Monday, September 29, 2008


Op-Ed Columnist - How McCain Wins - Op-Ed -

The core case against Obama is pretty simple: he’s too liberal...the only Democrats to win the presidency in the past 40 years — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — distanced themselves from liberal orthodoxy. Obama is, by contrast, a garden-variety liberal. He also has radical associates in his past...Obama quotes from the brochure of Reverend Wright’s church — a passage entitled “A Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness.” So when Biden goes on about the middle class on Thursday, Palin might ask Biden when Obama flip-flopped on Middleclassness.

That's strange: I thought that the whole point of liberalism, in particular the orthodox garden-variety, was precisely to promote middleclassness by seeing to it that more people could achieve it. I did take a quick look at some sites to get a better idea of what it was that Rev. Wright meant to repudiate under the rubric of "middleclassness." The National Review site, much as I gag to quote it, was actually illuminating:

Vallmer Jordan, a church member who helped draft the precepts, said..."The big question mark was racism"...He acknowledged that the principle on "middleclassness" was a hard sell, even then. "There was a hunk of resistance to that principle," Jordan said. But eventually committee members came to understand its intention: "Any black person who identifies himself as middle-class psychologically withdraws from the group and becomes a proponent of strengthening and sustaining the system," he said. Harris-Lacewell, the Princeton professor, said the "disavowal of the pursuit of middleclassness" is simply an argument against materialism and the pursuit of the American standard of wealth. Many white Christian churches also preach against materialism.

Seems pretty innocuous--indeed, edifying: exactly what one expects to hear in church, and thoroughly uncontroversial. It's in the Bible too. After the Israelites get out of Egypt, Moses tells them never to forget that they were sojourners in Egypt, where they were treated harshly, and so that they should remember to treat resident aliens amongst them well and to maintain solidarity with those who were less well off. That to me is one of the most remarkable passages in the Old Testament because it would have been easier to make quite a different inference in defense of the hazing principle: "You got beat up on. Now you're in power and can beat up on other people. Have fun!"

What's puzzling is why Rev. Wright identified materialism and indifference to plight of those who were less well-off as "middleclassness." But it's not all that puzzling if we remember that Wright was formed during his seminary days in the late '60s. At that time, when Marxism was still a viable ideology, "bourgeois" was bad and the rich brats who shaped the New Left of the period, were contemptuous of middleclassness because they'd never seen the alternative, lowerclassness, close up. They believed that the proletariat was populated by gonzo journalists, folk singers who composed rousing union songs, and working class intellectuals, ready to be organized into "circles" for the study of Marcuse and ripe for Revolution.

This was pure adolescent fantasy, but became institutionalized in the New Left. At puberty, my peers, like most other children, discovered that their parents were imperfect and inferred that they were positively evil. By mid-adolescence they had concluded that it was not only their parents but their parents' friends and all adults like them, middle class adults, who were thoroughly wicked and that the source of all this evil was "middleclassness"--because they hadn't seen the alternative, and because they didn't understand that even though middleclassness was not sufficient for basic human decency, it was necessary.

Beyond that, critics of middleclassness also had an extremely simplistic view of the springs of human action and assumed that it was a universal truth that people would only be motivated to work for the benefit of others if they thought well of them and liked them. So political activists who were committed to promoting social justice refused to recognize that the individuals who they recognized were treated unjustly and whose situation they wanted to improve were hateful, despicable, thoroughly sickening, disgusting human beings who detested them and rejected their most fundamental values. Given this assumption, these good liberals had to practice self-deception and virtuoso-level double-think to avoid recognizing that the alternative to middleclassness, lowerclassness, was a compound of bigotry, violence, ignorance, stupidity, brutality, sexism, and unreflective dogmatism.

I vividly remember one episode: I'm not sure when it happened--it may have been on a slumming expedition in Chicago in which I participated as an undergraduate. I was walking through a white ethnic slum with a group of fellow students who were exuding admiration for the life and color of the neighborhood, and the virtues of the local residents who, they marveled, were "real"--not dull, uptight puritans or hypocrites like their parents, their parents' friends, or middle class people like their parents and parents' friends. A man appeared, dragging a boy by the collar, yelling incomprehensible obscenities at him and beating him over the head. "There you have it," I said, "the proletariat"--but I don't think anyone paid any attention because they didn't dare.

I grew up with this and watched my childhood playmates' fathers treat them this way. The men, in sleeveless undershirts sat in beach chairs on the sidewalk during long summer evenings and expounded their views on politics, family values and a variety of other issues. "All deese kids unnerstand is de strap." And if there was a kid around on which to demonstrate, they would: BAM! "Shut up yer mouth and don't give yer mudder no lip." BAM, BAM, BAM! The women for their part were whining drudges who dragged around in housedresses, watched soap operas, and for light entertainment discussed obstetrical problems. This is the alternative to middleclassness.

I suppose one might wonder why, given that I hate people like this, I would have any interest in improving their lot. Several reasons, I suppose, the most important one being that I don't want people like this to exist. I want them fixed, made middle class, and I believe that that is feasible. I also recognize that it is nothing more than a matter of pure dumb luck that I am not one of them--and that this is grossly unfair. The pretense that they are decent people, that their way of life is worthy, does them no favors: they want out, if not for themselves, for their children--they want middleclassness but don't have the resources or the knowledge to achieve it.

Of course Rev. Wright didn't mean what I mean by "middleclassness" having been schooled in the Black Liberation Theology that was popular during his seminary days. And it is the ambiguity of "middleclassness" that conservatives like Kristol play to their advantage. When Wright preaches against middleclassness he is using the rhetoric that was in fashion 40 years ago to repudiate selfishness and promote solidarity with those who are less well off, re-packaging Moses' agenda. But, when the majority of Americans, who desperately want middleclassness, hear Wright they imagine that he is repudiating everything to which they aspire: a decent standard of living, an orderly, secure life, a comfortable house in a safe neighborhood and a good education for their kids. And people I came up with did repudiate this, though I can't imagine why. What on earth was their problem? What did they imagine the alternative to middleclassness was?

Of course there were features of this life I didn't want--in particular, the obligation to dress up and take care of my appearance but that is peripheral and it wasn't just this that my peers didn't want. I can't understand what the problem was or what it was that they didn't want. But whatever it was, liberals have got to understand, and not only understand, but empathize with the aspirations of most Americans. People want middleclassness because they know what the alternative is and Democrats have got to make it clear that middleclassness is that they will deliver--and stop despising people for wanting it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More Stuff White People Like

Stuff White People Like

I quite often doubt the value of what I do, and have done for most of my adult life: teaching and research in a humanities discipline. I'm lousy at math so I didn't have any choice.

I don't imagine for one minute that what I do is worth anything close to what engineers, doctors or nurses do--but I do think it's worth something. My research advances knowledge, albeit knowledge of a peculiarly useless sort, but much more importantly I believe that in teaching I can do some good. I promote clarity, reflection and abstract thinking, all of which seem to be largely missing from discourse in the public square. And most importantly: I debunk. That seems to me the most important thing philosophy can do.

But now I am just sick at heart because the message I've been getting is that what we're supposed to be doing is teaching what's current and what students want. This is the way in which theologians have been operating for years. Most don't believe in God so they're working in a field which, for them, has no subject matter. So they prefer to call their discipline "religious studies" and spend their time engaging in speculative anthropology, armchair psychology and "critical theory." I've asked friends in theology why they're obsessed with Freud, Marx and Feuerbach who are not only hostile to religious belief but not even intellectually respectable. They tell me it's because Freud, Marx and Feuerbach are "Thinkers" who are influential in "intellectual discourse" and so that they need to "come to terms" with them.

That is to say, Freud-Marx-Feuerbach is Stuff White People Like. It doesn't matter whether they make sense or not. What matters is that the right people, those who contribute to our culture's "intellectual discourse," think that they make sense and, more importantly, talk about them. So, as academics in humanities disciplines, we're supposed to know about them, talk about them and teach our students to talk about them so that they can pass themselves off as intellectuals at the better cocktail parties. I suppose that by the same reasoning we should teach students to talk intelligently about herbal medicine and chiropractic.

This isn't what I signed on for.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

How White of Them

Intolerant Chic

[D]ismissing something or someone as “so white” has long been a favorite put-down among those who like to view themselves as right-thinking, hierarchy-defying nonconformists—that is, White People. Recall those ads extolling “the new face of wealth,” which contrast male, stone-faced WASP bankers with attractive, far less formally—though far more expensively—clad women, quasi-hipsters, and assorted exotic ethnics. The women and hipsters may be white, but they’re not white—they’re members of the cool-looking pan-ethnic tribe, a tribe defined by economic and social status and by cultural and aesthetic preferences rather than by ethnicity. ...Here and elsewhere, accompanying the book’s mockery of the essentially innocuous solipsism of White People is what Lander, a man of the left, described to me as his exasperation with progressives’ “cultural righteousness” and “intolerance and groupthink”—a set of attitudes that enhances and is enhanced by a profoundly smug and incurious outlook...

[A] good deal of the progressives’ attitudes, preferences, and sense of identity are ingrained in an unlovely disdain for those outside their charmed circle. In Lander’s analysis, much of their self-satisfaction derives from consumption (the slack-sounding “stuff” in the title is deceptively apt)—and much of that consumption is motivated by a desire to differentiate themselves from the benighted. Sushi, for instance, is “everything [White People] want: foreign culture, expensive, healthy, and hated by the ‘uneducated.’” And whatever its goals, the ACLU is beloved by White People, Lander satirically but not wholly unjustifiably asserts, because it protects them “from having to look at things they don’t like. At the top of this list is anything that has to do with Christianity”—an aversion, Lander discerns, rooted not in religious enmity but in taste (Christianity is “a little trashy”), formed largely by class and education. To those of this mind-set, the problem with a great many Americans is that they don’t “care about the right things.” In fact...White People “really do hate a significant portion of the population.”

I hate that significant portion of the population too, but I'm overtly hostile rather than than covertly contemptuous. And I don't dislike them for their food preferences or fat, or because they "cling" to guns and religion: I don't like them because they're boring, unreflective, and incapable of making interesting conversation. However I find White People appalling. They don't care about the right things either. In fact, at bottom, all they really seem to care about is caring as such--about being fastidious and fussy.

They fetishize food. They congratulate themselves on their pickiness which they seem to regard as good taste, as if their preference for fresh veggies, exotic cheeses and whole grains, and their disdain for fatty burgers and fries, were a manifestation of some refined aesthetic sensibility. There can't be an aesthetics of food because, for humans at least, taste and smell aren't sufficiently developed to yield the complexity that distinguishes aesthetic experience from mere sensual pleasure. Dogs may have the equipment to appreciate the aesthetics of smell: they can perceive the complexity of scents and analyze them in the way that we can experience the separate lines in a piece of music and apreciate the complexity and structure. But for us, taste and smell are simple, unanalysable sensations. There's no more sophistication involved in preferring sushi to fries than there is in preferring yellow to blue.

Beyond that, it's hard to understand why likes, and even worse, dislikes should be sources of self-congratulation. I like fish and just had a bang-up champagne brunch with my family at the Southbay Fish and Grill. Well, great. I don't see how liking this reflects favorably or unfavorably on me. I like Haydn string quartets but I don't see why this should reflect favorably or unfavorably on me either. I could once play the violin part for these pieces and that certainly reflected favorably on me: it took hard work and skill. And if I could compose music like that it would reflect very favorably on me indeed. But I fail to see how consumption and enjoyment, much less distaste and disgust, can be understood as virtues.

Maybe at bottom what is most irritating about White People is that they congratulate themselves on what they consume rather than on what they produce. And what exactly is that supposed to show? First, I suppose, consuming the "correct" products shows that you are sufficiently en rapport with the community of elite taste-makers to know what sorts of stuff you're supposed to like. Secondly, it shows that you have the money to buy expensive stuff and the leisure to mess around. You have the money to shop at Whole Foods and the time to crap around cooking from scratch--unlike those fat trashy women who, fagged out after a day's work at Walmart, pick up McDonalds. You have the time, money and leisure to be fastidious, and to indulge yourself.

I don't like working class people but I suppose that when it boils down to it I like White People even less. If you can fix a car, knit a sweater or cut a dovetail joint that's worth something, just as it's worth something if you can write a paper, teach a class or do a proof in logic. Not having a TV is worth nothing. Visiting Machipichu, being massaged, doing yoga and eating arugula are worth nothing.

Even worse, as far as well-being goes, it is bizarre to imagine that fastidiousness makes one better off. Intuitively, the more you like, the better off you are. If you like Haydn quartets and country you're better off than if you just like one or the other. If you don't like McDonalds then, ceteris paribus, you're worse off than if you do. The disdain for "anything that has to do with Christianity" really eats me. Christianity is our cultural honey pot. I'm looking at pictures of St. Mark's, Venice, on my wall. I went there last January and spent 6 hours gaping at the mosaics. How can this be trashy? Christianity was the source of all high art until the Renaissance and much of it ever after. How can these idiots imagine that sushi is somehow better than the Bach B Minor Mass?

Monday, September 15, 2008

It's the Philosophy, Stupid!

EzraKlein Archive | The American Prospect:

The challenges facing our financial system today are more evidence that too many folks in Washington and on Wall Street weren't minding the store...I certainly don't fault Senator McCain for these problems, but I do fault the economic philosophy he subscribes to. It's a philosophy we've had for the last eight years – one that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. It's a philosophy that says even common-sense regulations are unnecessary and unwise, and one that says we should just stick our heads in the sand and ignore economic problems until they spiral into crises. Well now, instead of prosperity trickling down, the pain has trickled up – from the struggles of hardworking Americans on Main Street to the largest firms of Wall Street. This country can't afford another four years of this failed philosophy.

Play it again, Sam, because what Americans don't get is precisely this: that when they cast their ballots, they're voting for a philosophy--not for a plumber.

When I chat about politics, to fellow Democrats as well as Republicans, I'm struck by the extent to which they imagine voting is hiring someone to do a job rather than choosing ideology and policy. They want someone who's honest, experienced, competent and, if possible affable--someone who will pay attention to them and clean up the shit, that is, a plumber.

There's nothing controversial about plumbing--no competing theories of toilet repair or washer replacement and no disagreement about what constitutes a successful job. And when it comes to plumbing, fancy degrees and credentials don't matter: you sure don't want some high-powered hydraulics engineer who can't operate a pipe wrench or is too hoity-toity to clean up the shit. You want a guy who can do the job. And of course, you want a guy who is honest. You don't want a plumber who will claim to discover all sorts of problems that aren't really there and soak you for all you're worth "fixing" them.

Politics is controversial in all the ways that plumbing isn't: it's not only controversial how to achieve various goals--it's disputed what goals are desirable. But Americans, chanting the mantra that both parties are the same, don't seem to get that. And they also don't seem to get the idea that when it comes to running the country vast bodies of theoretical knowledge as well as practical competence and plain, brute intelligence are of vital importance.

So even in economic hard times, even in the teeth of foreclosure, unemployment and the drain of fighting an unpopular war, a substantial minority of Americans will vote Republican because they see their troubles as a consequence of professional incompetence rather than the failure of a philosophy. Bush was a bad plumber, but plumbing is plumbing.

I doubt that a president has all that much to do with running the country. Voters choose their preferred ideology by voting for one of the major political parties. The technocrats, bureaucrats and secretaries who run government formulate and implement policies consistent with that ideology--which is why I'd be perfectly happy to vote for a yellow dog running on the Democratic ticket. Of course, George W. Bush claimed to be The Decider. But I'm skeptical about that since if he really were, things would probably be even worse.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What Went Wrong?

I don't think Sarah Palin is qualified to be Vice President of the United States and, given her views on a range of issues, I wouldn't support her for any elected office. But I'd much rather have a beer with her than with any of he other candidates.

Palin is the beneficiary of the left-wing politics that she despises, and of Second Wave feminism which was part of that package. If she had been born 20 years earlier, and gotten her BA in 1967 instead of 1987, she would never have gotten a job as a sportscaster when she graduated. If she had been running for high political office in 1988 instead of 2008, her socially conservative, religious right constituency would have been horrified at the idea of the mother of a 4 month old baby working outside the home in any capacity, much less running for the vice presidency of the United States. And in 1988, she wouldn't have been running because there wouldn't have been an affirmative action pick on the Republican ticket.

Palin is the living symbol of what I took to be the goal of the feminist movement: to fix things so that women could be like guys. That was it. Very simple. To see to it that women had could get guy jobs and hunt moose--if, of course, that is what they wanted to do. The purpose of feminism as I understood it was to eliminate sex roles so that both men and women could do the jobs and live the lives traditionally reserved for men only or for women only--so that no one's options would be constrained by an accident of birth.

That's what I thought it was all about. But then strange doctrines started creeping in. First and foremost, there was the idea that feminism was inextricably linked to every other edifying sort of -ism. Gay rights, and the rights of every oppressed or marginalized group was supposed to be intrinsic to feminism. Peace was a feminist issue because, rather than freeing women, and men, from the constraints of sex roles, a significant vocal minority of feminists held that the aim was rather to valorize traditional femininity.

Finally, abortion took center stage as the defining feminist issue. To make matters worse the very rationale for making it the central issue was sexist. The working assumption was that if a woman had a baby then she must inevitably raise it, that women "bonded" with their babies through pregnancy as so that giving them up for adoption was unthinkable. Of course, the idea that a woman could simply dump the baby on its dad never crossed anyone's mind. That's what I'd do if I had a baby I didn't want: first stop out of hospital--dad's place. "Here's your baby. I'll come by from time to time to see how he's coming along, and send you a little money every once and a while if I remember. Bye."

Now Democrats are being skewered on the abortion issue because they will not compromise. And compromising would skewer Palin because most Americans wouldn't want to see the kind of draconian anti-abortion legislation she wants--with no exceptions for rape or incest, whatever the stage of pregnancy. Suppose some miserable 14 year old girl is abused and raped by her father. No morning-after pill for her. And then there there are those sweet, cuddley stem cells. Those atheistic pro-abortionists may trot out that actor who has Parkenson's and scientists may whine, but all human life is sacred (exceptions: capital punishment and war).

Even on the worst case scenario, if Roe v. Wade went down in flames, and a significant number of women did not have access to abortion, parenthood is a matter of choice--as fathers know. Work for most women is not a matter of choice and for the 2/3 of American women who are not college graduates, the labor market is thoroughly sex-segregated and sex discrimination is the norm. Feminist activists, members of the unisex elite, don't seem to notice and the Democratic party taking abortion to be the central feminist issue has not made workplace issues a priority.

Right now the Walmart class action sex discrimination lawsuit, involving over 1.5 million current and former Walmart employees, is chugging its way through the courts. Hundreds of women have told their stories--stories with which most working class women can empathize. Abortion is controversial but it is uncontroversial that women should get equal pay for equal work and, more fundamentally, that they should have equal access to on-the-job training, promotion, and a fair opportunity to get equal work.

Sarah Palin got to be a guy--to shoot moose, work as a sportscaster and, through the Republican Party's one-off affirmative action program, run for the vice presidency of the United States. Most women don't get the chance. If Democrats want to recapture the working class vote it might be helpful to do something for the millions of working class women who are stuck in boring, poorly-paid, deadend, pink-collar jobs.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Raging Rajas of Resentment

Op-Ed Columnist - The Resentment Strategy - Op-Ed -

[T]he Republican Party, now more than ever, is firmly in the hands of the angry right, which has always been much bigger, much more influential and much angrier than its counterpart on the other side. What’s the source of all that anger? Some of it, of course, is driven by cultural and religious conflict: fundamentalist Christians are sincerely dismayed by Roe v. Wade and evolution in the curriculum. What struck me as I watched the convention speeches, however, is how much of the anger on the right is based not on the claim that Democrats have done bad things, but on the perception — generally based on no evidence whatsoever — that Democrats look down their noses at regular people...What the G.O.P. is selling, in other words, is the pure politics of resentment; you’re supposed to vote Republican to stick it to an elite that thinks it’s better than you.

Krugman is always right, and usually entirely right. Here he's dead on about the politics of resentment but has made one minor mistake: there is plenty of evidence that Democrats--not all or most, but a minority of visible Culture-Democrats--do look down their noses at regular people.

Last Sunday morning I picked up one of my kids from a friend's house in an expensive coastal suburb. It was 10 am and the cyclists were out in force on the coast highway, all dressed in spandex cycling gear with matching helmets, most middle-aged but well-preserved. My son remarked (alluding to Stuff White People Like "White People are healthy."

White People, that is Culture-Democrats since Obama and some other people of color qualify while most Caucasians don't, are very healthy and proud of it. They exercise, eat their veggies, and are serious about health, wellness and healing. And they have nothing but contempt the Great Unhealthy, who eat junk food, veg out in front of the TV and get fat. And the Great Unhealthy know it.

They don't resent Culture-Democrats for their intellectual pretensions: they value intelligence, education and expertise as much as anyone else. They resent Culture-Democrats valorization of tastes, habits and hobbies that have little or no intrinsic value--their food fetishes, fastidiousness and other preoccupations that are nothing more than class markers--and their moralistic, self-satisfied complacency. Here are people with the unshakable conviction that they are superior because they drink microbrews instead of Bud--or brew their own.

Until Democrats not only recognize the character of that resentment, as Krugman has, but realize that it is not baseless and address its source, they will not win the white working class.