anyone could do to circumvent dumb luck. The lives people lived were determined by accidents of birth or capture, by being male or female, slave or free, Greek or Barbarian. Disease was inevitable; poverty and illiteracy were the norm. For the past 25 years we've been busily recreating that world, a society without fairness, security or opportunity.

We don't notice it because now, as in the ancient world, only those of us who drew the lucky numbers get to write about it. It's extraordinary how easily most of the lucky are able to ignore the counterfactuals--the fact that they, we, escaped the shitty life that most people live. Walmart is the largest employer in the US--the life that Walmart employees live on minimum wage, without benefits, trapped all day, working at stinking, boring, mind-killing jobs is the norm. All of us are dangling over that pit like Jonathan Edwards sinners in the hands of an angry god--in the hands of Tyche.

We should contemplate Walmart as a momento mori. I never go through a checkout line, were the cashier is trapped all day in 2 square feet of space without thinking how close I came to being there. I don't place an order by phone or fill in a form without vividly imagining the rooms full of women in carrels answering phones, keying in data and processing orders. That is exactly what I would be doing if it weren't for equal opportunity and affirmative action policies to promote fairness and opportunity. No women is ever overqualified for anything and without government "interference" that is exactly the stinking life I would have had.

Friday was the 15th anniversary of Tienanmen Square and Wednesday I leave for China. The Chinese, embarassed by the events of 15 years ago still argue that it was necessary to suppress the dissidents in order to provide the stability for economic growth in China and a better life for all. They may be right. Political liberty is a luxury. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press are of negligible value compared to economic security, education and decent work. It may be that for poor countries it's worth trading off political liberty to create a better life for citizens.

But we are a rich country and could have had it all. Raising taxes to pay for a single payer health care system, universal child care and education and income transfers would not have made us slaves of the state. Affirmative action policies would not have significantly undermined the vast liberties we enjoy--except of course the liberty of employers who want all women typing and filing. We had the choice between life and death and chose death. We were suckered by the rhetoric of freedom and American greatness and turned a potential paradise into a hellhole where no one is ever safe from poverty and drudgery.

Do we have cause for optimism? Bush will no doubt get a temporary boost worshipping at the round of Reagan apotheosis ceremonies but, mercifully, not close enough to the election to do him much good. Maybe without the Beast stomping the earth, even if only in a senile fog, the country will get back on track and move to becoming a civilized society again.

Sometimes I wonder why most people don't share my take on things. Of course my life is better now than it was 25 years ago--but not because of conservative policies. I lived in blind terror until I got tenure, fighting for all I was worth to get into Academia and stay, knowing that even one slip, even a one degree turn of the wheel of fortune, would land me in a life of pink collar shit work, trapped behind a check out counter or in a carrel, keying in data, ringing up groceries, trapped in a confined space doing mindless work with endless repetitions, without the possibility of any achievement, buried alive.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

How the Other Half Votes

The central electoral phenomenon of the past thirty-five years has been the movement of working-class and lower-middle-class voters from the Democratic to the Republican Party....[T]hey now vote for the party that has engineered their exclusion. Real wages in the United States are roughly the same now as they were in 1980; fewer jobs provide adequate health or retirement benefits; the percentage of working people protected by unions has declined precipitously; unemployment benefits are less generous; and the federal government's finances are so gravely impaired that Social Security and Medicare benefits may well be reduced and/or delayed, beginning with the next generation of retirees. At the same time, financial profits and the income of the richest Americans have increased dramatically. That most of the blame for all this can be laid at the door of Republican tax, labor, regulatory, agricultural, antitrust and trade policies has not shaken the allegiance of these working-class and lower-middle-class Republicans. It is, for some reason, completely off their radar screen...

Why, we liberals splutter, this amazing obtuseness? ...The answer, apparently, is anti-intellectualism. Grassroots conservatives have convinced themselves--with a great deal of help from what David Brock's important new book calls "the Republican Noise Machine"--that secular intellectuals form a class (yes, the fabled "New Class") with designs on state power and popular liberties...

The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meat-packing. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining

How, and when, did the political in the US become personal with partisan politics dominated by "lifestyle issues"? Is there any other nation on earth where abortion is a major political issue or where a ban on gay marriage is seriously proposed as a constitutional amendment? It's easy to see why the Republican Noise Machine promoted the socially conservative agenda--who but the well off, a shrinking minority, would vote for them on the basis of their economic policies?

But why did Democrats take the bait? It's too late to fix that now because we're hooked. No one dares to say that abortion is no longer an issue because the majority of Americans favor keeping early term abortions legal and partial birth abortions may not such a good idea anyway. No one dares to say that making gay marriage a major political cause is pointless since most Americans already favor civil unions and in all likelihood there would be little effective opposition to low keyed piecemeal legislation guaranteeing domestic partners the social, political and economic benefits of marriage.

Working class conservatives are afraid of a world spinning out of control with kids on drugs and welfare queens in Cadillacs. Liberals obsess about the Handmaids Tale, a puritanical theocracy where women are kept as sex slaves and political liberties are eliminated in favor of Old Testament sharia.

The war in Vietnam may be part of it but that's old news. Maybe Liberals simply didn't want these working class types at the party--but didn't realize how small the party would be if they weren't invited. We didn't like their accents, their tastes in music and entertainment, their religious and patriotic sentimentalities, the way they dressed or the way they decorated their homes but couldn't face the fact of our own snobbery so we put it out that we didn't like them because they were bigots and reactionaries. Now they are. Archie Bunker has the last laugh at us meatheads.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Compassionate Conservativism

w w w . p r o s p e c t - m a g a z i n e . c o . u k: "How old is political liberalism? Here is a surprising answer: it is not a few hundred years old, but 10,000 years old. And this answer matters because it affects our ability to see liberalism as capable of addressing some of the deepest anxieties of modern society. Can we live together with those of different cultures? Can we argue instead of fight?"

The core of liberalism on this account is the establishment of arrangements that facilitate mutually beneficial transactions between people who are not bound together by sentimental ties of kinship, culture or personal affiliation.

What a good idea! It means that I go where I like without being careful to avoid alien tribal territory, that I can deposit money in the bank without worrying that the teller will simply pocket it, that I can live a reasonably comfortable life without depending on the good will, and caprice, of others and that I do not need to count on surviving sons to support me in old age. It means that I can rely on formal regulations and impersonal enforcement mechanisms to insure my personal safety, well-being and fair treatment.

Compassionate conservatives thing that we would be better off with fewer regulations and enforcement mechanisms. They imagine we would do better in a world where there was less state interference--where families took care of their own, neighbors were neighborly, and faith-based initiatives, supported by voluntary contributions rather than coercive taxation, took care of misfits who fell through the cracks.

Clearly they have never spent much time in New Jersey or taken the lesson of the Sopranos to heart. Where taking care of our own is the modus operandi no one recognizes any obligation to strangers, sojourners or members of other tribes:
competing warlords support and protect their kinsmen, gumuhs and sycophants, everyone observes a thousand unwritten rules concerning personal loyalties and tribal territories, women breed, men fight, everyone is chronically on the make or insecure or both and preoccupied with maintaining territory or sucking up to those who do.

That of course is the limiting case but the further we go toward dismantling coercive state mechanisms and formal, impersonal arrangements and the more we depend on personal relationships, the family, the community and grassroots efforts, the closer we will get to the Sopranos world and the worse off we will be.